Sore McCullum targets victorious finish
And so begins Brendon McCullum Month. It is not officially marked on calendars in New Zealand, probably only because they were already printed when he announced his decision just before Christmas. But expect February to be a month of celebration of McCullum's career, beginning with his final ODI series, continuing with his 100th Test in Wellington and ending with his Test finale in Christchurch. By the end of it, he hopes to hold the Chappell-Hadlee and Trans-Tasman Trophies.
Not that his back would necessarily stand up to holding them at the same time. McCullum has missed the past month with a back injury and returned against Pakistan on Sunday, in New Zealand's victory in the third and final ODI at Eden Park. It was hardly the perfect comeback for McCullum, who was caught hooking for a golden duck, and he said that while he felt the effects of nearly 50 overs in the field, he was confident he could stand up to another month of cricket.
"I was a bit stiff and sore on that first game out, and it was incredibly heavy as well which a lot of guys commented on which has it demands anyway, let along if you've coming in with a bit of a sore back as well," McCullum said on Tuesday. "But I've got three or four weeks left of international cricket and I want to get out there and compete and try and do as much as I can to make a contribution to the team.
"The fact that you're a bit stiff and sore, you try and play through and hopefully it will be fine. But also you don't want to be to the detriment of your team, you've got to make sure you're at a level where you think you're able to operate as well and we'll certainly make an honest assessment of that as we head into each game."
But you get the sense McCullum would have to be physically unable to walk to miss any of these matches against Australia, the one-day and Test series being "certainly the one that we've been waiting for," in his words. The teams last met in one-day cricket in the World Cup final at the MCG but from that side Australia will be missing the retired Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson, the injured Mitchell Starc and Aaron Finch, and the overlooked Shane Watson.
"We had our opportunity in the World Cup and we ran second, but we're really proud of how we played throughout that World Cup," McCullum said. "But it's a year down the track now and both teams have changed quite substantially. For us it's a three-match series with the Chappell-Hadlee on the line and our chance to test our skills against the best."
Well, against most of the best, anyway. Arguably Australia's most in-form batsman at present is Usman Khawaja, who since the start of the home Test series against New Zealand has averaged 123.28 across all formats at all levels. But Australia's selectors are still unable to squeeze Khawaja into the ODI side, preferring Shaun Marsh to open with David Warner in Auckland.
"I was a bit surprised to be honest," McCullum said of Khawaja's omission. "He's been the in-form batsman of the Australian summer across all forms of the game. He's in incredible touch ... the guy replacing him Shaun Marsh is a very good player as well and we saw that in Adelaide. Australia have so much depth they can afford to have guys missing but they'll be replaced by guys who are equally as strong."
Khawaja is a certain starter for the first Test in Wellington, though, and his presence in the ODI squad means that he now misses out on the chance for a red-ball warm-up: he would otherwise have been playing this week's Sheffield Shield match for Queensland. Australia's captain, Steven Smith, said he expected Khawaja to play at some point in the Chappell-Hadlee Series, with the Tests following so closely.
"I think he will play one of the games, at least," Smith said. "He does need a hit going into what is a big Test series for us, and he is batting extremely well, so he is unlucky to miss out. But Shaun is going to get the first opportunity as he played well in Australia and he is batting extremely well as well, so he's getting the first opportunity."
Australia also decided against picking the legspinner Adam Zampa and instead opted for just the one spin option, allrounder Glenn Maxwell, despite the fact that New Zealand have included legspinner Ish Sodhi in their squad for this game. The spin extracted by Pakistan's part-time legspinner Azhar Ali on the same pitch on Sunday showed New Zealand that Sodhi could be a good option, but Smith said Australia preferred to trust their pacemen.
"We think that the wicket might swing around a bit, we saw that in the World Cup game we played here, the ball swung around for a good 30 odd overs or whatever we lasted with the bat and whatever New Zealand lasted with the bat chasing," Smith said. "So, we suspect it will swing around a little bit and we're going to make use of that. So no surprises they've brought in a legspinner, he can play and he's got some good skills. If he gets an opportunity hopefully we can go after him a little bit."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale