McCullum’s gamble

5-0-14-1.

That was Kane Williamson’s return after 61 overs. Brendon McCullum would have benn pretty confident that Williamson could have helped rest his seamers for one last new ball dash.
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It had been a good day for Williamson. He had taken the wicket of Ian Bell. He had beaten the bat of Jonny Bairstow. He’d kept up an end, got decent spin, been economical and dismissed the No. 4. He was doing more than a part time spinner would have been expected to do on the first day. One crusty old scribe had even said he’d take 150 career wickets based on his early spell.

On any day a part time spinner is most useful in that period from the 60th to 80th over. On a long day like this, he’s even more important. Anything around three an over would have been handy. Another wicket would have been a bonus. But the 63rd over changed all of McCullum’s plans.

A floated offspinner from Williamson was driven through wide mid-on to the padded boundary triangle. It was the sort of shot that made old men in the members’ seats nod at each other with a glint in their eye.

The third ball was a fraction short, but there was little room outside off. Bairstow nimbly gave himself room and played a beautiful cut shot for two, that turned into three with an overthrow.

When Root had last faced Williamson, he’d scored only a single off a complete over. There had been a decent appeal for an lbw. Williamson might have hoped for a quiet last three balls, maybe, even a chance of a wicket.

That seemed improbable as Root came down the wicket confidently flicked a full toss for another boundary. The next ball Root moved across his stumps and played another sweep. This time there was no appeal, just a boundary as the ball went very fast and fine. With 15 runs in the first five balls of the over, Root could have been forgiven for blocking the last one. He reverse swept it for four.

19 runs in the over. Williamson dragged out of the attack. McCullum’s plans in tatters. They’d outwitted his chancellor, bested his swordsman.

When the over started, it didn’t look like an obvious plan; it just looked like a loose ball being dealt with. But the intent on the last four balls was blatantly clear. These two young batsmen were not content with sitting back and waiting for the new ball. They were using their aggression to tire the Kiwi bowlers out before they got the new ball in their hands. Root was also trying to get his hundred in before Tim Southee and Trent Boult came back on.

It was great, attacking, smart cricket. Both players weren’t content with waiting for something to happen, they were changing the face of the game.

McCullum also knew exactly what was happening, some captains would have locked Williamson in the basement. McCullum refused to allow England to dictate. After only four overs, he brought him back from the other end. The end he had taken him off after an over where he’d taken Bell and beaten Bairstow.

Root and Bairstow continued to attack. This time it didn’t end in a bunch of boundaries, just good milking. Williamson tried darts, legside fields and even stopping in his delivery to see what Root was planning to do. Root late cut, Bairstow reverse swept, and Root walked across his crease and played a delicate paddle pull. Williamson’s two overs back went for 12 runs, and McCullum had to shelve him.

But McCullum didn’t give in altogether. Southee bowled two overs after Williamson’s 63rd. Boult bowled none. Instead McCullum rode his two workhorses, Neil Wagner and Doug Bracewell, into the ground. He was risking it all on the fact that a fresh Southee and Boult was worth more to him with the new ball.

Because of the attacking, it wasn’t until the 79th over that Williamson came back on. Giving Bracewell one over off. This time, Root and Bairstow just played him out. There was no need to attack him now.

Root was rewarded for his smart work with a hundred, but in keeping Boult fresh, McCullum had done very well. The first delivery with the new ball, Boult took a wicket. Then another in his next over. Then another in his next over. He’d broken the alliance of young Tykes, and taken an extra one as well.

Had Prior been caught off Southee, New Zealand would have ended the day with all of England’s batsmen gone. Perhaps even with England all out. Instead they had to bowl to the close, and Bracewell bowled one over (the second last) with the new ball. He suffered from cramp during it. And then during Southee’s last over, Bracewell was brought off the field after barely moving to field a cut from Prior.

McCullum, who looked just as sore, had gambled with Wagner and Bracewell’s fitness, yet won three wickets and given New Zealand some hope of saving this series.

Williamson finished with 9-0-49-1.

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