McCullum swings to his destiny
Brendon McCullum adjusts his black blazer with the silver fern and walks onto Hagley Oval. For the last time, he will toss the coin as captain of New Zealand. He has in his hand a rolled-up sheet of paper telling the New Zealand XI. McCullum is a punter, and this sheet hides one final gamble. Four quicks, no spinner. All-out attack. The pitch is green, the ball will seam; this is a chance to put Australia's batsmen under pressure.
McCullum is desperate to win this toss. He flips the coin. Steven Smith calls "heads". "It's a head," says the match referee Chris Broad. "We'll have a bowl," says Smith. McCullum allows himself a wry smile. Eight tosses against Australia this summer, and he's only won two. He couldn't call to save himself in Australia, now he can't toss. Last week at the Basin Reserve, Smith sent New Zealand in and by lunch they were five down.
There is a young kid standing next to McCullum, as always for matches in New Zealand. The designated "ANZ coin toss child", this is usually the winner of a competition, a young cricket fan nominated to be part of the action, to gain the memory of a lifetime. Today it is not just any child. It is Riley McCullum, Brendon's 11-year-old son.
Last summer at Hagley Oval, Riley was playing with his mates on the wrong side of the grassy bank, as Brendon moved towards a 74-ball century against Sri Lanka that would break his own New Zealand record of 78 balls, set against Pakistan in Sharjah earlier that season. As recounted in The Cricket Monthly, a New Zealand staffer yelled out: "Hey Riley, come and watch your dad, he's about to get the fastest Test century for New Zealand."
Riley replies: "What, again?"
Such is the life of Riley. But surely today, on this grassy pitch, it may be best to be on the wrong side of the grassy bank. Surely today there will be no records - at least, not ones New Zealand want to break. Surely.
There is something vaguely Arthurian about Brendon McCullum, the preordained king of New Zealand cricket. Mike Hesson, the nerdiest Merlin possible, spotted McCullum as a child, and recognised the signs. At their round table every team member is equal, and adheres to a code that is almost chivalric. The country has united behind McCullum. He should really brandish an Excalibur bat.
Whatever the case, he wields it like a madman. Sometimes it feels more like the bat is controlling McCullum than vice-versa. "I don't know how I'm going to play until I get out there," McCullum said on the eve of his final Test. As he walked out to bat on the first day at Hagley Oval, New Zealand were 32 for 3. From 19.4 overs. Kane Williamson was on 3 from 44 balls. There were more maidens than in all of Arthurian legend.
McCullum walked through a guard of honour from the Australian players. Steven Smith shook his hand, David Warner patted him on the back. When they saw his first shot, they must have thought his farewell was near. It was a lusty swing outside off stump against Josh Hazlewood, and the ball whizzed past the outside edge. Next delivery he did the same thing, and the ball flew off his thick edge and over the slip cordon for four.
"I don't know how I'm going to play until I get out there?" Pull the other one. Another of his pre-match quotes was more instructive: "It's not going to be necessarily a pleasant time out there with bat in hand, maybe it's one of those times when fortune favours the brave." Call it brave, call it reckless, whatever you call it he was due some fortune. And in two balls he made more than the cautious Williamson did in 54.
McCullum had faced only four balls when Smith called on Mitchell Marsh for the first time in the match. Fifteen minutes remained until lunch. Time for care? Dig in and get through to the break? That's not in the McCullum manifesto. Marsh's first ball was smashed over the bowler's head for six. Then came cuts and cover-drives for four, an outlandish six over extra cover.
Twenty-one runs came off the over. At lunch, McCullum was on 37 from 18, Williamson had 7 from 64, the captain and his certain successor. Under Williamson, New Zealand will be in safe hands, under McCullum they have been in arousing ones. You wondered if the adrenaline would drain from McCullum over the lunch break, but after the resumption his four-play continued, the six-machine kept going.
James Pattinson nearly stopped it. On 39, McCullum slashed hard - is there any other way with him? - and at gully Marsh took a stunning diving catch, the kind that deserved to be game-changing. McCullum started to walk off, but then stopped. The umpires were checking for a no-ball. When the big screen showed Pattinson's heel landing on the line, a roar went around the crowd. McCullum was safe.
McCullum has done special things before. Twice before today he had broken the record for fastest Test hundred by a New Zealander. He owns the New Zealand record for fastest T20 international ton, a 50-ball hundred which at the time was also the equal world-record. Before he reached fifty today, he broke the world record for most sixes in a Test career, when he passed Adam Gilchrist's 100 and moved on to 101.
But somehow, it had always felt that McCullum would deliver something even more significant in this series. The no-ball reprieve made you wonder if this was it. At stumps, McCullum said he himself felt from ball two that this was his day. When, in his own words, "I had an almighty, filthy slog and it went over the slips cordon for four". Whatever the case, McCullum was destined to deliver Test cricket the fastest century in its history.
Next delivery after the caught-off-a-no-ball he pulled Pattinson to long leg, where Hazlewood should have stopped it. But a bad bounce and the ball sailed across the boundary for four. This really was McCullum's day. After that it was a series of slap-downs. Fifty off 34 balls when he crunched Jackson Bird for six over long-on. Before you knew it he was in the eighties, and Smith was in such a spin he'd forgotten to use Nathan Lyon yet.
Even then, McCullum needed something special. The record was 56 balls; by the time McCullum had faced 50 balls he still required another 18. A top-edged pull flew for six off Hazlewood. Then a slog over mid-on for four. Then another edge over the keeper's head. Then, with 96 from 53 balls, he sliced the last ball of Hazlewood's over for four over extra cover. Gradually, McCullum realised his achievement, and raised his arms in celebration; the crowd erupted.
Like one of his cherished race-horses, he had positioned himself one out and one back, ready for his run to the line. A hundred in 54 balls. The end of a record that stood for nearly 30 years. Viv Richards was the man who had set it, Misbah-ul-Haq, incongruously, had equalled it against Australia in 2014. But incrementally, McCullum's Test tons had got faster and faster. Somehow, it was no surprise that he had done it. In a way, it had seemed inevitable.
To watch an innings like this, it seems remarkable that McCullum will not play in the World Twenty20 this year. "It's nice to be able to go out in the purest form of the game," he said before the Test. It is an admirable sentiment even if his innings was far from the purity Don Bradman wrote of in How to Play Cricket. But it was a different kind of pure. It was pure McCullum.
Brendon McCullum takes off his black helmet with the silver fern and walks off Hagley Oval. When he moved to Christchurch in 2003, this was a club ground. But then, McCullum was not yet a Test cricketer, Riley was not yet born, and the big earthquake had not yet struck the city. Much has changed in 12 years.
He walks off to half-hearted claps from the Australians, huddled together on the other side of the pitch. He walks off to another standing ovation from the Christchurch crowd, with 145 runs to his name off 79 balls, and with New Zealand on the way to 370. Another severe earthquake rattled the city last weekend, and McCullum wanted to give the locals something else to think about. He did exactly that.
People say McCullum has changed the game. He certainly changed this one. He changed it with all-out attack. And this time, Riley was watching.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale