Brendon McCullum's cricket gospel - featuring 'cowboy' culture and neuroimaging

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
McCullum is a free thinker who will embrace new ideas, and is open to different ways of working - GETTY IMAGES
McCullum is a free thinker who will embrace new ideas, and is open to different ways of working - GETTY IMAGES

Former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum was appointed England's new Test head coach on Thursday and vowed to "confront challenges head-on".

Starting with a three-Test series against his home country in June, how will the Kiwi approach the job?

Man-management

Brendon McCullum does not attempt to dress it up. The New Zealander is, as he put it in his autobiography 'Declared', fond of a “pint, a pie, a punt and a durry” (Kiwi slang for cigarette). His memoir is littered with references to having a good time and one of his talents is to squeeze the best out of those around him through his infectious enthusiasm for cricket and life.

He built a working relationship with Ross Taylor despite usurping him as captain - a decision that divided New Zealand cricket at the time - and picked up a losing side by building a strong team culture, which can only happen if the leader has the respect of his players.

He gave New Zealand cricket “soul” and did that through being “strategically smart and with total buy-in from the group” - basically the no dick head policy of the All Blacks and the idea of always respecting the team.

“The environment had not changed where some of the senior players acted like w------, egotistical and unwelcoming, like some kind of boarding school hierarchy where the seventh formers lorded it over the third formers,” he wrote, about the team he inherited. It was notable in his statement on Thursday that he pointed out he is “no stranger to bringing about change within a team environment.”

 New Zealand cricket captain Brendon McCullum, centre, speaks to his team as they prepare to field on the fourth day of the second Test match between England and New Zealand at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds, England, - AP
New Zealand cricket captain Brendon McCullum, centre, speaks to his team as they prepare to field on the fourth day of the second Test match between England and New Zealand at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds, England, - AP

Technical approach

McCullum is a free thinker who will embrace new ideas, and is open to different ways of working. The technical detail will be done by others and there is only a limited amount of time a coach at Test level can work with players anyway.

He does have a track record, as a captain, of making players better and broke the mould in his own career by employing a personal ‘mental conditioning coach’. He ultimately fell out with Kerry Schwalger but at a point when he was struggling with his batting, Schwalger taught him to rely on instinct at the crease. He would sing a song in his head as the bowler was running in, the theory being that reflexes should take over from the conscious mind. On slow turners, he would wiggle his toes in his boots to produce a similar effect and embraced “neuroimaging techniques” to understand the mind better.

His weakness will be long-term strategy. He relied heavily on Mike Hesson, the New Zealand coach, to sweat the details and in franchise cricket he has had limited success as a head coach. He will need a good No.2.

“He hates periods of play when nothing is happening,” Ian Smith, the former New Zealand wicketkeeper and now respected broadcaster, tells The Telegraph. “He always thought every ball mattered as captain. It is his belief about cricket that it is there to be played on the front foot. Sometimes that will get you in a hole but he is prepared to lose to win.”

Strategy

He is not long retired, and will coach how he captained - with imagination and flair. Remember the seven slips in Wellington in the 2015 World Cup that suckered England into thinking the ball was swinging? That was classic McCullum.

He set the tone himself, throwing himself around the field as captain, and loved fast bowling, encouraging Neil Wagner to become his battering ram. “If the players got out playing shots, he did not care,” says Smith. “They had his backing.”

McCullum wrote in his book: “We might as well lose playing the way we want to play, enjoying the game so if someone tries to take the aggressive option... trying to advance the game, let’s not s--- on them.”

Brendon McCullum of New Zealand bats during day three of 2nd Investec Test match between England and New Zealand at Headingley on May 31, 2014 in Leeds, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Brendon McCullum of New Zealand bats during day three of 2nd Investec Test match between England and New Zealand at Headingley on May 31, 2014 in Leeds, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Public relations

In a country where rugby is religion, McCullum is that rarest of things: a “true sporting hero” - Smith's words - who is not an All Black.

He scored New Zealand’s first Test triple century and ended his career by scoring the quickest ever Test hundred in his last game. He revolutionised white ball cricket, employing an aggressive method copied by Eoin Morgan and others.

He also changed the perception of the team. When New Zealand were bowled out for 45 by South Africa in his first Test in charge he sat down with the coaching staff and mapped out change. Top of the list was how the public perceived his team. “We had to be more accessible and engaging and humble so if they [fans] saw us down the street they felt they could have a yarn with us. We tried to be blue collar in how we went about things, not aloof and superior.”

Chris Silverwood struggled to express himself in public, which made you wonder how he came across in team meetings, while Trevor Bayliss and Andy Flower liked to work in the background. McCullum is England’s first ‘big name’ coach, a celebrity in his own right.

“The press and media will enjoy talking to him, the fans will find him approachable,” says Smith. “He does not have secrets. He has a simple philosophy about how he goes about things.”

Culture

McCullum is hard, not afraid to make difficult decisions and leave out players that do not fit in. “He is mentally tough," says Smith. "He is a cowboy and cowboys don’t cry.”

Stokes is the same. But hardness needs a softer side - Test cricket is too intense to be adversarial all the time. McCullum famously banned sledging - something which ended up antagonising Australia even more than verbals - and turned New Zealand into cricket's nice guys.

Steve Smith (L) captain of Australia with Brendon McCullum (R captain of New Zealand walk out into the field for the national anthems during day one of the second cricket Test match between New Zealand and Australia at the Hagley Park in Christchurch on February - AFP
Steve Smith (L) captain of Australia with Brendon McCullum (R captain of New Zealand walk out into the field for the national anthems during day one of the second cricket Test match between New Zealand and Australia at the Hagley Park in Christchurch on February - AFP

England copied that to a certain extent under Joe Root and that approach will continue. “He just engendered confidence in the players and a can-do attitude,” says Smith. “He played on a lot of hunches. He had a lot of zany fields. He put people in different spots and is a gambler. You don’t go forward if you don’t take a risk every now and then. If you step back you will cop what you deserve and Brendon will not do that.

"There will not be times when he goes into his shell, because he doesn’t have one. I tell you what, it will be fascinating. It might even be fun.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting