Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cricket: Baz finding it tough at the top

It was bad enough that he was singled out in the New Zealand Cricket contracts saga and made to look disloyal.

It was especially galling to be sacked as vice-captain and told to concentrate on scoring runs.

It will be potentially devastating to his psyche to lose the one-day opening role he so obviously covets.

But that's what is facing Brendon McCullum in this three-match series against Pakistan. He wants to open for New Zealand in ODIs.

He sees it as a chance to win a match for his country every time he walks out to the crease.

He has three games, against a handy new ball attack at that, to prove to the selectors that his immense skills are better suited to the initial 10-over powerplay than they are to the discretionary powerplay the batting captain can call on later in the innings.

No pressure then, Brendon.

The question of where best to use McCullum in the batting order has become a hardy annual but it is a debate with no winner. Given that he cannot perform both roles at the same time, it is impossible to say whether effectiveness or otherwise in either position comes down to suitability, or just plain old form issues.

At the recent Champions Trophy in South Africa, McCullum was actually quite good, reaching 40 in his first three innings, getting half a start in his fourth, before an excruciating 14-ball duck in the final.

What was more worrying than his productivity, however, was the fact McCullum did not look as if he was sure about how he was meant to play. He is at his devastating best when he has a licence to attack from ball one. Instead, he often looked like he was batting against the fear of failure.

In that respect, McCullum faces a horrible dilemma in the desert: to be at his best, he must take the risk of failing; if he fails, he will likely face a drop down the order when Bangladesh arrive in New Zealand later in the summer.

But McCullum can at least take comfort in the fact that, despite his leadership demotion, his place in the team is never in doubt. At the same time, he is a proud man and a drop down the order would weigh heavily on him, just as it did when the selectors abandoned the idea of batting him at No 5 in tests.

As it has turned out, his greatest ally in the opening stakes could be the man who normally stands at the other end against the new white ball.

"I think he should stay up there and I don't see why people are saying put him back to seven because the records show that we do pretty well together up the top of the order," Jesse Ryder said last week.

"It's not very often we fail as a partnership and at this stage, I think it's been really good. It's good for both of us because our personalities combine well when we bat with each other out and he really is a calming influence on me."

Do not underestimate the weight of those words. Remember it was only 18 months ago when New Zealand Cricket thought they had found a short-format opening partnership for the ages when McCullum and Ryder took England's new-ball attack - including James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom - apart during their tour Downunder.

In the five-match series, they put together a match-winning partnership of 61 (in 78 balls) chasing a small target on a ropey pitch in the first match, then followed it with an unbeaten 165-run (109 balls) slaughter in match two. There followed partnerships of 7 (11), 70 (61) and 103 (68).

But as much as the numbers told a story back then, it is the last sentence in Ryder's statement that will likely carry the most resonance.

New Zealand Cricket rate Ryder's talent so highly, they will take into account his thoughts on who should open with him.

Comments selector and captain Daniel Vettori made to this newspaper a fortnight ago were picked up and taken up by other media as a sign he was leaning towards dropping McCullum down the order.

In fact, he was non-committal.

"The way the game is going [with batting powerplays], it has become more important to have a guy down the order who can finish your innings off," Vettori said. "We've fallen over a few times recently in the late stages, so that's maybe an option for later in the summer but at the moment Brendon's got the opportunity to open against Pakistan."

McCullum won't have his buddy Ryder at the other end in the UAE - he is rehabbing a pelvic injury - but he will have every motive to do well.

Three knocks against anyone in one summer would be tough to take.

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