Cricket has an element of romance attached to it, which makes it, arguably, the greatest of all sports. And over the past few months, no one has embodied that cricketing romance more than New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum.
Perhaps this is a Victorian trait. We respect the winners. but love the tragic heroes.
Perhaps Brendon McCullum was destined to finish the World Cup as a tragic hero. Cricket has an element of romance attached to it, which makes it, arguably, the greatest of all sports. Over the past few months, no one embodied that cricketing romance more than the New Zealand captain. World Cup was the grandest stage.
McCullum was not the highest scorer for his team. He made 328 runs in nine matches. His opening partner, Martin Guptill, finished with 547. But with his 105.44 strike rate and inspirational leadership, McCullum provided the impact.
The semi-final against South Africa was a case in point. New Zealand had to score 299 for victory against the most all-round bowling attack in the tournament. Johannesburg-born Grant Elliott anchored them to victory. But McCullum’s 26-ball 59 set up the chase. The Black Caps were 71 for no loss after five overs. It was the difference.
He was even more severe against England in a group game, cutting the Poms to ribbons after Tim Southee (7/33) flattened them with swing. New Zealand reached the victory target of 124 in just 12.2 overs. McCullum’s contribution was 77 off 25 balls. It was the fastest 50 in World Cups.
Did he take his aggression a little too far against Australia at MCG? Mitchell Starc is the best fast bowler in limited-overs cricket at the moment and there’s no argument here. McCullum decided to take him on. Was it a mistake, for he missed the first two balls and lost the off stump in the third. No, the captain didn’t err. He played without fear and never thought of beating a retreat. It added to the romance.
And how gracious was McCullum after the defeat: “It came down to one game. We gave ourselves an opportunity in this tournament. With so much on the line, ultimately, Australia stepped up and were too good for us on the night. It’s a credit to them that they were able to do so on the big occasion.” From offering a handshake to Michael Clarke to his speech at the post-match presentation after the final, McCullum showed incomparable class.
New Zealand had been the perennial under-achievers across formats. Pre-2015, they reached World Cup semi-finals six times, never progressing further. In Test cricket, they struggled to rise above mediocrity. McCullum has changed that.
He took over the reins from Ross Taylor in December 2012 in rather controversial circumstances. It was a baptism by fire. South Africa decimated them in the Test series. New Zealand bounced back to beat the hosts in the ODIs, but McCullum was not satisfied. He was striving for excellence.
The process started in earnest and it has been a steady progress since. In 2013, New Zealand played 12 Tests, won two and lost four. Circa 2014 saw a marked improvement—they played nine, won five and lost two. This year, they won the only Test match they’ve played so far. Sri Lanka were the opponents. In fact, McCullum’s army haven’t lost a Test series since losing in England two years ago.
Their record in ODIs over the last two years has been even more impressive. In 2013, they played 19 matches and won seven. The next year, it became nine out of 16. This year, till the conclusion of the World Cup, New Zealand have played 18 one-dayers, winning 14 of them. Fantastic!
And McCullum has led from the front. Be it his 224 against India at Auckland or 302 in the next Test in Wellington, the skipper showed the way. Then there was that 186-ball double-hundred against Pakistan in Sharjah, and a 134-ball 195 against Sri Lanka.
As an opening batsman, McCullum provided impetus upfront, but it was his captaincy that lit up the World Cup and enriched the game of cricket. It was great to see Southee and Trent Boult bowling with four slips and a gully. McCullum preferred wickets over containment.
“Many adjectives have been used to describe McCullum’s captaincy during the World Cup. The word I will use is ‘revolutionary’,” ex-Proteas skipper Graeme Smith eulogised.
Mind you, McCullum’s New Zealand didn’t have to resort to sledging as a ‘tactic’ to become aggressive. “Verbals are not how we want to play the game. Other teams like that sort of thing, but, for us, we are not good enough to have that as our focus. We’ve to make sure that we are respectful of the game and go about our work.”
John Buchanan was probably the first man to spot McCullum’s leadership qualities when he was Kolkata Knight Riders coach in the IPL. In the second edition of the tournament, he elevated the man from Dunedin to be captain. The coach was flayed by a section of the local press because Sourav Ganguly was demoted. Six years down the line, he stands vindicated.
What about the next World Cup? McCullum will be 37 in 2019. Will he be there in England to lead the charge again? Or will he be watching the proceedings from the comfort of smart seats?
McCullum was asked about his limited-overs future after the World Cup final, as his teammate Daniel Vettori hung up his boots. “We will let the dust settle on this one and we certainly won’t look to grab any headlines over the next couple of days because they belong to Australia, as they deserve the right to do so.” Dignity personified.
Whatever he decides in the coming months, McCullum has already done enough to leave a rich legacy. He has made New Zealand a cricket elite—on a par with All Blacks (their rugby team) in terms of popularity back home. Baz deserves a standing ovation.