The saddest part of this tournament has been watching Brendon McCullum slowly go to pieces. The swaggering, tattooed hard-hitting batsman has become almost a thing of memory, replaced by a lonely figure wearing an increasingly haunted look as his team stumbles from one nightmare to another.

His trials have not been on the field alone; they have come in the press conferences, where he has attempted to explain the inexplicable. At Port Elizabeth, he snapped at a journalist who asked him whether the exodus of Sanjay Bangar and Aakash Chopra was a sign the team would crack down on poor performers. "What are you trying to get at, mate?" was the terse reply. In Durban last week, asked whether his announcement that he would quit as captain was an emotional reaction, he said, "That's your call. Captains all over the world feel the pressure and I think should be accountable."

Like any top sportsmen, McCullum is a very competitive man and though his national side, New Zealand, don't win everything, they don't lose as badly as Kolkata Knight Riders or look as pathetic. And he has never captained before. "It hurts 20 times more when you lose as a captain," he has said. Especially captain of a team that can't bat, can't bowl and can't field itself through to a win.

Worst of all, the captain has been among the chief non-performers. A man who scored 69 off 55 balls in his last Twenty20 international just over two months ago has been out first ball, has patted short wide balls to fielders, dropped sitters, demoted himself and reinstated himself.

He has tried everything but nothing has worked. That has probably hurt the most. "I have found it difficult to deliver messages to the team without having individual performances to stack up," he said. Only good captains can pull off that trick. Mark Taylor went a year without any batting performances and Sourav Ganguly has been known to get angry with his players for fielding lapses despite being the slowest on the field. It takes strong character and a sense of ownership to achieve it. McCullum's lack of captaincy experience has been shown up in this tournament. He might have made the offer to quit on grounds of accountability but it has perhaps led to an image of a weak captain and a sensitive man under duress.

And alone. Most of his visits to the press conferences have been solo; he's tried to be frank but has often meandered into an emotional ramble. At various times, he has looked like he could do with a comfortable hug.

He got one today in public view. He had just finished the post-match ceremony and was heading towards the press meet when his coach, John Buchanan, stepped from the shadows of the dug out, put a hand over his shoulder and led him all the way to the media room, all the while talking in his ear. It was like an uncle comforting a young nephew over a deeply personal grief.

Buchanan tried to deflect the tough questions to himself and butted in with words of encouragement even when the question was directed to McCullum. "It's no use focusing on the negatives; we have positives to look and something to pat ourselves on our back." Finding water on a desert must be easier than finding positives from this game or indeed this tournament.

Yet he's maintained his dignity and sense of humour. After an earlier match, when presented with an envelope at the end of the press conference, he peered into it before breaking out into a weak smile: "Does it have any ideas for me?" Today, he handled a tough question with a soft touch. "In this competition, where the points table has been a very close thing, only one thing has been constant. Knight Riders have been always at the bottom." There was a collective gasp of silence in the room following the question and all eyes turned to McCullum. His lips somehow managed a smile before he said, "That point has not been lost on us as well. But we can't dwell on that. We need to look at ways to increase our performance; if the results don't go our way it's fine. At least we know we tried."

It's that attitude, that sense of pride, that has won him compassion from even the usually cynical press pack. The talk before the conference today was whether anyone would remind McCullum about his captaincy-quitting promise. In the end, no one asked. Some lines just can't be crossed.

Karna S is a freelance cricket writer