Brendon McCullum is a force.
The ball is full, and he swings through the line. He changes the momentum of the match right there. England have been hooping the ball around like crazy, they won the previous Test and, if you believe modern spots lore, they have momentum. New Zealand are only three wickets down, but a bad session, and it could all be over.
Instead of attacking, England have to think about defence as the first ball McCullum faces clears the rope at cover. In 28 balls, McCullum will make 41 runs. It’s not a Test innings. It’s not substantial, but it helps deal with the swinging ball. Just as it looks like he is about to capitalise on that, he mis-hits a limp attempt at something similar to that first ball, and is caught. But Luke Ronchi comes in and keeps attacking, he plays a McCullum innings in McCullum’s absence and New Zealand are well in the game.
When McCullum took the Test captaincy, he changed New Zealand’s cricket history, and left destruction everywhere. Ross Taylor was sacked, confused, and upset. Martin Crowe told the world he had burnt his New Zealand team blazer. Mike Hesson made a mess. New Zealand Cricket admitted mistakes had been made. Kiwi fans were furious.
When McCullum arrived in South Africa for his first series as the Test captain, none of this had passed. In Cape Town in January 2013 he won the toss and batted. By lunch, South Africa were batting.
Ross Taylor did not bat in this Test. He was not part of the depressing conga line of ineptitude. He wasn’t even on the tour.
The New Zealand players liked and respected Taylor as captain. He is one of the greatest batsmen to ever play for New Zealand. But he’s not an inspirational leader, or talker, or tactician. He is an introvert, and the players felt he couldn’t get the most out of them. Under his leadership they had beaten Australia in Hobart to draw a series, but they also hadn’t won in four series.
What the players, Hesson and New Zealand cricket wanted was the sort of guy who would change a game with a tactic. Who would inspire them with a rousing speech. Who would charge through the changing room wall and a demand they follow him. The “who” was always obvious. McCullum had captained Taylor in the Under-19s; somehow, in Tests, that had been reversed.
The tour previous to South Africa was in Sri Lanka. During the six limited-overs matches on the tour, three were rained off. The others were rain reduced, and Sri Lanka won all three. Four days before the Test series started, Hesson sat down with Taylor. Hesson had previously given Taylor tips on how to be a better leader, which Taylor later would refer to as “laughable”. This meeting was more serious.
What happened next was New Zealand’s cricket Rashomon. Everyone has a different opinion on the same meeting. Hesson believed that he was telling Taylor that he was being removed from the limited-overs captaincy. Taylor believed he had been sacked as Test captain as well. NZC went into a poorly executed spin mode. The media and ex-players vented their rage.
All of this was made worse by the fact that Hesson was essentially giving the captaincy to McCullum, who was a close personal friend. Taylor felt like he had few friends on the team at the time, his mentor Crowe was going through cancer treatment, and his grandmother had died.Yet Taylor still went into the Test series as captain.
They lost the first Test by ten wickets. In the second Test, Taylor scored 142 in the first innings and was run out for 74 in the second. New Zealand won by 167 runs. He refused to captain in Tests after that.
McCullum had Taylor’s blood on his hands and at stumps on day one against South Africa, he had blood all over him.
South Africa had scored five times the runs, lost seven fewer wickets and ended the game, and series, in one day. There were still nine days of cricket scheduled to come. Somehow they lost the next match even more brutally. They lost the two-Test series by two innings and 220 runs. McCullum passed 13 once in the series.
McCullum, Hesson and NZC had taken the captaincy away from Taylor after one of their best ever away Test wins. Then they produced a Test series so pathetic, they would have done better had they sat in a corner of the ground, curled up like a ball, slowly rocking.
In the wake of all this, McCullum and the rest of the New Zealand management sat down over a beer and looked at things. They had made the big decision and produced one of their worst ever results. They knew that the public saw them as overpaid and underperforming. In the words of McCullum, “lazy prima donnas”. In that room, McCullum had to admit they were right, about his team, and him.
McCullum was “Mr Franchise”, flying into Australia for a game just to qualify for another tournament, or opening the first IPL with a hundred that even Lalit Modi couldn’t overvalue.
In 2009, he was among the world’s highest-scoring batsmen in T20s, yet, after 42 Tests, McCullum had never made a hundred against a team ranked in the top eight. He’d had fun at Lord’s with a 96 and a 97. Got all the way to 99 against Sri Lanka. And in Adelaide was stranded on 84. But he was averaging 31 with the bat. He was brash and fun but not the marrying kind, more a casual fling that you always remembered fondly.
In McCullum’s 43rd Test, Jesse Ryder made 201. Ross Taylor made 151. And Brendon McCullum made his first ever hundred against a top-eight ranked side: 115 in a total of 619. Five years into his Test career.
In his next ten Tests, McCullum made hundreds against Bangladesh and Australia. The Australian one was his 51st Test. Australia had scored 459 for 5 declared and New Zealand had made 157 in their first innings. They followed on and were 119 runs behind when McCullum came in five wickets down. When McCullum was out, he had made 104 from 187 balls. It was the best innings of his entire career. It was still not enough, and Australia won easily.
A few months later, in 2010, he would be the first batsman to make 1000 international T20 runs. Not long afterwards, McCullum decided that he would give up keeping in Test cricket. The then chairman of selectors Mark Greatbatch said: “Brendon clearly understands he will only be considered as a Test batsman on his long-form batting performances.”
McCullum’s batting average in Test cricket at that time was 35. His batting was improving, but he seemed to be taking a massive gamble on his improvement not being just good form. There was also the risk that without the safety net of playing as a keeper, his attack-or-be-damned batting would be blunted. That it would turn him into a batsman with a flawed technique who no longer played with a carefree attitude.
That attitude had always been with him. McCullum came from a cricket family – his old man, Stu, played 75 first-class matches for Otago. His brother Nathan played for Albion and Otago, before following Brendon into the national team. Brendon started for Otago as a teenager. Even his club, Albion Cricket Club, can boast 24 other international cricketers.
After starting as a teenager, and with only a few unsuccessful games over his first two seasons, McCullum was opening the batting for Otago as a 20-year-old. On December 19, 2001, at Carisbrook in Dunedin, a strong Auckland side had finished their first innings on 374. The same day, McCullum faced a Test seam attack including Dion Nash, Andre Adams and Kyle Mills. McCullum made 142 off 148. When he was out, the rest of the batsmen combined had made 87 runs.
In Ahmedabad in 2010, in his first innings as a specialist batsman, he made 65 and batted for almost four hours. His fourth innings, in Hyderabad, he made 225 and batted for over nine hours. Since giving up the gloves, McCullum has averaged 43 with the bat. It was just another gamble that paid off.
Three years later, when England arrived for the series following New Zealand’s South Africa nightmare, they were in the middle of a decline that they had not quite come to realise. New Zealand were on an ascendency that had not yet started on the field. New Zealand’s main aim was to be competitive.
Going into day five of the third and deciding Test, the series scoreline was 0-0. The first Test New Zealand had been in a great position to win, when a dour England managed to force their way to a draw. In the second Test, rain had stopped England from going 1-0 up.
New Zealand couldn’t quite get over the line against England in 2013 © Getty Images
Now, on this fifth morning, England were 90 for 4, with victory almost 400 runs away. McCullum had a hamstring injury. But he stayed out there, dragging his leg behind him, all day. Even though his bigger pay day, the IPL, was only a week away. He was trying to prove something to the fans, his team, and himself. New Zealand went within a Monty Panesar dismissal of winning the series.
When New Zealand arrived in England for the next tour, they believed in themselves a bit more. This new way of playing was working. They felt England were vulnerable. And thanks to a Tim Southee ten-wicket haul in a low scoring game, they needed a tough but chaseable 239 in the fourth innings at Lord’s.
New Zealand started horribly. McCullum walked in and slapped one to the point boundary first ball. A few balls later he did it again. Next ball he came down the wicket, and missed one. It was given out lbw, the score: 29 for 6.
New Zealand go past 45, and all the way to 69. But emotionally, it’s 45. They are smashed in the next Test as well.
In their next series, in Bangladesh, a team that McCullum had always done well against, he and his team struggled. Both Tests were draws, with Bangladesh well on their way to a win in the first Test. It meant that, in four series since taking over the side, McCullum had won not one Test series. Ross Taylor had not won a single series in the four series before that.
When West Indies turned up in New Zealand, they did so as the No. 7-ranked side, but also the side that had won the previous series between the sides 2-0. West Indies won the toss and bowled. Ross Taylor made 217. Brendon McCullum smacked 113.
Taylor kept making runs, 495 of them in three Tests, Southee and Boult took 38 wickets as well. New Zealand won their first Test series under McCullum, in no small part because of the man he replaced.
When India turned up later in the 2013-14 summer, they had just left South Africa. They had lost 1-0, but they had played some good cricket and certainly played better in South Africa than New Zealand had. In the first Test, Dhoni sent New Zealand in, and just after drinks in the first session, McCullum came to the crease with the score 30 for 3.
One hundred and four overs and three balls later McCullum was out. He had made 224 runs. India fought back, but they ended up 40 runs short.
In the second Test, New Zealand were five wickets deep into their second innings and still over 100 runs behind. A win for India would draw the series.
The problem was McCullum. It would be for the next 775 minutes.
This was not a flirty, happy innings. This was not a sloggy half-century. This was not a forgettable limited-overs moment. This was days and days of batting to save a Test for his country. When he arrived on day five, 281 not out, so did as many New Zealanders as was possible. There were queues outside the ground just to watch him. Queues, on day five. Queues on day five of a Test in New Zealand. For one man.
McCullum was the second batsmen in New Zealand to score 6000 Test runs. McCullum was the first New Zealand batsmen to ever make more than a thousand Test runs in a calendar year. In New Zealand’s history there have been 19 scores over 200, and McCullum has made four of them.
But it was the triple-century New Zealand wanted. Martin Crowe had left them with a broken-hearted 299 all those years ago. Now they wanted more, at least one more. And the lazy prima donna franchise whacking boy gave it to them.
McCullum brought people back to the games, and kept them there. He took his team to the West Indies where they won for the second time ever, 2-1 in a close series. In the UAE, they came from behind to win the final Test against Pakistan and draw the series. McCullum opened up after Pakistan made 352. When McCullum was out, the score was 348 for 2 and he had made a better than run-a-ball double-hundred.
A few months later he would be announced as one of two New Zealanders of the year. Not for his cricket, but because he stood up to fixing.
He followed that up by walking to the crease in the two-Test series against Sri Lanka with the score at 88 for 3. He left, not that long later. But with 195 runs off 134 balls. His boys won that series as well.
McCullum had now won four out of his last six series. He’d brought people to cricket grounds. And now was the World Cup. McCullum was no longer just New Zealand’s fearless leader, he was the world’s most popular cricketer. The New Zealand team was adopted by most of the world as McCullum told his bowlers to take wickets, told his batsmen to hit sixes, and annihilated England in such a way that even grim hardcore dour English cricket types had to smile.
During that World Cup, the country that spends much of its time looking down at cricket, ignores it for rugby, has a frustrated relationship with the national side had suddenly became an obsessed cricket nation. Had McCullum stood on the bow of a ship and declared war on Chile, most of New Zealand would have followed.
Even Australians wanted to adopt him. At the World Cup he was the cricketer you had to watch. He would charge into an on-coming truck to save a run for his country. He would face Mitchell Johnson naked holding a cucumber if he had too. And if needed he would place every single person in New Zealand around the bat. Every moment was a Powerplay when McCullum was involved.
It was his World Cup, even as he lost it three balls into the final. Had he hit Mitchell Starc out of the attack, he could have won it as well.
At Lord’s, McCullum made even more mistakes. Captains in two-Test series can’t make mistakes. Last summer in England, Alastair Cook made a call to delay his declaration against Sri Lanka. It seemed unimportant at the time, even when Sri Lanka saved the Test by a wicket. It still looked that halfway through the Headingley Test that England would win comfortably. Then England ran into Angelo Mathews, James Anderson batted for longer than anyone thought he could, but one ball less than needed, and England lost a series they had dominated 70% of. Cook almost lost his job.
At Lord’s this time, McCullum attacked Ben Stokes twice. He lost twice. The second one was fatal.
The New Zealand Herald ran an op-ed saying he was more worried about winning the PR battle and being the media darling than trying to win. But it almost looked like he had to attack because that’s now who he was.
Back in South Africa at that meeting, the plan that was decided on was for New Zealand to be more attacking, respectful of their opposition and for other teams not to beat them. They wanted to be McCullum.
McCullum’s side were outdone by some big hitting from Ben Stokes at Lord’s © Getty Images
That is what this team now is. No captain of recent times has built a team more in their own image. McCullum drinks his own Kool-Aid, and everyone else follows. McCullum runs into burning houses, and everyone follows. McCullum attacks. New Zealand follows.
When he arrived at the crease for the third innings at Headingley, New Zealand were in an interesting position. A couple more wickets and there would be no real lead to bowl at. Cook was giggling at slip. It was a rare moment of unbridled Cook joy as he mimed what he assumed McCullum would do. Swinging wildly and top edging it high on the off side.
McCullum had started this Test series opting to bowl first. He started his first innings with a four. He started his second innings being bowled. And then he started his third innings with a six. Things happen quickly with him. There are better cricketers in the world, there is no one who makes each ball he is involved with more important. McCullum is must-watch cricket.
This time, McCullum blocked it. For six balls he didn’t score at all, only one shot looked like McCullum, a play-and-whoosh outside off stump. The other four were leaves. In the first innings he was 13 runs from six balls. This time, instead of cavalier charges and back-away swipes, he built an innings on turns to backward square leg. In 98 opportunities, he scored four boundaries. At times in this series he has hit four boundaries in eight balls.
McCullum’s strike rate was 56. New Zealand scored at 4.98 an over. New Zealand out-McCullumed McCullum. The last shot a New Zealander played in this series was a six.
New Zealand are unbeaten in their last seven Test series. They just played in their first World Cup final. They drew this series; they lost the World Cup.
McCullum will make more mistakes. He’s not an irresistible force; he is a force of nature. Scientifically there are four forces of nature. When McCullum leads New Zealand these days, it often feels like there are eleven.