Audacious McCullum sets the bar
One of the few less-publicised aspects of the Indian Premier League (IPL) concerns the orange helmet kept at each of the eight franchise venues. After each round of matches this strange accessory - the IPL's answer to the Tour de France's yellow jersey - is handed to the competition's leading run-scorer. After tonight's pièce de résistance at the Chinnaswamy, it will take something bordering on the miraculous to deprive Brendon McCullum of his dubious honour.
His unbeaten innings of 158 from 73 balls was not merely the kind of knock we used to think was only played by a wicketkeeper if his name was Adam Gilchrist. It was an absurd piece of good fortune for the competition organisers, who have been telling anyone who will listen that the IPL really is a cut above other forms of the game. Here, presumably, was proof. Not even a dismal effort from the Bangalore Royal Challengers batsmen could detract from the glow.
Let's start with the facts. He hit 10 fours and 13 sixes, one of them an outrageous paddle over his left shoulder off a disbelieving Zaheer Khan, and ended up scoring more runs than anyone has ever done in the brief history of Twenty20 cricket. The previous record-holder - Cameron White, who hit 141 not out for Somerset against Worcestershire two years ago but contributed just six to the Bangalore's pitiful total - spent most of the innings watching helplessly as one ball after another disappeared into the night sky. The pre-match fireworks had nothing on this.
McCullum's penchant for the spectacular is not new. Only last month he creamed 170 off 108 balls to help Otago make mincemeat of Auckland in the final of New Zealand's State Shield, but on that occasion hardly anyone bothered to turn up to watch. Now, he did the business in front of well over 40,000 fans, most of them barracking at the start for their local side but many giving McCullum the ovation he deserved as he took the Bangalore bowlers to pieces. Fair enough: it was a knock that transcended partiality.
"I was pretty nervous at the start," said a visibly exhausted McCullum afterwards. "It was such a big occasion, and for the first six balls I just couldn't move my feet. But with the short boundaries, I managed to get away with a few and it was just nice to keep going."
McCullum, who fetched US$700,000 at the Mumbai auction in February, admitted he felt under a bit of pressure because of the money involved, but once he had overcome his initial nerves in Praveen Kumar's opening over, the bat turned into a howitzer. Zaheer Khan disappeared for 18 in the next over, and a pull for six off Ashley Noffke recalled his destruction of England's bowlers during the one-day series in New Zealand two months ago.
The century came off 53 balls with a dab for two into the covers off White, who was still recovering from two sixes earlier in the over, and by the end McCullum was doing as he pleased, passing White's record with another pull for six off Kumar. Rahul Dravid, the man responsible for sticking Kolkata into bat, said his side had been beaten by a "truly exceptional Twenty20 innings," while John Buchanan, the Kolkata coach, joked that McCullum had set himself some worryingly high standards.
Like most New Zealand cricketers, McCullum was magnanimously humble. "I haven't been that nervous in international cricket for a long time," he said. "It was partly because of the hype around the game and some of the big names in the side with huge records. I guess you want to prove yourself and that adds to the nerves around." Perhaps that urge will feel a little less acute now.
Context, in cricket as in life, is everything. This was the curtain-raiser to the most anticipated series of matches since Kerry Packer and all that. The stadium was full. There was a super-rich owner to impress and a price tag to justify. Buchanan even said the ball was moving around more than McCullum's batting made apparent. Throw all those factors into Bangalore's melting-pot - and it was extremely hot out there for a western cricketer - and he might never play a better innings. Let's just hope the orange helmet fits.