Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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When Brendon McCullum leaves his crease, he does it like no one else. He does it against the fastest bowlers in the world. He does not step, stride, shimmy, shuffle, saunter or dance down the pitch. He charges. He does not care what length the bowler will deliver. He is capable of hammering short balls over long-off. If he swings and misses and looks ridiculous doing it, that's okay too.
Against Sunrisers Hyderabad on Saturday, McCullum charged Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the third over of Chennai Super Kings' innings and swatted him for a six over wide long-on. In the next over, he charged Trent Boult, swung, and missed.
On came Ishant Sharma. He had been India's best fast bowler on their tour of Australia, and had missed the World Cup with a knee injury. Here he was again on India's TV screens.
McCullum charged him first ball, failed to middle a big hit, and sent the ball rolling to mid-off. Next ball, McCullum jumped out of his crease again and swiveled violently to try and launch a back-of-a-length ball into the Bay of Bengal. He did not connect.
The Chepauk crowd roared. The noise they made in response to this slog-and-miss was louder than anything they had made in the first four overs of the match. This was because the umpire had signaled no-ball. Out of the PA system came a series of siren blasts, like an air-raid warning. The big screen simply said 'FREE HIT'.
Ishant quieted the crowd with a ball landing in the blockhole, which McCullum could only swipe a short distance into the leg side, all along the ground, for a single.
On strike now was Dwayne Smith. Ishant's first ball to him was a leg-cutter on a perfect length, in the corridor outside off. Smith poked at it and failed to connect. His next ball was a bouncer that Smith evaded. Not a bad over, this: five balls, one no-ball, one run off the bat. Except he hadn't bowled five balls yet. The umpire had raised his right arm again. It was time for another Free Hit.
Ishant bounded in again, hair flying in the sea breeze. Searching for the yorker, he got his line slightly wrong, and Smith carved it away into the gap behind point. Four more. Ishant hadn't bowled it too far outside off stump, but Smith had made himself room by moving towards the leg side. He may not have made that much room had he needed to protect his wicket.
Ishant finished the over with a length ball, angling in towards the top of off stump and cramping the batsman for room. Smith blocked it, bat straight, elbow high, head over the ball.
Ishant began his next over by conceding a boundary, Smith driving him stylishly through mid-off. Next ball, he sent down another one that jagged away from a perfect length and produced another play-and-miss. Smith took a single off the third ball, and brought McCullum back on strike.
Again McCullum charged, again he swung, again he missed. Seeing the batsman advance, Ishant had pulled his length back and had got the ball to bounce steeply, over his flashing blade. A pretty good response from the bowler, except for one thing: he had overstepped again.
As he made his way to the top of his mark to send down another free-hit, the crowd began chanting. "We want no ball! We want no ball!" Ishant had beaten the bat four times in less than two overs; he had sent down three no-balls in less than two overs. He was bowling well; he was bowling badly. He was under immense pressure.
McCullum knew it. He would have possibly charged Ishant anyway, but maybe he recognised that this was a moment to seize. That this ball would have to disappear. Down the track ran McCullum, and up went the ball, up and over long-on.
Two balls remained in the over. McCullum swung and missed at the first and drove the second over cover for four.
Ishant went out of the attack, and returned in the 12th over, from the opposite end of the ground. Smith wasn't at the crease anymore, but McCullum still was. When he came on strike to face the second ball, Ishant went around the wicket. McCullum reverse-paddled him to short third man, and a misfield allowed him to pick up two.
In a parallel universe, the short third man fielder made an unremarkable stop and an unremarkable throw to the keeper. Suresh Raina, batting on 10, faced the fourth ball of Ishant's over, and not McCullum, batting on 49.
In that universe, Ishant may not have sent down a waist-high full-toss. In this one, Ishant did. McCullum cleared his front leg and clubbed it into the vacant stands behind the square leg boundary. Next ball, he made room and carved another full-toss between point and short third man. This one, it turned out, wasn't just a full-toss; it was another no-ball.
There was little Ishant could do to stall McCullum's momentum at this point. A straight, low full-toss wasn't the worst ball under the circumstances. McCullum was flying, though, and he walked across his stumps, crouched, and lapped the ball over the keeper's head. For six. Up in the stands, pandemonium. And then, more shouts of "we want no-ball!"
Ishant conceded a single and a double off his last two balls, and ended up giving away 23 runs in that over. He didn't get to bowl another. Of the 46 runs he gave away in three overs, 17 came off four free-hits.
Ishant has had trouble with no-balls before. He has had wickets chalked off for overstepping in Test matches. Those were frustrating moments, of a longer-term, slower-burning impact. This was different. This was short, brutal and bewildering. This was a bad day in office with nowhere to hide. This was the cruelty of Twenty20.