Cullinan produces a real gem

On Sunday I strolled down to the Wanderers to take in a bit of sunshine – and was spellbound by six hours of classic batsmanship. On the ruins of the Transvaal top order – three men were back in the pavilion for 28 runs- and against a Northern Transvaal attack which included three seamers in or on the fringes of the national side, Daryll Cullinan crafted an innings which combined delicacy with brutal power, watchfulness with dazzling aggression. 

When Transvaal declared the next day at 602 for nine, he had scattered personal, provincial and national records to the winds. His 337 not out was the 35th highest score of all time the highest first-class score recorded in South Africa by some margin and almost 200 runs more than his previous personal best. No less than 1 78 came in boundaries, the second highest in an innings by a South African at home. He also became South Africa’s youngest triple centurion, according to United Cricket Board statistician Frank Heydenrych. 

Moments in the innings stay vividly in the mind. His century came from that choicest of shots, a feather-light late cut off a fast bowler. One square cut off the hapless Steve Elworthy vaulted the fence and crashed into the cheap seats almost before third man, only 10 yards away, could move. Anything short of a length was savaged – a pulled six off Rudi Bryson, a bowler brisk, straight and hostile enough to make most national teams, was too fleet for the eye to follow. His cover driving was imperious. 

Technically, Cullinan is the complete batsman: ”If he’s batting well, some of the shots are straight out of an MCC textbook,” remarks Clive Rice. Seeing the ball perhaps fractionally earlier than most of his peers, he is a fine judge of line and length and a sweet timer of the ball. He has every attacking shot, hitting on both sides of the wicket and with equal facility on the back and front foot. 

United Cricket Board managing director Ali Bacher sees evidence of his rare talent in his ability to drive ‘on the up” – as the ball is rising – something he shares with Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards. ”You’ve got your solid performers, but he’s got class,” Bacher said. ‘Either you’ve got it or you haven’t.” But in the end, it was not the strokeplay on Sunday that left the deepest impression. It was patience, thoughtfulness, resolve and mental stamina, virtues not usually associated with Cullinan. After milestones in his innings he took guard and started again – his first shot after reaching 200 was a forward defensive prod. 

It was extraordinary how many deliveries he left, particularly against Chris van Noordwyk, whose strategy of bowling temptingly wide of the off stump undid Jimmy Cook. I remember him playing and missing only once, surviving one confident lbw appeal and miscuing a hook shot which could have gone anywhere but landed safely. Otherwise, he was flawless. The immediate thought was: at 26, he’s come of age. Since his maiden first -class century for Border at the age of 16 – he was the youngest South African to do this – Cullinan’s grand potential has never been in doubt. But a large question mark has hung over his temperament, and his ability, vital in test batsmen, to concentrate for long periods and construct the really big innings. 

In 10 years he has made only 10 centuries; Cook, 14 years his senior, has 60 to his name. His highest score before last Sunday was 140, and his first -class average in April last year was 36,68, unremarkable for a player of his transparent gifts. ”five never seen such a good batsman make so many ducks,” was one comment this week. A widely held view is that Cullinan does not think hard enough while out in the middle, hence his tendency to make 30 or 40 elegant runs and then get out. 

Some believe he has taken a long while to recover from his much-publicised wrangle with the Western Province Cricket Union, and blame dictatorial administrators for refusing to accommodate his wayward genius. Others say his failure to deliver on his vaulting self-opinion was as much to blame. He is by reputation a loner, described by one colleague this week as ”not a team man”. Egotism and batting success can and often do go together – witness Geoff Boycott. Batting is, after all, the most individualistic of cricket skills. But an obsessive perfectionist, Boycott never suffered from complacency. 

Bacher believes Cullinan’s turning- point was the selectors’ bold decision to play him in the final test against India in Cape Town. His 46, marred only by a fatal attempt to hit Anil Kumble over the infield, showed the man in an uncharacteristically vigilant mood. New-found commitment also shone through his batting in Sri Lanka where he shared the highest test aggregate with Hansie Cronje at an average of 4 7,4.

A question remained, however: did he have the ruthlessness and staying power to turn a big innings into a monumental, match-deciding knock? (He played classically for his maiden test hundred against the Sri Lankans, but promptly reverted to Cullinan Mark 1 by hitting down the throat of long-off.) Last weekend gave an emphatic answer. The triple century does not mean, as some have suggested, that he is another Graeme Pollock, or even the best South Africa currently has to offer. As a ”late developer” – Bacher’s words – he may finally have cricketing greatness in his grasp. But at the highest level, he is still an unknown quantity. ”five never batted against anything really frightening,” Cullinan conceded in a recent press interview. 

Journalist Jon Swift, one of the canniest observers on the local scene, puts it another way: ”That Wanderers wicket (at the weekend) was plumb. When he makes a score on a greentop against the West Indies, then we’ll know he can bat.” The reality is that Cull1nan has played in only four test matches. His moment of truth will come in a few weeks’ time in Australia, when he walks out to face what is arguably the world’s best-balanced and most seasoned bowling attack.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail & Guardian.


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Drew Forrest
Drew Forrest is a former deputy editor of the M&G

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