England v New Zealand, 1st Test, Lord's, 1st day May 15, 2008

Bittersweet McCullum transfers his talents

Rare is the cricketer who could be described as playing within himself for a run-a-ball 97, and yet, there's no denying the watchfulness that McCullum displayed for large tracts of his innings


Brendon McCullum: dogged brutality revived New Zealand © Getty Images
 

"Bittersweet" was how Brendon McCullum summed up his feelings, after an innings of dogged brutality had revived New Zealand's fortunes in the first Test at Lord's. Rare is the cricketer who could be described as playing within himself for a run-a-ball 97, and yet, there's no denying the watchfulness that McCullum displayed for large tracts of his innings. In his own opinion, the astonishing six he smoked over cover off Stuart Broad was the "only one I hit in the middle", and the knowledge of his achievements in the Indian Premier League, where he redefined the game's parameters with an unbeaten 158 from 73 balls, added a caveat to each of his self-conscious leaves outside off stump.

Such great things are now expected of McCullum that it is easy to be flippant about the ease of his run-scoring, but this was quite some innings. Like Kevin Pietersen in Napier two months ago, it was born of a shambolic top-order collapse (although New Zealand's 41 for 3 was a distinct improvement on England's 4 for 3), and it towered above the contributions of his team-mates, few of whom showed any tenacity in conditions that typified that Lord's-in-May experience. Pietersen's effort set England up for a memorable win. McCullum's has, at least for now, prevented an almighty fall.

"I felt like we'd been here before at 41 for 3, but 208 for 6 is not a bad result for us in terms of the day's set-up," he said. "It's hard to get too excited, but in the context of where we were, it's a pretty good fight. We've kept ourselves in the game, because if we'd been all out for 150, only one team could have won."

It could have been an even better situation, had McCullum's unfortunate Lord's jinx not kicked in with a vengeance, a mere two overs before bad light adjourned the day. Four years ago on his maiden trip to England, McCullum was promoted to No. 3 and responded with a ballsy 96 to give New Zealand an outside chance of victory. Today he went one run better, but once again was left with only pride to show for his performance, as Monty Panesar tossed up a flighted delivery and stopped him agonisingly short of a place on the famous honours board.

"I'm proud but disappointed," said McCullum. "After my first over, I worked out that it was extremely tough conditions, and that I was going to need some luck to get a score. After a bit, that sort of calmed me down, because you could be happy playing an ugly innings for a time so long as we got runs on the board. It felt very different to last time around. Last time I got very nervous during the nineties, but this time I felt quite comfortable, quite calm.

And yet, he wasn't quite calm enough - hardly surprising, given how long he's been waiting to make amends. "For the last four years I've been thinking about [that 96]," he said. "I remained aggressive and confident in my play, but I just missed a straight one." It was hard not to wonder how he might have played it had he still be decked out in the gold-plated armoury of the Kolkata Knight Riders - doubtless he'd have dispatched the offending delivery into the stratosphere - but McCullum was adamant that the dramatic switch of formats had not been an inhibition.

 
 
It was a huge change from the Twenty20s in India to the pure form of the game in a Test match at Lord's, but that's the nature of how it is in this day and age - Brendon McCullum on his return to Test cricket
 

"You do have to rein yourself in a touch, not because of the Twenty20 stuff, but because of my natural aggressiveness," he said. "It's not so much the technical change, it's the mental shift. Confidence-wise, when you're in a good vein of form, regardless of the format you are playing, it's just nice to have the bat in your hand.

"It was a huge change from the Twenty20s in India to the pure form of the game in a Test match at Lord's, but that's the nature of how it is in this day and age. You have to keep strong in your own mind and know your objective when you get out there, but it's easy to get up for a Test match at Lord's, it's the pinnacle of the game."

It was a pinnacle from which New Zealand were in danger of falling for much of the day, as England's seamers - resplendent in their new whiter-than-white uniforms - pierced the gloom with an incisive new-ball onslaught. Of the top six that played at Napier, only Jamie How and Ross Taylor remained, but for England it was plus ca change, even though Ryan Sidebottom, improbably, was the only one to miss out on the wickets.

"We bowled pretty well at the top order, and put a dent in their confidence," said England's bowler of the day, James Anderson, whose love affair with Lord's is one of the most improbable trysts in the game. He's been here four times in six years, and could yet emerge with his third five-wicket haul, after scalping three prime wickets in a performance that buzzed with the confidence and menace he displayed at Wellington in March. "There is something special about Lord's," he said. "Any cricketer will tell you that, but I couldn't tell you why I do well here and not at other grounds. It's just one of those thing, I guess."

Even so, it was an indication of the comparative riches in New Zealand's lower-order when McCullum first referred to the not-out pair of Jacob Oram and Daniel Vettori as the team's best batsmen, and then, more seriously, set his colleagues a first-innings target of between 300 and 350, which - from the depths of 104 for 5 - would represent a job extremely well done. "Their middle order is pretty dangerous with Oram in at seven and Vettori eight," admitted Anderson. "We have to be wary when we do get early wickets. We can't expect to bowl them out cheaply because they've got strength in depth."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo