Less than a week out from the first test against West Indies, pain lingers for New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum, whose international career is nearing a crossroads.
The skipper is struggling with two protruding discs and arthritis in his back, which he'll test out for the New Zealand XI in a three-day tour match against a West Indies selection in Christchurch, starting today.
Usually upbeat and bullish, McCullum was distinctly low key about his chances of playing a full role in the tours by West Indies and India, let alone Tuesday's first test in his hometown Dunedin.
"I'm pretty confident but it depends how the next few days go. It's not going to feel amazing but it's not going to feel amazing for the rest of my career so I'm going to have to put up with that level of pain and push on," he said.
The tone in McCullum's voice is telling. Popping tablets at Headingley in May when he aggravated his back while keeping wicket was one thing, re-injuring it in Bangladesh last month after endless winter fitness work was another.
"I didn't enjoy playing on heavy painkillers. It's not how the game's meant to be played. It's meant to be fun, and in the grand scheme of life it's only a game. I don't want to completely break my body over the next little while so I can't enjoy the time I've got with my family, post-cricket."
That sounds almost like 32-year-old McCullum is bracing us for a major announcement about scaling back his playing commitments.
But for now he won't confirm anything and will fight on, with the World Cup in New Zealand and Australia in 15 months' time the big lure keeping him going.
He was at a low ebb after returning from Bangladesh for treatment, and coming to terms with the fact his wicketkeeping days may be over. The public barbs had more sting than usual.
"Comments that I pick and choose times that I want to keep wicket, and the role that I want to play, which I very much disagree with. It was more ammunition for people to go down that route and that hurt a lot.
"Combine that with the [back] injury, and obviously a loss of form as well. When you're captain you want to be leading from the front, and the public pressure and you start to wonder 'where to from here'. It was a pretty tough old trip back."
For now, McCullum is only casting his gaze as far as some confidence-boosting runs in Christchurch, then making the start line at University Oval and retaining his test place on form.
After an excellent home summer, McCullum scored 85 runs at 12 in his past four tests against England and Bangladesh but doesn't blame his bad back. He concedes he hasn't done his talent justice, averaging 35 from 79 tests, and the most recent of his six centuries was in India three years ago.
"It's certainly not through lack of trying. It's not over yet, and if I can average 40 or 50 over the last little while of my test career then I'll walk away with some pretty proud statistics and achievements."
He ruled out potentially handing over the captaincy to ease the burden as he seeks fitness and form. McCullum still believes the team can achieve "something special", almost a year after he succeeded Ross Taylor.
"I'm very determined to still lead this team strongly and leave the team in a better state than when I took over."
McCullum skippers a NZ XI including Dean Brownlie who appears the likely test replacement at No 3 for Kane Williamson (broken thumb). Just six West Indies test specialists, including the prolific Shivnarine Chanderpaul, will oppose them, topped up by locals.
- The Dominion Post
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