There were two spectacles ready to be unveiled that evening.
One, an expected happening – a tournament that had been in the offing for some time, and which was going to revolutionalise the way cricket was played for time to come.
The other, an unforeseen occurrence, that was going to change how we perceived batting.
A batsman who had been in the wings for almost five years, but didn't quite have his moment, took the centrestage and decided to own it, that evening. With over a billion people hooked to their TV sets and thousands inside the stadium – he truly decided to reveal his magnificent self.
It was a marriage of these two spectacles that made the night of 18 April, 2008, a night to remember.
Brendon McCullum was 25 when he unfurled that masterpiece. He was a young New Zealand cricketer with a bundle of potential, who was not afraid to pull and cut the ball if the delivery was pitched short; belt it straight down the ground if the ball was pitched up; slay it through covers if a half-volley was dished out. And when none of this was on offer, he would sit on one knee, stretch the front leg towards mid-wicket, pointing the toe of his willow towards the bowler while the bat's face gazing at the skies, only to ramp the white orb over the 'keeper.
— IndianPremierLeague (@IPL) April 5, 2017
That kind of shot wouldn't find any space in the batting manuals and certainly not have an image of McCullum playing the shot in it. That wasn't cricket. And yet, it was exactly how cricket was going beyond the manuals. There was no way anybody could score runs like that, with that shot, against pace. It was a coming of age innings and this was a coming of age cricketing shot, which defined the format and the tournament McCullum was part of.
McCullum, before that evening, would have pictured himself playing each one of these shots everyday. Difficult to say, even those who conceived T20 cricket, or the IPL, would have imagined these strokes. And perhaps that is why the format and the comfort of playing without international pressure, made it easier for McCullum to unleash his true self. On that evening, the brash Kiwi only converted his imaginations into reality, when no one was going to stop him, not even the purists. He could do whatever he had imagined himself of doing.
Hook a short of a length delivery for six, flick an incoming delivery towards square leg but end up achieving six runs over third man boundary via a leading edge, slog sweep Cameron White to the last tier over deep mid-wicket, step out to the left-arm spin of Sunil Joshi and cart him for a six over long on – he could do it all. And have the world standstill in awe, or make them dance like there is no tomorrow, just like his team owner Shah Rukh Khan did, or simply drown in a misery with jaws dropped like many Royal Challengers Bangalore players present on the ground.
RCB's New Zealand recruit, Ross Taylor, in the pre-match team meeting, had warned captain Rahul Dravid of McCullum's impending threat. He knew his compatriot would come out all guns blazing. Taylor did Dravid know that McCullum would either top edge the first ball and vanish or he would take the game away from them. Dravid knows what happened that evening.
18 April, 2008. Royal Challengers Bangalore played Kolkata Knight Riders in the first-ever IPL match. The hype was real. The auction, months of TV ads, an anthem to go with it, made the country sit and wait for the action to begin. The excitement of watching teammates becoming rivals and rivals becoming teammates, in a format which had made its way into the hearts of Indian cricket fans not long ago, courtesy of the maiden T20 World Cup win the previous year, filled the air in the drawing rooms. It was Dravid's team against that of Ganguly's. Kolkata never seemed so close to Ganguly and vice-versa in the case of Dravid and Bangalore. Plus, the sight of the biggest bollywood star dancing for his team in the stands, fascinated people. This was a dream stage and it required a dream start as well.
Enter Brendon McCullum.
But it wasn't an ideal start for McCullum, who was cramped for room in the first over. He looked listless and out of sorts, to be honest. It seemed more like the part where Taylor had predicted that he would top edge and vanish early than taking the game away. Praveen Kumar who bowled the first over kept on nipping it in to him and McCullum wasn't able to cut or pull.
Ganguly saw this desperateness and then had a word with his batting partner. Taylor was right. Baz was going to come out looking to hit everything out of the park. Till now, he was unable to connect every ball he had faced. RCB hoped an edge flew to a fielder. That hope lasted for one over. The first over saw just two runs and those were extras. First ball of the next over bowled by Zaheer Khan, McCullum tried to cut again and missed. He was misfiring, yet he kept on trying. A winner is a trier.
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The second ball of the over, pitched on length, McCullum's eyes lit up, the fast hands and rapid bat speed came to the fore as he thumped it over mid-wicket for four. That was the start of something extraordinary as the batsman had the ball hitting the sweet part of his blade. Regains confidence. A pull off the next ball and the stadium was alive, the spark was visible for the first time that day. Confidence swells.
There was a chance also in that over. RCB saw it as his weakness to make good use of, whereas McCullum saw it as his one last fault that evening. He attempted a flick, but the top edge took the ball over third man region for a six. It was an error, and a hint. The mistake was visible - it was a wrong selection of shot; the hint was lying in the undercurrent - it was his day.
After Ganguly fell, McCullum did not score a single boundary from overs 5-9. That was a calm as the storm was brewing. With Sunil Joshi doing a fine job, Dravid was tempted to try the leg spin of Cameron White and it got worse for the hosts from thereon. McCullum put his dancing shoes on, skipped down, smoked one over deep mid-wicket. Skipped down again, hammered another one to long off. Three balls later in the same over, while batting in the 90s, he received a long hop from White, and McCullum transferred his weight back to pulled it over mid-wicket for a massive six. Carnage ensued.
Dravid, in his owns words later on in an interview to ESPNcricinfo, said he felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
On 99, in the next over, he ran two, to reach the first IPL ton. A record was written. A legend was born.
Baz was off to a flier, so was IPL. McCullum ended the innings filled with breath-taking strokes - pulls, cuts, scoops, drives - on 158 not out.
When it all ended, Dravid was a tormented captain. Yet he was a relieved man and a fan for life. Years after he could afford to joke about that evening and see the positive side of shortened format, thanking the universe for the respite, as the innings only lasted 120 balls and the entire match concluded in just over three hours.
Imagine if there was more. Imagine if that evening, McCullum had more opportunity (in terms of balls) to further go on and continue unleashing his range.
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