Test batting winner
The sprinter who ran a marathon
A marathon innings that amounted to much more
There was something about that Tuesday morning last February in Wellington.
There was a palpable sense of expectation in the air. If you have New Zealanders hurrying to the Basin Reserve on a working day, something special is about to happen.
New Zealand's summer sport is usually about taking the kids out to the grass banks with a picnic hamper to soak in the sun and watch some cricket. Of course, they get behind their team when they need to. And they can make a fair amount of noise while they are at it. But to someone coming from the subcontinent, it can feel as if it's an afterthought.
This Tuesday morning was different, though. Several more cars than usual were lined up around the Basin roundabout. The queues were far longer than they had been at any point during the second Test between New Zealand and India. People hadn't come for a day out under the sun. They wanted to get in quickly to see Brendon McCullum become the first New Zealander to make a Test triple-century.
McCullum had ended day four on 281. In 2001, VVS Laxman made that number symbolic of a batsman's unyielding defiance against adversity. McCullum going to stumps on that score reinforced the severity of the situation he had battled against: New Zealand had lost half their side in the second innings and still needed 152 to make India bat again. This was just after lunch on day three.
Travel plans were already being hatched in the press box in anticipation of an evening finish. This was the final match of the tour and the visiting journalists wanted to take in some more of New Zealand in the possible extra two days, which looked imminently available now. The South Island, which had no games scheduled for the tour, was only a scenic ferry ride away from Wellington.
McCullum made sure everyone stayed firmly put, as he batted for six sessions. This after feeling fatigued early on in his innings. India had batted 102.4 overs in their first innings. If you take into account the kind of effort McCullum puts in to his fielding, it must have felt like a lot more than that. And he did all of it with a back that somehow manages to still hold together after the years of punishment it has taken. Late into his innings, he was running twos and threes for his partner as if they were his own first few runs. He took the field in India's second innings, chased balls to the cover boundary and went sprawling over the rope to save a run.
Yet for all his devotion to the cause, the defining image over the years of McCullum had been his devil-may-care charge-and-swish, leading to the premature termination of heaven knows how many promising beginnings. Since the home season of 2013, however, that image has taken a beating. McCullum has averaged 60-plus in Tests starting with his century against West Indies in Dunedin. There have been four hundreds since - 224, 302, 202 and 195. The habitual sprinter has taken to the art of the marathon, and Wellington has become the long-distance landmark by which he will be forever known.
How did he channel his emotions through the experience, he was asked after the match. His answer had nothing to do with nerves or sentiment. "I had to try and fight the emotion that I want to hit the ball a bit harder than what I was trying to."
That overpowering urge to knock the cover off the ball is very much definitive of McCullum. That instinct to fight back in his natural attacking manner would have been at its sharpest early with eight sessions left. How much can you bat for time? Additionally, if you are McCullum, how much do you want to bat for time?
McCullum's slowest fifty during his triple was the first, which took 146 deliveries. He also hit 32 fours and four sixes. India left extra cover vacant and tried to get him driving with the second new ball. McCullum obliged. He moved from 50 to 100 off 51 balls. He then went back to batting time, taking 106 more deliveries to reach 150. The next three fifties came off 92, 76 and 86. The middle one came against the third new ball, the second delivery of which had claimed BJ Watling and ended the epic 352-run partnership.
McCullum and debutant Jimmy Neesham had put on another 125 by stumps on day four. The sheer magnitude of what he had achieved, and what more he could do next morning slowly began to grow on McCullum. Martin Crowe had fallen for 299 on the same ground 23 years ago. He was on air the fifth morning, talking about how significant it would be if McCullum scored one more than he had. Stephen Fleming mentioned the significance to McCullum too.
The Basin's grass banks and wooden benches were crammed and heavy with expectation. Everything McCullum did was cheered. A leave, a block, a single. The applause when he reached the triple will stay forever with each individual present at the Basin that day. It never seemed to die down.
It rose and fell, rose and fell, then rose again. Done with acknowledgments and celebrations, McCullum prepared to take strike next ball, but the clapping refused to stop. McCullum had to wait till his fellow countrymen had had enough of thanking him and telling him how much his effort meant to them. For once, a cricketer had the land of rugby on its feet as one.