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Brendon McCullum’s accession to the English men’s Test cricket throne comes with mixed emotions from a New Zealand perspective. On the one hand McCullum’s anointment is an inspiring south-Dunedin-boy-made-good story; a doff of the cap to the New Zealand cricket revolution he led as captain from 2012 until 2016, before ceding the reins to Kane Williamson.
The juxtaposition, however, involves McCullum starting his four-year tenure, which is expected to earn him £2m, against the Black Caps at Lord’s on 2 June in the first of three Tests against his countrymen.
Such a paradigm shift evokes a level of awkwardness one might expect to confront from an ex turning up to Christmas dinner. For the Black Caps, McCullum’s immediate promotion sours the toast.
Six years after his international retirement, any form of lingering loyalty to his country, to those former teammates he captained with such distinction – Williamson, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls, Neil Wagner among them – has been swatted to the boundary.
The innate knowledge McCullum boasts on those influential senior figures, many of whom helped guide New Zealand to the inaugural World Test Championship triumph last June, will now be used to plot their downfall.
The Black Caps are unlikely to ever admit as much publicly, but there could be the odd uncomfortable glance as McCullum sings God Save the Queen and tucks into the glazed lamb cutlets at lunch on day one.
There is an intense curiosity that McCullum has never expressed an open desire to coach New Zealand yet he will now lead one of the most powerful cricket nations, despite having no red-ball coaching experience.
While his brash batting and astute, courageous captaincy was widely lauded, McCullum’s coaching claims amount to a Caribbean Premier League Twenty20 title with Trinbago, and taking Kolkata to the Indian Premier League final last year.
Compared to other sports cricket forms a unique dynamic in that the captain, in many of the most successful teams at least, is part coach, too.
McCullum is often credited for resurrecting the Black Caps’ fortunes after the nadir of 2 January 2013 in Cape Town after South Africa dismissed New Zealand for 45 in his first Test as captain. He did so alongside the Black Caps coach, and close confidant, Mike Hesson.
Hesson and McCullum’s lockstep partnership is, essentially, the coach-captain relationship England hope to replicate with the Christchurch-born Ben Stokes. In many ways, though, Hesson was the yin to McCullum’s yang.
Stokes and McCullum are similar characters in that both are cut from the same ultra-competitive cloth. Both would rather take the leap of faith, to adopt an aggressive approach in search of victory, than settle for a face-saving draw.
It is that high-risk, high-reward attitude that propelled McCullum to becoming the first New Zealand captain to lead his team to a World Cup final, only to elect to bat first and be dismissed for a three-ball duck by Mitchell Starc at the Melbourne Cricket Ground after attempting to hit the two previous deliveries to the fence.
In his heart of hearts McCullum is a gambler – the antithesis to his rival for the England Test job, the South African Gary Kirsten. McCullum’s modus operandi will be to relieve England’s best cricketers of the weight of expectation, anxiety and pressure and empower them to embrace the free-spirited attitude from their formative years.
Speaking at the prestigious 2016 MCC Cowdrey lecture, McCullum offered a poignant insight into the approach with which he will implore England to grasp. “The outcome of the ‘uncaring’, no-consequence play was a revelation to me,” he said. “I suspect it was something I had been trying to achieve on a personal level for years, but I had been unable to do so, except for fleeting moments. Here there was a release of many of the external factors that can creep in and influence a player. There was an instinctiveness that took over – no fear of failure, just playing and being ‘in the moment’.”
Bottom of the world championship standings with one win from their past 17 Tests and sixth in the Test rankings, England need a saviour. Their 4-0 Ashes capitulation spoke to a side devoid of nerve and in desperate need of evolution.
Hesson is confident McCullum will brush aside the doubters to defy his dearth of Test coaching experience, although he cautions against expecting instant miracles. “It’s a pretty good fit in terms of what the England Test team needs. I was delighted for him,” Hesson told Newstalk ZB last weekend. “I’m pleased he’s got a four-year term because at least he and the administrators have understood it’s not a short-term fix.
“When you’ve played over 100 Test matches and captained a number of those you have a heck of a knowledge in the bank there. He’s also got a number of guys in that dressing room who have played over 100 Test matches as well.
“He’s been through the emotions of Test cricket and different styles with how he’s gone about things and worked out a really successful method. Those last 25-30 Tests he was exceptional.
“I think he’ll do very well. There will be a good vibe in the group with a fresh feel and once Brendon gets his teeth into things, he’ll make the necessary changes he needs to in the coming years.”
When McCullum walks into the home dressing room at Lord’s next month his eyes will be open to the challenge before him, knowing the honeymoon phase won’t last. Yet if his surprise Test coaching career is anything like his playing days, strap in for the ride.
“In life if you’re going to change what you’re doing, then make sure it’s worth the risk of doing so,” McCullum told SEN Radio on Friday. “This is a big enough challenge to risk that, that’s for sure.”
Liam Napier is the chief sports writer of the New Zealand Herald