Two vignettes from New Zealand’s early-season tour of England offered telling glimpses of their captain. With his team 1–0 down in the Tests, and in trouble on the first day at Leeds, Brendon McCullum drove his first delivery, from Stuart Broad, high and handsome over cover for six. Then, at Chester-le-Street, moments after England had clinched a raucous one-day series win, McCullum could be seen chatting amiably with Eoin Morgan – two captains united by the thrill of the game, the victor indistinguishable from the vanquished.
Of the first-ball six, McCullum says with an engaging frankness: “I don’t know what was going on inside my head. We hadn’t really had time to recalibrate our defensive game for the Tests, so I decided to play almost as if it was Twenty20: watch the ball, react to it, and see what happens.” And the bonhomie? “Both sides played the whole tour in the right spirit. It was one of the most enjoyable series I’ve been part of. Some good relationships were struck up. That’s how cricket should be played – win, lose or draw.”
In the event, New Zealand lost more games (five across the three formats) than they won (three). But what lingered was an enviable combination of bravado and goodwill – embodied by McCullum and embraced by his teammates. England supporters were left wondering whether the two Tests allocated to New Zealand, and the five to Australia, were the wrong way round.
As a batsman, McCullum was hardly prolific: he did reach 35 in six of his ten international innings during the tour, but did not go past the 55 he made in the second innings at Leeds. But he was never dull, failing to hit at least one six in only three of those innings. And he led by example: at Headingley, New Zealand racked up more than 800 runs at nearly five an over. An English summer has rarely witnessed a more popular touring captain.
For BRENDON BARRIE McCULLUM, born in Dunedin on September 27, 1981, it was always going to be sport. He and brother Nathan, less than 13 months his senior and a future international team-mate, would hang around the dressing-room of the local Albion club, where dad Stuart – an Otago batsman himself – was a prominent figure.
He could have been pinched by rugby. McCullum was once picked as fly-half for South Island’s secondary school side ahead of Dan Carter, who went on to become rugby union’s leading international points-scorer. And, after being selected for New Zealand’s one-day side at the age of 20, McCullum remembers a phone call from Richard Hadlee the day after a training session with the Southern rugby team. Hadlee advised him against a repeat. “Yeah,” said McCullum. “He was a bit grumpy.”
If cricket claimed him, then he was far from an instant hit. McCullum was dismissed in single figures in 14 of his first 21 innings for New Zealand, starting in 2002, and did not make an international century against a top-eight nation until India visited Napier for a Test match in March 2009. Some felt he was cocky; others, sniffily noting the tattoos that cover his arms, wondered if he was brash. That he had rustled up a dream entrée for the Indian Premier League, creaming an unbeaten 158 on the tournament’s opening night in 2008, merely confirmed the stereotype.
But when Ross Taylor was controversially sacked as Test captain at the end of 2012, it was to McCullum that an embattled board turned. He began with a nightmare: 45 all out at Cape Town in January 2013, when a team that had always lived in a giant All Black shadow was in danger of disappearing from the national consciousness altogether. The only way, McCullum decided, was up.
“We were bottoming out,” he says. “We had no other options. We had to look at our performances and the way the public viewed us. It was pretty obvious we had to make some shifts, both on and off the field. We needed a group of guys who were ready to give it a crack. “We’ve got criticised at times for being over-aggressive, and when you play like that you will get beaten occasionally. But you will also get better results, more consistently, against bigger teams than you did in the past.”
Later in 2013, his team embarked on a golden two years, going unbeaten in seven successive Test series, the longest run in New Zealand’s history. It included a heady few days in February 2014 against India: McCullum made 224 at Auckland, quickly followed by a nation-stopping 302 at Wellington – the country’s first Test triple.
They also reached the 2015 World Cup final playing a style of cricket that failed them only at the last: by his own wry admission, McCullum forgot to watch the delivery from Mitchell Starc that bowled him for a third-ball duck. But his tournament strike-rate of 188, including 77 off 25 deliveries against England at Wellington and 50 off 24 against Australia at Auckland, had been among the highlights. The captain caught the mood, referring after the last-over semi-final win against South Africa to “the time of our lives”.
Then came the trip to England, where New Zealand’s sledge-free, smiling approach felt like the enactment of a philosophy, not a PR stunt. “We probably won some fans around the world because of the way we carried ourselves,” says McCullum. “That kind of thing can be hard to quantify.”
By the time he returned to London to testify in the Chris Cairns perjury trial in October, it was in the knowledge that his reputation would be able to withstand cross-examination. And, in December, he could announce his plans to quit the international game after a home Test series against Australia in February 2016 armed with the comforting realisation that “I had played on for a year longer than I thought I would.” Typically, he signed off with a 54-ball century, the fastest in Test history.
There is one slight problem. He loves nothing more than a quiet beer at the bar, yet the new IPL franchise that signed him up for the 2016 tournament is based in Rajkot, in the dry state of Gujarat. “Could be interesting,” he laughs. With McCullum, it has rarely been anything else.
This article was published in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2016. You can buy it here.