Carnage in Christchurch, and a World Cup for the ages
Brendon McCullum's romance with Christchurch - his home now and soon to be the venue where he will retire as an international cricketer - began when he moved there in 2003. He was on his fifth date with the AMI stadium and Australia were the party poopers. A high-scoring thriller, and the Chappell-Hadlee trophy, had tipped their way once McCullum was dismissed with four runs needed off two balls. Three days later, a 3-0 whitewash was staring in the face - New Zealand were 74 runs adrift, had 42 balls to get them and only two wickets in hand. McCullum began on 1 off 1 but soon enough he was 50 off 25 balls with three fours and four sixes and victory was achieved with an over to spare.
The series Michael Hussey may well wish was erased from the record books, even if he had become Australia's 17th captain in one-day cricket. No matter what he did, no matter how much he scored and no matter how well he led, New Zealand kept outdoing him. Case in point were the events at Seddon Park in Hamilton. New Zealand were 116 for 5 chasing 347. Dire. McCullum walked in and promptly strung together a record 165-run partnership with Craig McMillan. Directly out a dream. Until then (and for at least seven more years still) no New Zealand sixth-wicket pair had put on as many runs. But McCullum lost his senior partner in the final stretch and the tail began to crumble. "He will not lie down," Ian Smith insisted on commentary. Forty-four in five overs became seven off six balls. This was McCullum's moment and he took it, smacking Nathan Bracken for a six and four to seal the first and only whitewash by New Zealand over Australia in the Chappell-Hadlee series.
Having the most fours and sixes in a series has never been much of a feat for McCullum, but against England in 2007-08, he had the most runs - 261 of them in only five innings at an average of a 65.25, which was 2.5 times his career average at the time - 25.55. Of course, that didn't mean he had stopped shooting first and asking questions later. He cruised to 77 off 43 balls at the top of the order this time in - you guessed it - Christchurch and the carnage was so compelling that no one wanted him to leave. England dropped him thrice, McCullum said thank you by hitting James Anderson for a hat-trick of sixes and his home crowd rose in salute as New Zealand took the trophy 3-1.
"It was really nice to score a century and win the game for New Zealand." Only four times has McCullum ever had the occasion to say those words. Memorably, this one was after the kind of innings his supporters had been craving. He'd become a bit of a tease, scoring pretty cameos and nothing much of substance. Those too were fading - coming into this game, he had averaged 25.85 from 22 innings. But in Abu Dhabi, staving off the heat and a very good Pakistan attack, he dug in for 46.2 overs to hold his team together. He has never batted so long in a one-day game and crucially it came at a time when New Zealand needed it most. Five of his team-mates had fallen around him for single-figures. Of his own back (the crumbly nature of which must surely be contributing to his retirement at age 34), he took the total to 303 and spearheaded a 64-run victory.
It appeared the only plaudits McCullum would take from this game were from the way he captained. The army of slips he placed for his fast bowlers may well be cricket's Field of Dreams moment. "If you build it, he will come," the voice told Kevin Costner. To McCullum, it must have said, "if you keep 'em, the nicks will come" and Tim Southee made damn sure they did. The target was 124, out came McCullum, bullied the opposition's fast bowlers and recorded the fastest ever fifty in a World Cup - 18 balls. He would finish with 77 off 25, bowled of a full toss, and then stand his ground. Just in case it had been a no-ball. So much schadenfreude.
What a difference a year makes. On March 24, 2014, Dale Steyn defended seven runs in the final over to deny New Zealand in the World T20. McCullum had been dismissed by then. On March 24, 2015, Steyn was bashed for 24 runs in five balls. McCullum was out in the middle then, chewing his gum and doing what he does best - decimate even the fiercest fast bowlers. Back of a length went for six back over Steyn's head. The bouncer went for six over square leg's head. And to keep the textbook from throwing a fit, there was a picture perfect cover drive too, singeing ankles. McCullum's rapid fifty had set the foundation that Elliott built his monument on.
"This could be six… It is six!" a newly 53-year old man shrieked. Perhaps Ian Smith had lost a good-natured bet on his birthday and had to sound like a 10-year old girl when describing McCullum, batting on 100, stepping outside off stump, bending the back knee to stare a Shaun Tait 150 kph thunderbolt in the eye and scoop it into the delirious crowd at the AMI stadium in Christchurch. That was the definitive moment that told the world McCullum could do whatever he wanted with pace on the ball. Or maybe it was the other one when he played the same shot to a 155 kph delivery. McCullum hit 103 runs from 47 deliveries of fast bowling that day. Mad Max got nothin' on Bad Baz.
Six balls was all it took for India to bring McCullum to the crease, but for the next 15 overs, they were wondering the wisdom of that decision. New Zealand recovered from their horror start and secured victory thanks to McCullum's fluency even on a slow Chennai pitch (and later to James Franklin's slower balls). But this one wasn't about big hits or trick shots - he maintained a strike-rate of 165.45 by running the 25 singles and two twos. Of course, the 11 fours and three sixes must have lent a hand.
It was New Zealand's first game of the World T20 and they were grouped with Pakistan and Bangladesh, who had once beaten them 4-0 in ODIs. One wrong step could have put them on a flight back home before the Super Eight stages began. But McCullum put the peripherals aside to play an innings that was hailed as a template for T20 batting. He made his own pace when the Pallekele surface didn't offer any by charging down the track and used the short boundary on one side to significant advantage. For example, Shakib Al Hasan and Elias Sunny were caned for 45 runs between deep-extra cover and deep midwicket. Or it was simply a byproduct of wanting to make a statement. "Also the fact that the left-arm spinners have posed us with some problems in the past," McCullum said after his match-winning innings. "It was nice to put them out to pasture for a while."
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo