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Brendon McCullum: New Zealand cricket has got soul again

Brendon McCullum

Some will be cynical about the theory that New Zealand, by playing startlingly attacking cricket under all circumstances, while behaving with a palpable decency at all times, could prove to be the saviours of Test and even one-day international cricket.

They may be right. Maybe in the end winners have to play with the sort of in-your-face aggression shown by Australia in the World Cup final in Melbourne back in March, when they blew Brendon McCullum’s Kiwis away by seven wickets.

But most, surely, would be happy to see New Zealand’s wonderfully refreshing approach become the new paradigm, though McCullum, chatting at Grace Road as his players prepared for the one-day series against England, insists that in attacking from ball one, they are not setting out to change the way cricket as we know it is played.

“We just feel that’s our best chance of success,” he says. “Some people would say it’s a gamble but I think it’s more authentic to us to play like that than to try and hang in there, so if you try and hang in there it’s more of a gamble than playing the way we are.”

That said, he acknowledges there is more to it than simply finding the approach which best suits the strengths of his squad.

“One of the first things was we had to be honest with ourselves, because two years ago it was pretty ugly where we were sat in international cricket, and not everyone was enjoying themselves. We had to work out how this team wanted to be known and the changes we needed to make.

“Then you go about trying to ensure the environment firstly makes guys feel comfortable, but also that there’s some accountability there as well.

“Because it’s not my team, it’s not [head coach] Mike Hesson’s team, it’s the New Zealand cricket team, and there is a responsibility there on each player to make sure they turn up and try their best. But if guys do that, we provide them with a good environment where they can enjoy themselves and start to develop as people and cricketers.”

Developing as a person as well as a cricketer, it is clear, is a tenet central to both the group and to McCullum himself. A couple of years ago, when New Zealand were ranked eighth among the Test-playing nations, the attitude and behaviour of the players, especially McCullum, was widely criticised by their fellow Kiwis.

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At the end of last year, however, the 33-year-old was named “New Zealander of the Year” by one of the country’s leading newspapers. His considerable part in the transformation of the team’s standards, both of playing and behaviour, was one factor; the other was his being prepared to tell investigators that former New Zealand international Chris Cairns, currently accused of perjury after claiming in court he had never been involved in match-fixing, had twice approached him with a view to manipulating batting spreads.

But then, according to McCullum, he is a very different man.

“In the last two and a half years I’ve grown a lot and I think I’m a better person than I was then. To an extent that’s the luxury of playing as long as I have, but there’s obviously more to it than that.

“I loved playing cricket as a kid, that’s why I got into the game, and just because there’s more at stake now, it doesn’t mean you should lose the innocence of why you got into the game in the first place.

“For a long time I had lost that, and I think the team had lost that, but it’s one thing we’ve tried to recapture. It sounds corny, but we talk about the little boy who fell in love with the game, and that’s what we’ve tried to do as a group. When you have that mindset you can be positive and aggressive because you’re thinking about what can go right, rather than what might go wrong.

“There was no soul about how we went about our cricket. I think now people know they’re going to see every man chase the ball to the boundary to try and save one run, and guys play with some freedom and an aggressive brand of cricket because we feel that resonates with New Zealanders. Two years ago we weren’t doing those things.”

Asked whether he is a risk-taker by nature, McCullum considers the thought. “I guess I have a similar mindset in life, because I have a pretty good time. I’m very lucky to have a wonderful wife and three kids, and a really good group of friends, and you don’t mind going for a beer and to the races and having a punt in that respect, that’s what gives me good satisfaction as well, but I wouldn’t say I was a massive gambler.”

New Zealand, where McCullum had been known as “Mr Franchise”, jetting in when he felt like it from making millions in the Indian Premier League, has been appreciative. The World Cup final may have been lost, but the manner in which the players acquitted themselves on and off the field – McCullum’s graceful post-match interview being a case in point – and the fact that last week’s outstanding victory at Headingley means they have not been beaten in any of their last seven Test series, has struck a chord with the country.

McCullum’s understanding of how and why the relationship changed is instructive. “The new connection probably started a little before the World Cup final, but that was the definitive moment, you knew that we had achieved something pretty special, not so much with the result as with how we played our cricket.

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“We try and do our best on the field, but there’s also a way you can carry yourself, and I think that’s what we’ve seen shift. As I say, we haven’t always been like that, but we’re lucky enough to have been able to make changes.”

Which is why spectators are unlikely to see any unnecessary “verbals” from the current Black Caps.

“It’s not what we want to do anymore, and since we changed our approach we enjoy our cricket a lot more. There’s less frustration, less animosity, and it’s amazing the relationships you develop with the opposition.

“We’ve played our best cricket too, so it’s hard to argue ‘sledging’ works for us. Other teams may do it, that’s fine, and there’ve been times when guys have said things, probably more out of frustration, but I think overall our team behaves pretty well these days.”

And when it doesn’t come off? “You’re still disappointed, and probably even slightly embarrassed, but sometimes if you’re going to play like that there are times you still make silly mistakes. But I believe it’s the style which I believe will most help my game and the role I have within the team, and as long as you stay pretty true to that, you give yourself a good chance.”

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