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Nathan McCullum’s effectiveness in limited-overs cricket is almost unheralded

Nathan McCullum's bowling average in ODIs is an impressive 4.85 © Getty Images
Nathan McCullum’s bowling average in ODIs is an impressive 4.85 © Getty Images

Nathan McCullum has been a curious presence in the New Zealand side despite not having very good numbers. Abhishek Mukherjee tries to explain why the older brother of Brendon McCullum is an essential component of his side, especially in the shorter formats.

The extended run given to the Otago wicket-keeper Stuart McCullum’s younger son can be baffling: yet to play a single Test, Nathan McCullum has played 65 One-Day Internationals (ODIs), averaging 20.63 with the bat and a terrible 47.10 with the ball. His 46 wickets from those matches also do not really speak very highly of the man.

Daniel Vettori’s long hiatus from the sport has, obviously, played a major role in Nathan’s long run, but that has not been all. Let us start with the bowling first: McCullum’s average is unusually poor — the sixth-worst in history among those with over 40 ODIs (second-worst if minnows and batsmen are excluded).

On the other hand, however, McCullum’s economy-rate reads a more than impressive 4.85. In fact, in the last three years, Kyle Mills has been the only New Zealand bowler with over 30 ODI wickets who has had a better economy rate. Mills, of course, has definitely been the best New Zealand seamer in the limited-over formats of the sport, and has better numbers than most think he does.

Let us try to find out exactly how good Mills and McCullum have been. With a phenomenal average of 26.75 and an economy-rate of 4.73, Mills has been up there with the very best in the history of ODIs (he had been the best bowler in the ICC rankings, and was in the top five for a substantial span of time).

McCullum concedes 4.85 runs an over. Between them, Mills and McCullum concede approximately 96 runs in 20 overs every match; while McCullum picks up close to a wicket a match, Mills has close to two on an average. This means that the almost invisible force they exert upon the opposition results in a potentially match-winning 20-0-96-3.

Between them, the two unsung heroes provide the perfect foil to Mitchell McClenaghan, Tim Southee, and the likes, allowing them to have a full blast at the opposition: they do not have to bother about conceding runs.

What about batting, then? McCullum’s 949 runs have come at a sub-21 average, but wait — he has an excellent strike-rate of 89.4. A couple of months back he had pulled off a stunning victory against Sri Lanka at Hambantota when New Zealand chased down an unbelievable total that had come down to 20 off the last over: McCullum had remained unbeaten on a nine-ball 32.

That, however, was not a one-off: a strike-rate of 89.4 is quite impressive. How impressive are these numbers? If we put restrictions, of, say, 60 matches, 750 runs, and 40 wickets, then only 10 men have a strike-rate of over 90 and an economy-rate below five. McCullum needs a marginal increase in his strike-rate to make it to the league. If we reduce the numbers to the over, McCullum scores at 5.36 runs an over and concedes 4.85.

In other words, McCullum is your quintessential ODI cricketer: the classical parameters of batting and bowling averages mean nothing to him. He is a cricketer of the new breed that is judged on an entirely different pair of parameters — batting strike-rate and bowling economy-rate, and on that count, he scores exceptionally.

What about T20Is, then? Let us consider the same parameters again: McCullum has a batting strike-rate of 105.17 and an economy rate of 6.85. Since Twenty20 is his genre, he strangles batsmen into submission, forcing them to succumb to his nagging accuracy: from 51 T20Is he has picked up 48 wickets at 20.72, which places him eighth on the all-time list. Of these eight men, Shahid Afridi and McCullum are the only ones to have scored over 250 runs.

Nathan McCullum, thus, may not be the best cricketer by the most classical of definitions, but he is effective, and the exact man a captain looks for in a limited-overs match: a man the opposition would not feel threatened by, but can be more destructive than it meets the eye and goes about his job silently.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is Deputy Editor and cricket historian at cricketcountry.com. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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