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McCullum adapts to thrive in hostile conditions

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O'Brien: McCullum's runs pivotal to winning the game (2:40)

Raunak Kapoor and Iain O'Brien discuss Brendon McCullum's crucial fifty against Rajasthan Royals (2:40)

The 16th over of Chennai Super Kings' innings is nearing its completion. Brendon McCullum is on his haunches, trying to mine every remaining ounce of energy. Chennai's heat and humidity have sucked out much of it. The stadium announcer urges the crowd to chant, 'We want sixer,' and they comply. McCullum, too, looks like he could do with one. He has just run a brace of twos, and appears too drained to even contemplate another quick single. All he manages off the last ball is a hit down the ground for one.

McCullum grits it out for another over and a bit. He watches Faf du Plessis, his partner in a 101-run alliance off 76 balls, depart after being run out. McCullum then carts Shane Watson over long-on for a six in the same over. He is out in the next over, top-edging a pull. Out after playing an un-McCullum-like innings - 81 off 61 balls. Seven fours and four sixes. Still, un-McCullum-like.

This was the longest he had batted since his unbeaten 56-ball hundred against Sunrisers Hyderabad. Not that the brevity of his knocks has impacted his numbers: with 419 runs at 38.09, he is far and ahead Super Kings' highest run-scorer this year, besides being fourth on the overall list. His strike-rate, of 165.61, is second only to that of AB de Villiers among the top four.

McCullum's method has been that of a free-spirited bounty-hunter, galloping away - literally and figuratively -in the Powerplay with the intention of gunning down as many scoring opportunities as possible. He has been Super Kings' force-multiplier at the top, but never quite the restorer or consolidator that batted deep.

Sunday's match against Rajasthan Royals, his and Super Kings' last home outing for IPL 2015, had him playing a game he was "a little bit unfamiliar with." Given the conditions, he rated the 81 higher than his century against Sunrisers. "Coming from New Zealand you don't play a lot on a wicket that is slow and offers spin," McCullum told iplt20.com. "So, given that and the situation of the game and tournament on the whole, this is more satisfying."

Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming acknowledged that it was an "absolute grind." "The pleasing aspect for us was we needed an innings of substance from someone in the top four, and the fact that McCullum got through to 81 and had a 101-run partnership with du Plessis was where the game was set up for us."

McCullum weathered a disciplined spell from Royals, as Dwayne Smith and Suresh Raina fell to leave Super Kings 15 for 2. What McCullum did next was counter-intuitive: rather than go on an indiscriminate leather-hunt, he picked his targets, like Rajat Bhatia and Pravin Tambe, to ensure Super Kings stayed the course. Once they had reached a position of moderate comfort, McCullum brought into play the ramps and the flat-batted strikes even as du Plessis struggled to hike up his scoring-rate.

And he had quite a bit of running to do which explains why he ran out of gas at the end. MS Dhoni put McCullum's knock in context at the presentation. "He comes from New Zealand and it was difficult for him. There is a joke going around in the dressing room: If Brendon Mccullum bats for 6-7 overs, he will be cooked."

Cooked he certainly was, but that didn't stop him from being his usual gum-chewing, vibrant self on the field later. McCullum's contribution to Super Kings' success this year has gone beyond his batting. Along with Raina, du Plessis, Dwayne Bravo and Ravindra Jadeja, McCullum has formed an impregnable fielding core.

His has been a tigerish presence at point and cover while swooping down on the ball or making those exaggerated tumbles after hurling himself on ferocious hits. So desperate was he to effect a run-out in one of the matches that he bolted towards the ball, and with no time to pick up and throw, knived it with his palm onto the stumps. That he actually dropped a sitter offered by Chris Morris on Sunday was as rare as snow in Chennai.

McCullum seemed to embody the 'greatness is contagious' theme of the World Cup, and he has sustained it in the IPL. With the kind of influence he has had, Super Kings will find it difficult when McCullum leaves for New Zealand's Test series in England. The Super Kings management confirmed he will available for their next two games before leaving on May 17.

Michael Hussey, the man who has spent many an evening carrying drinks and enthusiastically cheering the players on, will be his replacement. Hussey was also on hand to help McCullum stretch and rehydrate while fielding. Super Kings and their fans, while missing McCullum, can take heart in the quality of his replacement.