New Zealand captain plays his final Test this weekend with his place in history already secured
On Saturday the best and most influential captain of recent times, Brendon McCullum, plays his 101st Test in succession for New Zealand and his last international match.
“I’m never going to go down as a great player,” McCullum said ahead of New Zealand’s two-Test series against Australia. No, if he had to charge Mitchell Starc off the fifth ball of the first over of a World Cup final, he should have gone down on the line of the stumps, to rule out bowled and LBW – but he did not and was bowled. Nevertheless, McCullum has to be rated among the most significant cricketers of this century.
There have been great captains who have taken their team to the heights, like England’s Ray Illingworth, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss. There have been few who have revolutionised cricket in their own country and outside it, as McCullum has.
Sir Frank Worrell was one such, when he not only brought the best out of West Indian cricketers in the early 1960s but also revived what was becoming a moribund game worldwide. Arjuna Ranatunga was another when he led Sri Lanka to the 1996 World Cup and unveiled the strategy of power-hitting by opening batsmen.
During McCullum’s captaincy the people of New Zealand have taken to cricket as never before, so that it is no longer a poor second to rugby. Even before his team had buccaneered their way into the World Cup final last March, for the first time, McCullum had made it into an attractive and chivalrous sport that captured the nation.
His style captured England’s imagination too. One year ago on Saturday, at the Westpac stadium in Wellington, New Zealand met a sagging England in a World Cup pool match. Peter Moores, then England head coach, addressed his squad at length on the outfield before the game. McCullum’s actions spoke louder than words.
After England had been dismissed by Tim Southee’s swing for 123, McCullum opened and faced 25 balls. Seven were hit to the boundary, eight over it, as he clubbed 77 at a strike-rate of 308. England were not just beaten but blown to smithereens in 12.2 overs.
When a new era began at the start of last summer, England’s younger players felt emboldened to follow McCullum’s example. Joe Root and Ben Stokes began England’s revolution with their Test partnership at Lord’s, when they rescued England from 30 for four with a stand of 131, then Jos Buttler and others in one-day cricket: uncluttered minds, fearless batting, wonderful entertainment, and go easy on the sledging.
Brilliant at rugby too, McCullum was so tough that as a keeper-batsman he played 208 international games in succession over all formats (only Sachin Tendulkar and Andy Flower have played more). But it was only when he gave up keeping, specialised in batting and was appointed captain that he became a major figure.
His predecessor, Ross Taylor, had been a fine captain, but McCullum was going to be a great one, so the usurpation had to be done. He transformed New Zealand from the dourest batting team into the most dashing, and encouraged his bowlers to attack. If his team can win in Christchurch and level the series against Australia, New Zealand will have lost only one of their past 10 series.
Most captains lead rather regally from first or second slip. McCullum shed his shirt and tie for blue-collar clothes to dive and sprawl at mid-off. As much as his verbal urging, his athleticism in this position spurred his pace bowlers to pitch the ball up and swing it.
Without being a great batsman, McCullum has played some great innings, and not only against the white ball. His 302 against India, New Zealand’s highest Test score, was launched when his team were on course for an innings defeat.
Yet his most socially significant innings came on the opening day of the new ground at Hagley Oval in Christchurch, against Sri Lanka on Boxing Day last year. The city, and its people, and the old Lancaster Park ground, had all been devastated by the earthquake in September 2010, but McCullum brought new life back into the veins by hitting 195 off 134 balls – in a Test match.
Only Australians will begrudge it if he accomplishes the same feat on the same ground this weekend. (The Telegraph)