x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

McCullum has found his form

Under pressure before the series, New Zealand's most explosive batsman has come back with a bang.

ABU DHABI // The renaissance of Brendon McCullum as a one day international cricketer to be feared around the world was completed yesterday in front of an appreciative crowd made up predominantly of followers of opponents Pakistan at Abu Dhabi's impressive Zayed Stadium. The New Zealand opener was the stand-out batsmen in a low-scoring deciding match in the Cool & Cool series and his well-paced innings of 76 was the key to his team's unexpected seven-run run victory over their stunned "hosts". McCullum, who had exploded out of his career-threatening crisis with a match-winning century in the second of the three-match series against the UAE's adopted subcontinental sons, looked like heaping another ton of trouble on Younus Khan's men in the deciding rubber until he succumbed 24 runs short of the milestone. The way McCullum ripped into a world class Pakistani bowling attack for the second time in four days indicated that he, too, would relish making the Emirates his second home. Three towering sixes and half a dozen booming fours kept the Kiwi wicketkeeper going along at a run a ball until Shoaib Malik fooled him into offering a comfortable return catch. But for the 200-plus runs in the last two matches there would be serious question marks now over McCullum's international future, bearing in mind the unceremonious stripping of the vice-captaincy that came his way in the wake of Andy Moles' departure as head coach due to an apparent breakdown of relationships with the players. McCullum's recent failures to make the most of promising starts to his innings put his selection in jeopardy and he was aware that Abu Dhabi -- venue for the 50-over series in advance of the Twenty20 shoot-outs in Dubai -- had become a career crossroads. Having to walk to the crease out under that level of pressure has made his performances with the bat all the more impressive. With 162 ODIs already under his belt inside eight years since his 2002 debut against Australia, it is surprising to see that McCullum celebrated is barely six weeks into his 29th year. His self-belief restored after his exhilarating Emirates experience, he can now expect to continue to be a mainstay of what has on this trip been a fraught squad led by the statesmanlike Daniel Vettori. McCullum, who scored only eight runs off the first 21 balls he faced, eventually came roaring out of his shell and hit all three of his sixes in the first 10-over power play. It was just as well his adventurous approach to restricted fielding conditions reaped handsome rewards because those who followed the swashbuckling opener to the crease failed to capitalise on the solid base that had been created for them and it appeared initially as though they had fallen well short of setting a decent target. Only Ross Taylor offered McCullum worthwhile support, the aggressive No 4 hitting his team's fourth and last six during a bright and breezy innings of 44 before succumbing leg before to Saaed Ajmal and precipitating an alarming collapse from 187 for four with 12 overs remaining to 211 all out with 21 deliveries of their allocated 50 overs unused. It was a desperately disappointing capitulation by a batting line-up who had, thanks to what was only the second ODI century plundered by McCullum, comfortably broken through the 300-run barrier to level the series so stylishly last Friday. Their batting in this deciding rubber was the spin introduced early in their innings by opposing captain Younus who deployed Saeed Ajmal on a mission to put a brake on the Kiwi juggernaut. That ploy proved so successful that Younus relied on spin for all but two overs in the key period of the match between the 18th and 45th overs. Ajmal, assisted by three lbw shouts being upheld, led the way with a splendid return of four for 33 from his doosra-laden spell, but he received tremendous support from the equally economical Shahid Afridi and Malik. The "home" Pakistani crowd which grew steadily as the concluding match of another series drew to a conclusion marvelled at the exhibition of subtle differences in style between Ajmal's doosras, Afridi's sliders and googlies and the conventional off spin of Malik. Those euphoric fans were silenced by their own batsmen falling like nine pins in the face of a mainly seam New Zealand attack and high hopes of a morale-boosting series victory rapidly turned to despair. An exhilarating last-wicket century partnership between MohammadAamer and Ajmal kept the outcome in doubt until the bitter end over but it snatching a remarkable victory from the jaws of defeat always looked beyond the plucky Pakistani rearguard. Pakistan's reasons for coming to the UAE to host West Indies, Australia and now New Zealand are unfortunately poitical but there can be no doubting the suitability of their choice of alternative venue. High class international cricket in the Emirates appears to be here to stay and long may it continue.