Paul Lewis: Why McCullum will go down as a great

By Paul Lewis

It's not often you get to countermand a New Zealand captain but Brendon McCullum must go down as one of cricket's greats.

McCullum this week said he didn't think he would be regarded so. It's a topic which splits cricket fans evenly. They love it when he does to opposition bowlers what the Vikings used to do to nunneries, they hate it when he gets out doing so - and his duck in the Wellington test will have set them all off again.

His final ODI bats were an example - 44 off 29 balls, 28 off 18, 47 off 27, all blazing cameos. But he was gone by the 11th, 4th and 9th overs respectively. It was typical McCullum, according to some detractors, aiming for the stars but not quite getting past the powerlines. They argue he plays his own game, regardless of the team's situation.

With no Ross Taylor, the middle order looked a bit thin and maybe demanded a "captain's knock", letting fellow opener Martin Guptill score the quick runs needed at the top of the innings these days and saving the McCullum onslaught for a little later.

It didn't matter. The Aussies folded like an origami convention twice. Job done.

For some, McCullum's propensity for shooting first and then shrugging off questions afterwards narrowly disqualifies him from greatness, although it must be said his own "I'm not one of the greats" is likely shaped by typical Kiwi reluctance to be perceived as an "I am... " sort of bloke.

It's our nature, isn't it? As a people, we are more comfortable with the jut-jawed, modest achiever and team man with an "Aw, shucks" delivery and careful deflection of glory.

That's partly why we love Richie McCaw. It's the Allan Border syndrome. He was at the crease in that magnificent tied test match with India in 1986 when Dean Jones, on his way to 210 but battling heat stroke and exhaustion, told Border he wanted to go off. In one of cricket's legendary exchanges, Border said something like: "That's all right, mate. We'll get a real Australian out here." Jones stayed.

McCullum decryers can't stomach the "that's the way I play" mantra. They want him to be like Border, who still figures in pub selections of "cricketers you'd want to play for your life". Border qualifies as a great. Jones, even after his 210 and being hospitalised after that innings... not so much.

Here's why I think history will find a spot for McCullum in the halls of greatness:

# Courage - It takes guts to play your own way when you know your sporting constituency is evenly divided between those prepared to take rough with smooth versus those who suckled on the cricketing teat of application, application and then more application. Perhaps the most devastating McCullum dismissal was last year's World Cup final - a lame end to a campaign when he had swept his side along in his slipstream. It was a very New Zealand and very McCullum moment; hiatus after the hype.

# Brilliance - In 2014 (a 300, two 200s and a 195) he was the best batsman in the world; the most destructively prolific. Three others had either more runs or a higher average but if you calculate his worth on a runs-per-innings basis (leaving out the effects of "not outs" on averages), McCullum came out on top, averaging over 72 runs per bat that year. He was ahead of Kumar Sangakkara, Angelo Mathews and Younis Khan, all of whom scored more runs but also played more tests, and ahead of Steve Smith and David Warner.

# Record-setting - That mammoth, 182-over knock of 302 against India was the third time in history (along with Walter Hammond and Sir Don Bradman) a batsman scored a 200 and 300 in consecutive tests. That alone qualifies for greatness even though his 300 ran counter to his own 'way I play' philosophy and is even used by detractors as proof he should have applied a more calculated style more often. On the whole, his stats disappoint. An average of over 40 is seen as necessary for greatness and McCullum does not achieve that in any form of the game. However, he is the only player to have hit 200 and 100 sixes in ODIs and tests respectively, is set to hit more sixes in tests than anyone else and is the only one to have played 100 consecutive tests and to have batted in nine different positions in tests and ODIs.

# Entertainment - He is one of the most punishing batsmen of all time, along with Vivian Richards, Ian Botham, Virender Sehwag, Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and a few others. Since the beginning of 2015, his ODI strike rate has averaged 155 (15 innings or more), clearly the best in the world ahead of de Villiers, Warner and Glenn Maxwell. He has the most sixes and is the world's leading run-scorer in international T20s.

# Leadership - He and coach Mike Hesson have changed the way New Zealand play and how the game is perceived here, also a qualification for greatness. With higher confidence and positive mindset, New Zealand cricket and cricketers are acknowledged as, if maybe not the best in the world, then among the best to watch and play - far more likely to be invited to cricket's top tables.
Great? Yes, maybe not Bradman great, but great by most measures.

- Herald on Sunday

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