Monday, June 2, 2014

New Zealand v India, second Test, Basin Reserve, 14 – 18 February 2014, third day: McCullum’s great innings

http://www.espncricinfo.com/new-zealand-v-india-2014/engine/match/667653.html

Day three

Four o’clock. That was when I told my Khandallah correspondent to expect my return to My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers, having watched New Zealand lose the test match. Many would have thought that a conservative estimate; after all, taxonomists mostly classify New Zealand’s batting under “invertebrate”.

That is what is so wonderful about test cricket. Nobody had a clue that we would see the start of New Zealand’s finest test match innings, or that it would lead a rearguard action that would draw the match and win the series. Four million looking a billion in the face and not blinking. What is more, our appreciation of what we had seen had not advanced much by the time we left the ground at 6.30. Test match cricket possesses a paradox that few if any other sports do: that you may not understand what you have seen until several days later.

There was little in the first half of the day to suggest that anything other than the tiresomely predictable was on. At afternoon drinks New Zealand were 121 for five, 125 short of making India bat again and a four pm homecoming still on the cards.

With Ross Taylor absent for the birth of his second child, a disproportionate amount of New Zealand’s hopes went out of the window in the second over of the day when Kane Williamson was caught behind off Zaheer Khan. This brought together two young left-handers—Rutherford and Latham—who, if every gram of their promise is turned into performance, will spend many hours together at the crease in the decade to come.

Not today, however. Rutherford had reached 35 when he mimicked Williamson’s mode of dismissal. This was a better ball though, swinging away late down the line of off stump.

Let it be recorded that Brendon McCullum came in at this point, with his side 52 for three. A pensive period of play followed, until half an hour or so before lunch something happened that did not seem to matter much at the time. McCullum completely mistimed a drive to a full-length ball from Mohammed Shami. Virat Kohli, at a very straight silly mid-on, spilled a reasonably simple chance. See my remarks about not understanding what you have seen, above. In that moment the match and the series slipped away from India.

Tom Latham became Dhoni’s third victim of the session from the first ball of the last over before lunch. It was a nothing shot, pushing outside off at a ball that could easily have been left alone. Corey Anderson lasted only six balls before giving Jadeja a return catch off the leading edge. BJ Watling now joined McCullum.

Play until tea was a throwback to an earlier time, exactly two an over from 26 overs. Again, it did not seem as gripping as it actually was, as the idea that New Zealand could hang on for long enough to save the game seemed the sort of proposition that might eminate only from an email of Nigerian origin. And McCullum was dropped again, a harder chance than the previous one. Ishant Sharma could not quite hold on to a return catch as he followed through, one of those chances that comes down entirely to instinct.

Up to this point McCullum had batted against type, focusing purely on defence. It was Ken Dodd playing Hamlet. Perhaps he decided to add a shot of caffeine to his play to make him more alert, or maybe the Indian attack became stale. Whatever the reason, it was the authentic McCullum who resumed after tea, no chance to score spurned. He went from 50 to 100 at a run a ball, reaching three figures by putting Sharma into the crowd at long on. Like the rest of us, India had no appreciation of what was going on and were mentally heading for the airport doing nothing more than waiting for the batsmen to make mistakes.

Praise for BJ Watling should be fulsome too. At the end of the day he had 52 from 202 balls. More and more it seems that Watling has the temperament of a test player. New Zealand took the lead shortly before the end of the day, and we left the ground heartened by a performance that had heart and character. But we also knew that New Zealand would have to bat for another day to put the game beyond India, whose strokeplayers could rattle up 250-plus on a pitch that had not given up a wicket in almost two sessions. We had seen the Holy Grail but mistaken it for a shiny egg cup.

Days four and five

I was not at the Basin for the final two days but, in common with much of the population of New Zealand it seems, followed the game at a distance and watched the recordings later. Brendon McCullum batted throughout the fourth day and reached his triple century early on the fifth morning, watched by a crowd which contained the largest proportion of spectators dressed in suits and ties seen in New Zealand since the thirties. All over Wellington men of a certain age were seen hurrying to an urgent 11 am meeting at an undisclosed location.

McCullum was supported royally by Watling, who reached 124 from 367 balls, and Jimmy Neesham, who took a debut century off a tired attack from 123 balls. When I first saw Neesham I wrote how comfortable he looked at provincial level, and have the same opinion a grade higher. This is not say that he is the finished article, not by a long chalk, but there is enough emerging talent in New Zealand cricket for us to approach the future with our usual apprehension diluted somewhat.

So how good was McCullum’s innings? I have given it more than three months, in attempt to achieve perspective, only to find that there isn’t any. It was the finest innings ever played by a New Zealander in a test match, and not just because it was the biggest and the longest. Had McCullum been out at any point before he passed 250—about an hour before the end of the fourth day—New Zealand would almost certainly have lost.

Search the records and it is difficult to find an innings quite like it, one of such sustained defiance in the face of defeat. Hanif Mohammad’s 337 against the West Indies in 1958 is the only comparable triple century (and the only higher score in a team’s second innings). The danger of defeat was present almost throughout then too, but it was dour defence all the way, unleavened by McCullum’s willingness to take them on. Pakistan progressed at only a fraction over two an over. Had McCullum been as stately, New Zealand would have lost.

Martin Crowe’s 299 against Sri Lanka at the Basin in 1991 (still unwise to say “hey Marty, one short eh?” by the way) was also in pursuit of a large deficit, but he came in at 148 for two and the danger of defeat passed sooner.

VVS Laxman’s 281 in the greatest of all Tests, at Kolkota in 2001 also saw the prospect of losing the game recede at an earlier point. There are many other examples of fine, courageous long innings that saved teams from defeat, but none with the odds against success stacked so highly for so long. One of test cricket’s greatest innings, beyond question.

It was the highest innings of which I have seen part, eclipsing the fruitlessly tedious 275 to which Darryl Cullinan subjected us at Eden Park in 1999 despite Amnesty International’s intervention. It was a privilege to be there. If only we Sunday spectators could have appreciated quite what it was we were watching.

A note for my fellow pedants

Ever since I started writing Scorecards I have agonised about the use of the upper case for “test” as in match. When I worked for CricInfo its style guide (a thin publication) insisted that the word should always begin with a “T”. It has never made any sense to me to have an upper-case adjective followed by a lower-case noun. So with a shout of “Eureka!” I have decided that from now on in these columns it will be “test’ as an adjective and “Test” as a noun.

Now, should “Eureka!” begin with the upper case?...

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