Andrew Alderson: Opening debate is finally settled

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Perhaps those of us who were zealous proponents of Brendon McCullum opening in all forms of cricket were victims of our own greed.

As witnessed since England's arrival, he can blast bowling attacks to smithereens down the order to close out innings. His 86 off 91 balls to chase 347 to beat Australia in a Chappell-Hadlee Trophy match at Hamilton in 2007, or 50 off 25 balls to haul in 332 at Christchurch in 2005 were the original blueprints.

It was natural to want to see McCullum replicate those skills at the top of the order to produce spectacular cricket in all forms.

It was asking too much; he's no Virender Sehwag.

We were lulled into a false sense of righteousness by that darned 158 not out McCullum scored off 73 balls opening for Kolkata against Bangalore in the inaugural match of the Indian Premier League in 2008. McCullum conjures up his best when confronted by a challenge. He appears to enjoy it when the overs are trickling away and he is forced to produce.

Give him 10-20 overs in ODIs or T20s to chase or build a total and he revels under the pressure.

It's no accident he is the world's No1-ranked T20 batsman. The lure of changing a game's fortunes appeals to the scrapper within. Take the matches against England. His 74 off 38 balls in the T20s set a winning total with 11.4 overs left; his ODI 69 not out off 61 balls guided New Zealand to victory with 16 overs left; and his ODI 74 off 36 balls helped build a respectable score with 14 overs left.

Bristling with intent, McCullum's shots ricocheted off advertising hoardings and he moved into a familiar routine: his back molars pulverise the latest piece of chewing gum and the pitch is gardened furiously as he soaks up the impact of each boundary.

In tests, McCullum's ability to adjust his natural aggression always seemed a battle. He could do it. His 225 to bat out a test in Hyderabad was an example but it is the only McCullum century in 29 innings as an opener. Perhaps Martin Crowe was right in his famous open letter before the triumphant Colombo test in Sri Lanka when he wrote to McCullum: "I said I admired you for trying to open, but ideally your best position for potential production of runs was batting five. I said that opening in a test match was a real specialist's job but that you, as a brilliant all-round cricketer, needed room to express all that talent."

McCullum is likely to bat No5 against England. And painful as it is to admit, McCullum's decision to come back down the order (even dropping to No3 in T20s) is the right one. Once again cricket has proven an opener's job is one of the most specialised.

- Herald on Sunday

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