McCullum could go out with all-pace attack
Brendon McCullum is renowned for his relentless attack, whether hurling himself into the advertising boards in a desperate attempt to save a boundary, or setting Test-like slip cordons during one-day games. So it should be no surprise that on the eve of his final Test match, McCullum floated the possibility of another aggressive move: four fast men and no spinner. It would be a bold bid to level the series with Australia at Hagley Oval.
It would also be a significant gamble, but then McCullum loves a punt. He will now never lift the Trans-Tasman Trophy but why not go all-in as he eyes 1-1? How he would love to win the toss and send the Australians in if the selectors give him Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Matt Henry and Neil Wagner. Having seen the pitch on match eve, McCullum declared that "it's not going to be necessarily a pleasant time out there with bat in hand".
New Zealand's selectors will need to make at least one change to the attack due to Doug Bracewell's shoulder injury, but McCullum said they were considering whether to make a second change as well. McCullum has been a vocal supporter of offspinner Mark Craig throughout this summer but it cannot be ignored that he has struggled for impact against Australia, and in four Tests against them he has 10 wickets at 66.60.
"Matt Henry will come in for Doug Bracewell," McCullum said on Friday, "and it's just trying to work out whether we play Mark Craig or Neil Wagner and that's the decision we've got to make."
Last time New Zealand entered a Test without a frontline spinner was at the Basin Reserve against India two years ago: legspinner Ish Sodhi had played in the victory in the first Test in Auckland, but was left out in Wellington. The move did not work for New Zealand, who were sent in to bat, got rolled for 192 and needed a second-innings triple-century from McCullum in order to battle out a draw.
The first two days at Hagley Oval are sold out, and most members of the crowd would be pretty happy if McCullum could replicate that triple-hundred for his farewell to Test cricket. It will not be that simple, especially if Australia win the toss again. But one thing observers should expect is a typical McCullum innings: he won't die wondering in conditions that should favour the bowlers.
"Maybe it's one of those times when fortune favours the brave," he said. "We'll see what unfolds. I think it will go around for a while ... It's probably not quite as hard as the Basin. I thought the Basin was a really good cricket wicket. It did a lot in that first session and then dried out a little bit quicker than what a team who's been bowled out for 180 wanted."
In fact, not much of the Test summer against Australia has gone as New Zealand wanted, home or away. After New Zealand reached the World Cup final and then drew a Test series in England - a better result than Australia achieved during the Ashes - expectations were high for a competitive Trans-Tasman summer. McCullum acknowledged that his men had not played to their potential in losing three of the four Tests against Australia this season.
"Probably trying too hard," he said. "Sometimes when you want something so much, you start to tighten up a little bit. Australia, if you give them an inch, they know how to take it. That's why they've been such a good team for such a long period of time. If we look at the first Test matches of both series, they've started brilliantly and we've struggled to keep up.
"As the series has worn on, we've started to get ourselves back into it. The nature of games these days is that the majority of them are reaching results so you can't be behind the eight-ball as far as what we have been in those two Test matches. It's a combination of us being a bit tight and a bit keen to do well and also Australia being ruthless when they get the opportunity."
Despite that, the era that comes to an end this week has been a successful one for New Zealand. They have still not lost a Test series at home since McCullum and coach Mike Hesson came together in 2012, and McCullum's leadership has galvanised the country behind the cricket team in a way that usually only the All Blacks can achieve.
On Thursday night, the All Blacks were named Team of the Year at the Halberg Awards for New Zealand sporting excellence, but Kane Williamson was Sportsman of the Year, Grant Elliott's six to win the World Cup semi-final was voted Sporting Moment of the Year, and McCullum won the Sport New Zealand Leadership Award. It was a case of success in black tie; this week they want success in black caps.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale