In the first extract from their new book 'Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution', Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde reveal how one innings of unprecedented, punishing power redefined what was possible in the sport's newest format - and won over a whole new audience of followers.
After facing five of the first six balls of the inaugural Indian Premier League match in 2008, Brendon McCullum had still not scored a run. In T20 cricket, that is almost worse than getting out.
"I was swinging at every one of them but I was missing every one by a foot," he recalled. "I don’t normally get nervous but for that innings I really was. I was batting with Sourav Ganguly and Ricky Ponting was at three. There were 45,000 people in an atmosphere I’ve never experienced anything like before."
McCullum, renowned for his ebullient approach, had been in terrible form in the nets in the lead-up to the first IPL. Sharing a dressing room with legends like Ganguly and Ponting after being sold for a life-changing £355,000 at the player auction, McCullum had to justify both his presence and his price tag at cricket’s transformative new tournament. He would be playing for the Kolkata Knight Riders, one of the most glamorous teams, owned by the Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan.
There was more to the maiden IPL match, between Royal Challengers Bangalore and McCullum’s KKR in the M.Chinnaswamy Stadium, than the result. Despite the millions of dollars invested and India’s one billion cricket fans, until that night the IPL was just a concept.
McCullum played and missed at the first ball of the second over, too: he was now on nought off six balls. "It was swing out or get out," said McCullum, who recognised that he would be more use to his team sitting back in the dug-out than staying out in the middle using up valuable balls. This enlightened approach was about to define the most critical innings of his life.
"If it’s not meant to be then it’s not meant to be," McCullum recalled thinking. "Just keep swinging." That the next ball was full and in McCullum’s arc was essentially irrelevant; he was attacking anyway and slogged across the line of the ball to get it over the fielder’s head and score four. The crowd roared; McCullum – and the IPL – had their first boundary.
"I just kept swinging and something clicked. I don’t know what it was but suddenly I calmed down a lot and then I was able to do what I did which pretty much changed my life."
What followed in the next hour and a half was one of the most significant and spectacular innings in cricket history. McCullum, clad in the space-age black and gold livery of the Knight Riders, blazed an absurd 158 not out off 73 balls – an individual score that would remain a world record for five years.
McCullum’s 13 sixes were shot like fireworks into the night sky. The Bangalore attack comprised international standard bowlers but McCullum treated them with disdain – brazenly charging out from his crease, carving the ball over the off side and heaving it over the leg side. This was batting that propelled cricket into a new era.
"To score a hundred in a T20 game was an amazing achievement," reflected John Buchanan, Kolkata’s head coach. "But to score 158… he certainly redefined or at least told everybody what T20 cricket could be if you took in the right mindset, were aggressive, had a bit of luck and just had the courage and bravery to keep going."
For the IPL it was the perfect beginning. The stadium was in a frenzy. It didn’t matter that McCullum was playing for the away team – this was an innings of the purest entertainment. The runs surged and the music blared while Kolkata’s owner Shah Rukh Khan danced in the aisles.
In truth the IPL would have worked anyway. Power in cricket had been shifting eastwards from England, the cradle of the game, to India, the sport’s financial behemoth, for decades. The IPL, with its heady cocktail of money, cricket and Bollywood, was the distillation of this change. McCullum’s impudent 158 not out was the emblem of a new age.
It was apt that McCullum played that momentous innings, for very few other players have so embodied T20 cricket’s essence. Here was cricket – compressed and radicalised, heightened and elevated. And here was McCullum – a hurricane of a cricketer, fiercely competitive, a stunningly audacious batsman, an all-action wicketkeeper or fielder, depending on his team’s needs, and a sportsman who conceived of himself as an entertainer.
"You literally feel like a gladiator in a coliseum. There’s 35,000 people, they’ve all turned up to watch you play and wishing you well but if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work but you still get up and go again," McCullum said. "T20 definitely aligned with my style of cricket."
In the decade after 2008 arguably the only batsman to overshadow McCullum’s impact on T20 was Chris Gayle. While Gayle was defined by his colossal power, McCullum’s contribution was more profound. McCullum was blessed with rapid hand speed and a wonderful eye, but his defining feature was his mind. If Gayle was T20’s gunslinger, McCullum was its philosopher king.
The length of T20 represented a tipping point in the precarious relationship between attack and defence. Now, defence virtually ceased to matter; the overwhelming focus was on attacking. What came so intuitively to McCullum – aggression, risk and daring – was anathema to some batsmen raised on first-class cricket who struggled to abandon the principles that had governed batting all their lives.
In longer forms of cricket McCullum had to control his audacity. But in T20, it was ideal. "I always wanted to play in a free-spirited manner and that aligned with T20."
His batting philosophy recognised how failure was wired into T20 given the scoring rates required to succeed. "T20 forced the issue a bit because you have to travel at such speeds that you’re going to come off the road occasionally." Perhaps no cricketer so embodied the zeitgeist of T20 batting.
Cricket’s relationship between bowler and batsman had always been more than simply attack versus defence; it was between the hunter and the hunted. Traditionally, big, tall bowlers, charging in off long run-ups were the ones to be feared.
But in T20, everything was different. Now it was the hulking batsmen with their huge bats – emboldened by power-hitting techniques and the ability to score 360 degrees – that were the ones to be feared. Against players like McCullum, bowlers were reduced to defensive players with little more than a lump of cork and leather in their hands.
Tim Wigmore & Freddie Wilde 2019. From Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution (Polaris £17.99). To order, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.