Brendon McCullum, it is fair to say, hasn't had the best year, or in fact the best time of it since he launched the IPL into orbit two years ago. Expectation has generally overtaken him, he has been dropped as vice-captain and questions about his suitability to opening have been asked. But an immaculately constructed 131, McCullum's second century in 162 ODIs, led New Zealand to 303 for 8 at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, and paved the way for them to level the three-match series at 1-1.
There were periods of acceleration, uncertainty and consolidation in New Zealand's innings and McCullum stood firm through it all, falling only in the 47th over, the last of the batting Powerplay. Pakistan's chase needed a similar effort but none was forthcoming. They seemed to have a plan: the top order batted cautiously, preserved wickets and steadily built a platform for the middle and lower order to fire from. The launchpad was there - they reached 124 for 1 - but the asking-rate had risen to over seven an over, heaping pressure on the likes of Shahid Afridi. And when the time came for Pakistan's thrust, Scott Styris nipped out three crucial wickets in two overs. The plan had failed and the exodus of fans from the venue began as early as the 28th over.
The match, though, was McCullum's. His innings was everything his many, unfulfilled contributions haven't been. The early harassing - the shimmies down the tracks, the moving around - was there but it wasn't until Martin Guptill arrived, that McCullum really settled in.
Guptill implemented the truism that the easiest singles in cricket are found in Pakistan's 30-yard circle. It was selfless stuff, for the real beneficiary was McCullum. Umar Gul was driven and cut, though mostly the violence was reserved for Abdul Razzaq, who, had he been actually handing out chocolates, could not have been friendlier: a short ball was pulled over square leg, before he was cut just as hard. McCullum, soon, was celebrating a fifty. Spin threatened circumspection but not for long as Guptill danced down to loft Saeed Ajmal for six in the 20th over. McCullum deposited Afridi for six over midwicket and within a trice, the century stand was up.
McCullum's real work began after a needless slog from Guptill began a mini-collapse, at the end of which three wickets had gone for not much. As in the first game, New Zealand's huff was running out at the halfway mark and McCullum now needed to shepherd. His captain helped, for so obdurately does Daniel Vettori stick around that he could be the crease's chalk: he gave McCullum support in a fifty-run partnership which stealthily stole momentum back.
McCullum reined himself in. The singles he kept picking but neither did he forget his basic intent. A brace of drives, off pace and spin alike, were sudden, sharp reminders to Pakistan of his strength. As further wickets fell, the significance of the Powerplay grew, and when it came, so too arrived the McCullum of that IPL knock.
The century had come a couple of overs earlier and now the gloves were off. The McPaddle had a second coming as both Gul and Aamer suffered. He later flicked a six off his hips so pure, it made you wonder why he would try such contrived shots. Jacob Oram stole handy runs at the end and New Zealand now had their best chance to win their first ODI against Pakistan in the UAE.
Pakistan's selectors had done away with the fiery Champions Trophy opening combination of Imran Nazir and Kamran Akmal, preferring stability instead. Salman Butt and Imran Nazir took few risks, despite an asking-rate of more than six from the start of the reply. Butt began by punching Kyle Mills through point for four and thereafter Pakistan hit a four in every over between the fourth and the tenth.
Despite the frequency with which they found the boundary, though, Butt and Latif were unable to score rapidly, because New Zealand's excellent in-fielding prevented the singles that were so easily available when Pakistan were bowling. Latif's innings was ended by Vettori, who came on in the 17th over and struck immediately, trapping the opener lbw with an arm ball.
Vettori and Mills bowled tidily, and with Younis Khan and Butt shunning shots, the asking-rate climbed: it was seven an over in the 20th and 7.5 by the 25th. Younis had plodded to 19 when he chipped his 37th ball - in Styris' first over - towards midwicket. Ross Taylor leapt to his right and took the catch with one hand. The captain departed with Pakistan needing 180 off 136 balls and Afridi entered to his customary, rousing welcome from a hopeful crowd. A ball later, he was striding back, having chipped to Taylor at midwicket again for a duck. Pakistan promoted Kamran Akmal ahead of Mohammad Yousuf and Shoaib Malik, who perished while driving Styris to short cover. Pakistan had gone from 124 for 1 to 133 for 4.
If the contest wasn't over then, it certainly was when Butt and Yousuf had a moment's misunderstanding, one which led to Butt being run out for 59 and Pakistan needing 170 off 120 balls. The platform had been shattered and the game was lost.