Peter Fulton's marvellous metamorphosis
The sixth edition of the IPL now in full swing (or in full hoick, depending on the player at the crease and the urgency of the match situation). By the time you read that, many IPL incidents will have been described as "unbelievable". Some IPL incidents may even have actually been unbelievable. But few will have stretched credibility as much as an aspect of the final Test of the 2012-13 international season, a game that provided the ideal psychological bridge for cricket and its supporters between the five-day and three-hour versions of the sport regarded by all right-thinking people as humankind's greatest ever creation (with all due respect to the esteemed persons who first developed the pogo stick, the sombrero, the internal combustion engine, and, above all, the abdominal protector).
The nail-chomping Auckland showdown gave the cricket-watching public the chance to bid a fond temporary farewell to Test cricket with a gripping contest that ended in a gut-clenching tension at the end of the fifth day. And it weaned the viewers onto its new short-form diet with a salvo of six-clonking seldom matched in the annals of the five-day game.
It was a contest between the second- and eighth-ranked sides in the Test world. For most of the match, it looked exactly like that - an obviously superior all-round unit imposed technical and tactical dominance, bullying their increasingly fragmented opponents into submission with positive, purposeful cricket. Clearly the ICC ranking official responsible had pinned the numbers 2 and 8 on the wrong dressing-room doors. And he, or she, had clearly also fallen down on his duty to remind Peter Fulton that 34-year-old opening batsmen with a Test career average of 23 and a strike rate of 40 are not supposed to (a) score two centuries, and (b) clout eight sixes in the match.
Peter Fulton's Auckland Extravaganza - by coincidence, also the name of a thrash metal band in which Bill Lawry was bass guitarist in the 1980s - was one of the more unexpected and extraordinary six-smashing displays in Test history. He planked the joint-third most sixes ever by an opener in a Test, and the most by a player aged 33 or over. He became only the second opener to hit three or more sixes in both innings of a Test match, after England's current batting coach Graham Gooch, who did so in his 1990 Lord's megamatch against India, against a considerably less highly regarded bowling attack.
Fulton also cudgelled the third most ever sixes by anyone in a Test against England. The two men ahead of him are Tim Southee (nine, in Napier, in 2007-08) and Nathan Astle (11, in Christchurch, in 2001-02), meaning that on each of England's last three tours to the land of the long white cloud, one of the New Zealand batting line-up has claimed a place on the Most Sixes Against England podium. In the nation that has given the world such heroically anti-exciting stonewallers as Trevor Franklin, Bruce Edgar, Mark Richardson and Bryan Young.
What made Fulton's fusillade all the more remarkable was that he not only smote eight sixes, but he also managed to keep his match strike rate below 50 runs per 100 balls. Here was a man intent on bouncing up and down on both ends of his nation's cricketing spiritual seesaw.
Many players with Fulton's previous Test record would have been discarded by their national selectors. In fact, Fulton himself had been discarded by his national selectors, after four brief and unsuccessful stints in the Kiwi five-day set-up, and a prolonged spell in the statistical doldrums in domestic cricket. Having not scored a century in the previous two domestic seasons, however, a striking resurrection in his first-class form led to him being de-discarded. He posted three hundreds in the Plunket Shield, and paved the way for one of the finest belated breakthroughs in recent Test history.
He was, by my calculation, the 15th player to score his maiden Test century aged 34 or older, and only the second this millennium, after Anil Kumble, whose Oval 2007 century in his 37th year was a batting bonus to add to a decade and a half of success in his primary skill, rather than the overdue realisation of a lifelong sporting dream that he himself must have thought would never happen.
He was also the tenth player to score two centuries in a Test without having previously scored a hundred. None of the previous nine had played more than Fulton's 12 century-free Tests. The most any of those nine had played before attaining three-figure nirvana was ten Tests, by Geoff Howarth, who also scored two hundreds for New Zealand against England, back in 1977-78, having begun his Test career even less impressively than Fulton, averaging 19.
Since then, only three men had scored twin tons against England - Steve Waugh (who had played 91 Tests, averaged 49, and scored 12 previous hundreds), Matthew Hayden (33 Tests, average 50, nine hundreds), and Inzamam-ul-Haq (103 Tests, average 50, 22 hundreds).
Fulton has thus catapulted himself into illustrious statistical company. He also became the 11th player aged 34 or over to score two hundreds in a Test. The previous five to do so were Sangakkara, Kallis, Inzamam, Gooch and Bradman. From knocking about with the numerical nobodies of the Test game, he is now mingling with the mathematical megaliths.
● It has been exceptionally rare for a specialist Test batsman to encounter his first hundred-making triumph at such a ripe cricketing age. Some bowlers and wicketkeepers have - Kumble, Pat Symcox and Ray Illingworth; Dave Richardson, David Houghton (both of whose careers began belatedly in any case, due to their countries not playing Tests until they were well into their 30s), and Billy Wade.
Of the batsmen who preceded Fulton in superannuated success, two had had their careers delayed by apartheid (Basil d'Oliveira and Peter Kirsten), and two by the Second World War (Eric Rowan and George Carew). The only other specialist batsmen to score a maiden century at 34 or over are West Indies' Clayton Lambert (aged 36), England's David Steele and Tony Lewis (both 34), and Zinzan Harris, father of one-day stalwart Chris, the only New Zealander to score a first Test hundred at an older age than Fulton when he hit his only Test ton in Cape Town in 1961-62. None of those four had waited as long as Fulton, either in terms of time since debut or matches played, to score their first Test hundred.
● Batsmen flourish at different times of their career. Some peak young in a flurry of youthful fearlessness that peters out as the seeds of doubt germinate into the flowers of failure. Others mature gradually to reach their best later in their cricketing lives. Peter Fulton peaks in March. He has played 21 Test innings, eight of them in the month that has seen the deaths of, amongst others, Julius Caesar, Josef Stalin and Queen Elizabeth I. In March, Fulton has scored two centuries, two fifties, and averages 58. In his 13 innings in the other 11 months of the year, Fulton has tinkled 194 runs, at an average of 16, with a highest score of 36. He should, quite clearly, be dropped for May's Test series in England. (On reflection, Fulton has never played a Test in May. It is possible that he only functions as a Test batsman in months beginning with the letters "M" and "a". In which case he should definitely be picked.)
● Overall, New Zealand's collective effort to whet the cricketing world's appetite for the impending T20 bonanza was heroic. They hit eight sixes in each innings in Auckland - only the second team ever to do so. West Indies did so in the Antigua Test of 1986, when their lower-order cut loose in the first innings, and Viv Richards went ballistic in the second. The Kiwis' 16 sixes in the match was the equal fifth-most ever by a team; the record is 18, by West Indies in that Antigua assault, by Pakistan in a Faisalabad run-fest against India in 2005-06, and South Africa, on a St Kitts featherbed in 2010.
New Zealand's 26 sixes in the series is the equal seventh-most hit by a team in any series, and the third-most hit by a team in a three-match series. The record in any series is the 37 maximums that Pakistan smote in the three-Test 2005-06 series against India. Twenty-six is the most sixes New Zealand have ever blasted in a series, and the second-most England's bowlers have conceded, after the 31 tonked against them in the West Indies in 1986.
● In their series in India, Australia's bowlers saw the ball disappear over the ropes 21 times in four Tests - the equal-fifth most sixes the Baggy Greensters have conceded in a series. Roll on the Ashes.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer