A destructive batsman, an outstanding fielder, a T20 globetrotter, and above all – a magnificent leader. Brendon McCullum redefined modern-day New Zealand cricket with the utmost tenacity. His full-throttle style of captaincy was new to the otherwise humble Kiwis. But it was McCullum’s fearless brand of cricket that set the path to New Zealand’s glory years. It was under his guidance that Kane Williamson grew into a fine leader. And it is his winning mindset that Kane and his teammates carry on the field even today.
Aggression thy name
McCullum’s 15-year-long career was anything but a fairytale. The Otago-born cricketer started out as a wicket-keeper batsman in 2004. But in the first six years of his international career, a back issue forced him to give up wicket-keeping duties in Tests. Still, he was good enough to feature in the eleven as a specialist batsman on most days.
Despite his diminutive figure, the batsman evoked a sense of fear in some of the greatest bowlers of his era. Sure, his batting style suited T20 cricket more, but that didn’t stop him from going berserk in the longer formats of the game. With a range of shots up his sleeve and distinct bat speed, McCullum went on to make a habit of setting and breaking new records. Behind the stumps, he was still better than most wicket-keepers. As a fielder, he was par excellence.
McCullum wasn’t the poster boy of New Zealand cricket though. In his early days, he was labelled as ‘brash’ and ‘arrogant’. He was one of the earliest cricketers to ruffle the ‘spirit of cricket’ feathers. In a 2006 Test against Sri Lanka, he controversially ran Muttiah Muralitharan out and New Zealand went on to win the match. It was a legal thing to do, but it was the spirit that he seemed to have tarnished. Something he regretted later and apologised for in his Colin Cowdrey Lecture of 2016.
Captaincy – not a bed of roses
McCullum’s first few assignments as New Zealand’s Test captain didn’t fetch the desired results either. First, the circumstances under which he took over the reins from Ross Taylor were blown out of proportion. Then, the late Martin Crowe went on to announce that he had burned his New Zealand blazer in disgust. Safe to say his appointment wasn’t well-received. In the 2013 Test series against South Africa, New Zealand were bowled out for 45 in the first innings of the first Test – their lowest team total in 66 years. It was a black day in New Zealand’s cricket history. But it was also the moment McCullum realised a change was imminent, and that it has to start with himself. It was then that he vowed to turn things around. By instilling a sense of pride in his players. By giving them an outlet to express and enjoy the game.
‘Be the change you wish to see’
What separated Brendon McCullum from his predecessors was his zest to deliver results and the way he stood out in doing so. His attack-it-all strategy wasn’t limited to his batting. It reflected in the field placements he set, the plans he executed and the backing he gave his team members.
Under McCullum, New Zealand played with the freedom they weren’t offered by their past captains. They went on a Test-winning spree at home and followed it up with a sensational 2015 World Cup, where they reached their first final. It didn’t happen in a day. It was a product of meticulous planning by McCullum, then-coach Mike Hesson and the team management, and the coming together of the team members who shared mutual respect and admiration.
By his own admission, Brendon McCullum may not go down as the greatest cricketer of his nation. But he was certainly the catalyst that broke the shackles of a bubble-wrapped New Zealand team. He was the one who brought the traits of every New Zealander at home to their dressing room – humility and hard work.