A new era: Brendon McCullum will try to bring identity & panache to England’s Test side

England’s new Test coach Brendon McCullum’s stocks have risen so much in eight years or so that one assumes he has always been this uber-confident, cool, courageous, swaggering leader. He wasn’t. It’s that personal transformation that offers England fans greater hope of a revival; that here is a man intimate with the vulnerabilities in sportsmen and knows what to do to turn things around.

Going by the way he has coached Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League, two effects can be expected by the England players: no insecurity and a sense of identity.

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Considering the England Test team has lacked both security and identity in recent times – Stuart Broad and James Anderson were aghast that they were dropped without proper communication – McCullum’s arrival, combined with Ben Stokes’ charisma, will be a breath of fresh air. Whether McCullum can make it last a long time, as he rides the ebbs and flows in fortunes of a Test team, is what will make his stint interesting to track.

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But first, a story about vulnerability. On a Durban evening in 2009, when he was KKR’s captain, McCullum walked away from the dugout, disconsolate after a string of losses. Their coach John Buchanan would jump out of the shadows, and throw his hands over the shoulder in an avuncular gesture of consolation.

Moments later, a sombre McCullum, looking like a lost puppy, would tell the press pack that he wanted to quit the captaincy. “I have found it difficult to deliver messages to the team without having individual performances to stack up,” he would say.

Six years later, on the evening before the 2015 ODI World Cup final in Melbourne, Buchanan had looked back at that moment. “When things weren’t going his way, he wanted to step away. I told him that’s not the best thing to do, not for himself or for the team. I think he wanted to hear that from me,” Buchanan had told this newspaper.

“McCullum is a passionate and emotional person. He is a real competitor, a cheeky sort of a guy. Now I think he has learned how to control his emotions and use them to his advantage,” Buchanan had identified the trigger for the positive change. “He has been so aggressive as a captain.”

McCullum’s greatest achievement wasn’t about batting fearlessly at the top or even placing attacking fields or being gung-ho in how he would often bowl out his strike bowlers within 30 overs in pursuit of wickets in an ODI. The greater achievement was that he convinced his team of that philosophy. He didn’t have to drag them along towards his vision.

During that 2015 World Cup, on the sides of a New Zealand tourism event, former skipper Stephen Fleming opened up on what he thought was McCullum’s best trait. “Look, to place three or four slips in an ODI is one thing — it does take courage — but to convince your entire team that this is the way to go is entirely a different matter.”

Garnering respect

By all accounts, McCullum seems to be a fabulous inspiring leader. Once, when he was with KKR, Dinesh Karthik had raved about McCullum in a chat on Ravichandran Ashwin’s YouTube channel.

“He was a revolutionary captain. In every generation, there will be some cricketers who change the game. I think he changed the way the game was played… playing with a smile. His was the greatest leadership any international team had seen.”

“His style of play was so different. He would finish the strike bowlers within, say, 30 overs. Trent Boult will get bowled out. He changed the game. And when you hear him speak, it’s fabulous,” Karthik would say.

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“When the horses fan around the last bend and they all kind of fan out, at that moment, you are not sure (what’s going to happen) but there is a chance, hope. You think about when you bought that horse, saw how it walked, how it looked, you saw the pedigree paper, put your hand up and bought it. You then prepare for three-four years. Then at that moment (in the last lap of the race), that thrill it gives you… Only time I have experienced it outside cricket is in horse racing,”

Last year, in a New Zealand docu-series Beyond the Winning Post, McCullum opened up on his other passion: horses. Such was his passion that he quit city life and moved to a small town named Matamata to start a farm.

In that show, he takes the host around his 10-acre farm, shows some of his 10-15 racehorses, and talks lovingly and passionately about them. One was a 10-year-old horse from Australia, a famous racing horse that was once sold for a million dollars, he says, and that was injured and available for 6000 dollars when he bought it.

He tells the story about growing up near a horse-racing track in Dunedin which inculcated the love for thoroughbreds in him. “I wasn’t hands on, more about having a punt on.” He made some money and then thought “will have a share of a racehorse and he won some races.”

Later, a co-passenger on a plane saw him reading the horse results and casually told him he should meet up with her brother Mark Chittick, who owns the Waikato stud – and McCullum would gallop into the equine world.

Around 10 years back, McCullum had more ambitious plans for his horses. He had started a firm Vernair, and wanted to have a racing syndicate around the world. That didn’t take off as he had planned but his horses still race, he says, in the country. Along with Fleming, he was also involved in the New Zealand meat and wine business, getting them into the Indian market.

New challenge

For some time now, his life has been about horses and some T20 coaching. But now, it will take a big leap forward as England have invested in him to steer their Test side. With the left-field choices of Rob Key as director of cricket and McCullum as coach, England seem to be moving towards men who can make them bolder, infuse fresh thought and character.

The story of how a Test match in 2013 in which they were shot out for 45 turned things around for McCullum, the leader, has been well documented. An evening of introspection with coach Mike Hesson, currently Royal Challengers Bangalore’s coach, made him conclude that the team “were seen as arrogant, emotional, distant, up-ourselves and uninterested in our followers.”

“We concluded that, individually and collectively, we lacked character. The key for all of us was the team had no ‘soul’. We were full of bluster and soft as putty,” he said in his MCC Colin Cowdrey Memorial lecture.

The England establishment obviously feel that their Test team ‘collectively lack character’. If McCullum can infuse a sense of identity in them, and let his fellow New Zealand-born Stokes ensure that it organically flows through their game, his job would be done.

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