hen Brendon McCullum was appointed New Zealand captain in 2012, the great Kiwi batter and thinker, Martin Crowe, tweeted, then deleted, that he had burned his national team blazer in disgust.
Crowe was a mentor of the man McCullum replaced, Ross Taylor, but the mood across New Zealand cricket was barely sunnier. In all three formats, the Black Caps were way down the rankings and, to make matters worse, they were seen as whiny, arrogant and inauthentic. Always the All Blacks’ much littler brother, they were in danger of drifting into national irrelevance.
All this got worse when, on the first day of McCullum’s first Test in charge, he opted to bat against South Africa in Cape Town, and New Zealand were bowled out for just 45 — a depth even the England team he is now taking over are yet to plumb.
McCullum came to know that day as ground zero. He was felt to embody some of the issues with the team. He was unashamedly brash, an early son of T20 who smashed 158 on the IPL’s very first night and made international T20’s second-ever century. He liked a drink, a punt and had an occasionally sharp tongue.
But he is a fiercely-proud New Zealander. Among his various tattoos is a fern, the symbol of the Blacks Caps, on the left side of his chest, just by his heart (which is a nice fit with the Maori ink of the England captain he will now link up with, Ben Stokes). He is from south Dunedin, where the wind blows in hard from Antarctica, breeding the residents tough. And, at 31, he had matured, and had a vision.
To be in New Zealand a little over two years later, for the 2015 World Cup, was to see that vision realised. McCullum’s face was everywhere, even staring back at you when you withdrew money from the ATM. Grounds were full of smiling people and, with unforgettable wins over England (an annihilation), Australia (a nail-biter) and South Africa in a thrilling semi, New Zealand romped their way to the final. For that, they had to travel to Melbourne, where they were blown away by the Aussies.
But they died as they had lived. McCullum — opening, scoreless — tried to hit his third ball from Mitchell Starc back across the Tasman Sea and was bowled. They lost by seven wickets, but scrapped hard and stuck to the values McCullum insisted on. They had ditched sledging and vowed to chase every ball to the boundary like it was their last.
“You should be able to walk into any ground in the world and, regardless of what was on the scoreboard, think that New Zealand’s on top because of the attitude,” was how McCullum put it.
The cricketing philosophy was broadly attacking, especially in his field placings. Throughout the World Cup, he spoke about it being “the time of our lives”. The transformation was not limited to white-ball cricket, with the revolution of 2013 setting in train New Zealand’s triumph in last year’s inaugural World Test Championship Final.
McCullum, himself, scored New Zealand’s first Test triple century — to the delight of Crowe, whose top score was an agonising 299 — with a late-career renaissance building a formidable personal record. He was not just a white-ball biffer, but an excellent all-round cricketer (and sportsman, given he was picked in front of Dan Carter at fly-half in the South Island secondary schools team in 2000).
In 101 Tests, he averaged 38.6, which swelled to 43 when playing as a specialist batter and 44 from No5, where he finished up. England do not have many players with records like that now. A couple of weeks after McCullum’s last Test, Crowe, after a long battle with illness, died, at just 53, happy with the state of Kiwi cricket.
England are now looking to McCullum for inspiration for the second time. He was a guiding light in 2015, when his close friend, Eoin Morgan, teed up a white-ball revolution, and now McCullum is being put in charge of England’s Test team. It is a boon not just for England, but Test cricket, that he wants to leave the T20 circuit with Kolkata and Trinbago Knight Riders.
Whatever happens with England and Brendon McCullum, it will not be dull
Yet, it is still a risk from England’s new managing director Rob Key, because McCullum has never coached a first-class team. He immediately moved from playing to coaching in 2019, so has never left the dressing-room environment. It would be a surprise if he is a fountain of knowledge on the current county system, but that is what selectors and scouts are for.
And, just as he was as a player, he is no technician, so Key will need to get the right support staff around him, especially for the glut of talented young batters currently failing to come good on their promise. Graham Ford would be a good start.
Transforming English cricket — an unwieldy, divided game — is harder than in New Zealand, which is smaller and more centralised. But, from another low ebb, McCullum will provide tactical astuteness, will preach absolute commitment and togetherness, and will make England play with a smile on their face. Whatever happens, it will not be dull.