These were scenes you wouldn’t normally expect in New Zealand. The Kiwis do like their cricket and they did turn up in good numbers on the first three days of the Wellington Test. But snaking queues of expectant spectators at the Basin Reserve’s gates on a weekday is something unusual in these parts.
There were people in formals, and you could tell they had skipped work — taking a longer bathroom/coffee break if not really calling in sick. It’s a fairly regular occurrence in India; in New Zealand it’s unprecedented. At least for a sport that doesn’t involve an oval-shaped ball and pinning your opponents down.
Triple hundreds, they are commonplace these days, aren’t they, you thought. Kumar Sangakkara hit one only a couple of weeks ago. Two Indian players on the pitch on Tuesday have three each to their credit — albeit in first-class matches. What’s the big deal, you wondered.
But then you saw Sunil Gavaskar in the press box adjusting his tie. You thought of Martin Crowe, too, who was here the other day — and who was here, too, at 299 twenty-three summers ago. You thought of Sachin Tendulkar. You thought of all those greats who never reached 300.
And you also considered the fact that in 391 previous Tests, in 83 preceding years, no New Zealander had scaled that summit. In which time, one of them had scaled Mount Everest before anyone else could.
All right, you said, 300 for New Zealand is a big deal. But just how big?
The Long Wait
It was difficult to quantify the magnitude of the impending achievement. Let’s just say there were people out there who were risking their lives and limbs to get a glimpse of it. Beyond the stands, beyond the packed embankments, you spotted a 60-year-old man precariously holding onto a branch from his vantage point on a tree.
If that man had a fraction of the weight McCullum, overnight unbeaten on 281, was carrying on his shoulder at the beginning of Day Five, the branch would have come crashing down. Safe to say, then, that on Tuesday morning, there was nothing that mattered more to this rugby mad nation than 19 cricketing runs.
Even the Indian fans, who showed up in large numbers, wouldn’t have begrudged McCullum or New Zealand those runs. After all, they knew the pain of having to wait for a triple. They had waited for 72 years for theirs — until Virender Sehwag’s 309 in 2004.
Like Sehwag, McCullum is a see-ball, hit-ball batsman. Unlike Sehwag, however, he kept a counter-intuitive vigil here for a majority of the 13 hours that he spent in the middle, battling against himself, the situation and the Indian bowlers.
Today, he was batting against history as well. To further make it difficult, the conditions in the morning were more difficult to bat than they had been at any point during the previous three days. The sun was behind a thick cover of grey, pregnant clouds. The famous Wellington wind was finally blowing. McCullum took his guard to face Zaheer Khan.
Those 19 Runs
The first ball, pitched up and across, was an invitation for a drive, but it was respectfully declined. In this manner, the over was negotiated and the nerves were settled. At the other end, a surer Jimmy Neesham, without any such burden, played freely. With a flick off the pads for a couple and a cover drive for three, he put McCullum on strike to face Ishant Sharma. McCullum played one past mid off and ran for his first single of the morning. Applause.
Every single was cheered as if it were a boundary, every boundary lauded as if it were a hundred.
Yes, there were boundaries. Ironically enough, in his otherwise restrained innings, McCullum brought up milestones with a flourish. The 50, 150 and 200 came off fours, the 100 and 250 with sixes.
His flicked Ishant past the deep mid-wicket boundary to move from 284 to 288. In the next over, a cracking pull shot off Zaheer past mid on took him to 293.
‘Oohs’ rang out in the stands and the Basin Reserve crowd had their hearts in their mouths when an Ishant delivery took off from a length and took McCullum’s outside edge. It fell inches short of Dhoni. A country exhaled. After that McCullum decided he wasn’t going to play a waiting game. In Ishant’s next over, he swatted the bowler away for a four and took a single to reach 298.
A landmark came in that over but it wasn’t the one the crowd was waiting for — Neesham pulled Ishant over deep square leg to bring up a century on Test debut.
The moment finally came off the first ball of the next over.
Zaheer gave McCullum a little width outside the off-stump and McCullum’s eyes lit up. He cut the ball past gully and despite knowing well it would be a four, he ran. He ran with both arms aloft in celebration. The weight was off his shoulder. The wait was over.
The Basin sprang on its feet and roared. Strangers high-fived each other. Those in the traffic outside (it’s a busy roundabout after all) were surely tuned in to the radio, for they honked collectively. McCullum’s teammates were jumping up and down in the dressing room. He hugged Neesham, took off his helmet and raised his bat to all corners. Every Indian player walked up to him to shake hands.
The roar subsided, but the applause didn’t. It looked like it wouldn’t end, just like the innings. But it ended, and two balls later, so too the innings when the batsman nicked Zaheer behind the wicket to Dhoni.
Those who has settled in their seats were back up. The slow ‘thank-you’ claps began and didn’t stop till his tiny frame had disappeared in the narrow passage leading to the dressing room.
The spectators in suits started trickling out. McCullum did his job, now it was their turn to go back to theirs. The old man finally climbed down from the tree to his relieved wife. Normalcy restored, New Zealand went back to being New Zealand again, albeit with a smile on the face.
The match wandered aimlessly. The Blackcaps kept batting for a while before declaring at 680/8. Zaheer completed his five wicket haul, but not before bowling 51 excruciating overs. India came out, lost early wickets before Kohli hit a century. He ended the tour the way he had began in Napier a month and a day ago.
The match ended early, at 5 pm. For all practical purposes, however, it was done and dusted much earlier. At quarter to 12, when McCullum played that cut shot.