What's ailing Brendon McCullum?
Is Brendon McCullum becoming a problem? He won't admit so, but his inability to curb his natural aggression is hurting New Zealand.
McCullum's presence means so much to this New Zealand side. Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder, before him, are sandwiched between a woeful top order and the absence of a quality allrounder at No. 6. After McCullum comes a weak tail and he hasn't been successful at batting with the lower order. When the chips are down he almost always starts swinging. New Zealand's batsmen are largely inexperienced in subcontinent conditions but McCullum's dismissals this series - and a few times this year - have been more due to poor application.
McCullum is a supremely talented player but his Test figures don't reveal that. While his limited-overs career has soared, McCullum's batting in Tests leaves a lot to be desired. Just three centuries in 45 matches, including one each against Bangladesh - five years ago - and Zimbabwe.
McCullum's talent and ball-striking ability have never been in doubt. His promotion to the international scene was seen as a major investment by selectors. He had a credible CV on the domestic front, yet a couple years into his international career it was evident he was more skilled in limited-overs cricket. While over the past two years he's shown a maturity to carry the innings in times of trouble in ODIs, McCullum hasn't repeated the feat in Tests. True, he's been shunted up and down the order due to New Zealand's relatively inexperienced but perennially shaky line-up. But this is an explosive player who wants to be the world's best wicketkeeper-batsman. His attitude doesn't reflect it.
What has stood out most is his frequent lapse in concentration. On his maiden trip to England, in 2004, McCullum was promoted to No. 3 and responded with a ballsy 96 to give New Zealand an outside chance of victory at at Lord's. McCullum was pushed up the order during the Tests against England in early 2008 and when he fell for 97 at Lord's again, he admitted that for four years he'd thought about that 96 and how hungry he was to get a century in England. "You do have to rein yourself in a touch, not because of the Twenty20 stuff, but because of my natural aggressiveness," he said then. "It's not so much the technical change, it's the mental shift."
Something isn't working. Maybe it's a healthy diet of limited-overs cricket. Maybe it's the pressure of a wobbling top order. But the most glaring reason is a lack of patience. He just doesn't seem capable of batting out sessions when the chips are down. True, he has been on the wrong end of some poor decisions this year, notably against West Indies and India, but McCullum is not pulling his weight. Rarely has McCullum grinded his way out of tough situations.
The difference between a good and a very good batsman is the ability to make starts count. In McCullum's case, what is hampering his average is his tendency to throw it away after getting a start. After judging the measure of the attack and crossing 20, he has fallen 23 times before 49. In recent times, Daniel Vettori has been a better batsman. He averages 39.11 in his last 26 Tests, against McCullum's 29.32. Vettori has been exceptionally gifted in judgment, patience, technique and run-scoring. McCullum has appeared as if caught in a fog of indecision.
Against Bangladesh in Chittagong last October, he threw away his wicket when New Zealand were 99 for 5, chipping to mid-on. In the first innings in Adelaide last year, he batted 100 balls for 30 before playing a half-hearted drive, seemingly anxious to do something. In the deciding Test at home against India in April, he edged a cut off a wide delivery from Harbhajan Singh when New Zealand were 181 for 8. In the next innings, McCullum was out playing an expansive drive when the need of the hour was solidity. He can point to an aggressive 115 the Test before - his first century against formidable opposition in Tests - but when he walked in the score was 415 for 5.
In the first innings in Galle, with New Zealand 188 for 5, McCullum walked in and made 1 before he pushed feebly at Thilan Thushara and had his middle stump uprooted. At the SSC today, he remained torn between attacking and defending, and edged a doosra to slip. Taylor put it down to inexperience in the subcontinent. "Not just Brendon, we've all struggled. I won't single him out; we all had a job to do and haven't done it."
But McCullum is something of a veteran in this side and his indifference in the middle has hurt New Zealand. You expected more from him in Sri Lanka. McCullum has typically been used at No. 7, but New Zealand's relatively inexperienced batting line-up meant he became a more important middle-order man. Vettori has supported McCullum's desire to settle at No. 5 but that always hasn't worked out. Against Australia last year, McCullum moved back down to No. 7 and was uncharacteristically restrained; in fact he admitted his approach had changed since moving down a spot. He hasn't replicated it here.
Having kept wickets for long periods in this series, he would have watched Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera, two men as outwardly tranquil as an entire ashram, bat hours on end before turning aggressive. For New Zealand's future, McCullum must soon find that perfect balance.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo