On the eve of his powerful MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture, Brendon McCullum sat down with Jo Harman to talk about the reasons behind his international retirement, the reshaping of his country’s cricketing psyche and to remind us all that, it’s really just a game.
Three months on from his international retirement, Brendon McCullum gives the impression of a man happy with life as I join him in a West London pub a few days before he delivers his MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s.
While fans the world over craved another ride on the helter skelter before closing time, McCullum decided that he’d had his fill, signing off from international duty with an innings that encapsulated his attitude to the game.
“I thought I’d go out swinging,” he says, pint in hand with notes in preparation for his lecture scattered across the table. “I’d never have been able to live with myself if I’d got out defending in my last Test match! I was like: ‘Kane Williamson, best player in the world, greatest defensive technique around, and he can’t lay bat on it!’ I don’t have a defensive technique, so there’s no chance I’m gonna play like that. I turned round to BJ Watling and said, ‘Mate, I’ve only got one way to play here’.”
Coming in on the first morning of his final Test, with the Kiwis 32-3 on a green Christchurch seamer against a rampant Australian attack, McCullum had a hoick second ball, clearing his front leg and streakily edging to the boundary. Three balls later he launched Mitchell Marsh back over his head to break Adam Gilchrist’s record tally of sixes in Test cricket and then hit a further three boundaries from his next four deliveries. It was the kind of start to a Test innings that only very few are capable of and even fewer would dare attempt.
In a little over two hours at the crease McCullum hit 21 fours and six sixes, reaching his century from 54 balls, the fastest hundred in Test history. It was carnage – a fitting denouement to a career that in many ways has mirrored the metamorphosis of the game as a whole over the past 15 years. But why call it a day now when the going’s this good?
It’s been speculated that the Chris Cairns trial – in which McCullum gave evidence against the former New Zealand allrounder at Southwark Crown Court before jumping on a plane to Australia to captain his country in a Test match a matter of days later – had hastened his exit. “Yeah, maybe,” he says. “I came to the decision in Perth [last November, a month after giving evidence] that I’d just had enough.
“I also didn’t want to be a cricketer that hung on because he needed the adulation and the respect and all that rubbish that people crave when they’re younger. I didn’t want to cling on for those reasons. I just wanted to play the game and have a good time. When I started to feel like that was diminishing, then it was time to get out. I think a lot of guys if they hang on too long actually start to resent the game. Whereas I went out genuinely still loving it.”
With us in the pub is Rob Lynch, Middlesex’s new commercial director and a former New Zealand under 19 teammate of McCullum’s. He recalls a home series for the under 19s against South Africa, back in 2001, in which McCullum – captaining, keeping and batting at No.6 – hit three centuries on the bounce. “He wasn’t really a batter before that but in three games Brendon got back-to-back centuries and I think that was the ignition. Two months later he was opening the batting in the VB Series in Australia.
“I remember we stayed in this hotel in Alexandra and we got on a bus to get to the ground and Brendon wasn’t on the bus. We got to the ground, took off our bags and Brendon’s in the middle of the pitch with his gloves and bat, shadow batting, visualising. I found out later that he’d organised for someone to take the team kit and he’d run to the ground of his own accord. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I wouldn’t have even thought to do that’. He went and scored a hundred that day. That shows a difference between guys like Brendon and guys that don’t necessarily have that edge.”
The image of a 19-year-old McCullum running to the ground to arrive before his teammates and visually map out his innings doesn’t match up with the player that we’ve seen him become. More than perhaps any other player of his era, in terms of both his batting and captaincy, McCullum seems to rely on instinct, to live in the moment. How much has he changed over the years? “Yeah, shitloads,” he says. “I was brought up playing pool, playing darts, drinking pints and smoking durries. That’s my upbringing. I was never against that just because you’re playing international cricket. You just have to try and fight it!
“It was only the last few years where I just embraced it and funnily enough our country quite liked it! In the first 11 years I didn’t have much fun. The last couple of years it was all about having fun. Waking up in the morning, you should look forward to playing. It doesn’t matter if you got nought yesterday or whatever. It’s meant to be fun. That’s what we got into the game for. It’s not about your stats – although maybe I’m just saying that because mine are shite! – it’s the people you meet, the experiences you have, the camaraderie, sitting around in the dressing room, catching up with Morgs [Eoin Morgan] and having a few pints of Guinness like I did last night at the Sydney Arms.
That’s what the game’s all about. The other stuff doesn’t matter. It doesn’t say ‘Cricketer’ on your gravestone. The game is a game, and it’s an amazing game, but sometimes we take it too seriously.”
Such was the positive impact of McCullum’s captaincy, freeing up a downtrodden team to play expansively and fearlessly and influencing other countries – not least England – along the way, that it’s easy to forget the tumult surrounding his appointment. Ross Taylor’s ousting as captain in 2013 was handled so poorly that New Zealand Cricket’s chairman Chris Moller eventually issued an apology, conceding that “the ball’s been dropped” as McCullum took charge in the messiest of circumstances. Former New Zealand skipper John Parker went so far as to suggest that McCullum was complicit in the decision to remove Taylor, before withdrawing his claim and making an apology of his own.
“Yeah, it was crap,” says McCullum. “And I almost turned the captaincy down, purely because some of my closest friends and confidantes said, ‘Why do you want this?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t really want it but there’s no one else that can actually do it’. If you looked around the changing room no one was really equipped to do it. I was the best-equipped person to deal with it at the time, so I took it on. Even my wife said, ‘Why do you want it?’”
Things got worse before they got better as New Zealand were bowled out for 45 in the first innings of McCullum’s tenure against South Africa at Cape Town – the third-lowest total in their history – and went on to lose both matches of a two-Test series by an innings as Taylor opted to sit out the tour and lick his wounds at home.
“We had to hit rock-bottom first. Our public perception and image was low and our performances were shite but we hadn’t actually, as a team, had that stage where you’re embarrassed to get on the bus as you leave the ground because you’ve played so badly. We had that in Cape Town. From that point on, we were outstanding. We stripped everything back, put some plans in place, changed our personnel and our belief. It took a long time, but it all happened from that day.”
Matt Prior, with a little help from Monty Panesar, narrowly, and slightly fortuitously, denied the Kiwis a series win on home soil a couple of months later but the near-miss marked a shift in the New Zealand cricketing public’s perception of the team and support began to grow. After a 2-0 defeat in the return series in England and a draw in Bangladesh, the Black Caps, with Taylor ‘reintegrated’ and scoring runs, won four of their next five series, including a home win against India, then ranked No.1 in the world. After victory at Eden Park, the series win was sealed with a draw in Wellington in which McCullum became the first New Zealander to hit a Test triple century.
“Over the course of time I was lucky enough to be captain, we made some big strides as a team. But it wasn’t until right at the end of my captaincy that people turned around and said, ‘You know what? New Zealand are a really good team. They give as good as they get, they play a great brand of cricket, they carry themselves well’. But it’s all the stuff you do beforehand that builds up and that India series was one of those pivotal moments when we had to stand up and perform and not yield under pressure.
“It took us a long time to get where we wanted to be and we lost some people along the way. And the ‘no dickhead policy’ is pretty important too. There were some fellas who didn’t necessarily buy into what we were trying to achieve, and they were really talented as well, but unfortunately we just couldn’t have them in our side. Jesse Ryder, for instance. Incredibly talented player. Probably the most talented player, outside of Kane, in New Zealand, but you can’t base a team around a guy like that. We need everyone on the bus heading in the same direction, and we need to be quite dynamic in how we go about things. So that was one of the things we tried to instill along the road as well.”
The responsibility to continue New Zealand’s upward trajectory and retain that ethos now falls on McCullum’s successor, Kane Williamson. In terms of their public persona the pair are poles apart. While McCullum looks completely at ease in front of camera and speaking to the press, Williamson – softly spoken and often monosyllabic – gives off the impression that the media buzz is something he’d much rather do without. Don’t be fooled, though. Williamson may not relish the spotlight, but McCullum believes he’s the perfect man to continue the good work of recent years and take the Black Caps to the next level.
“When I was captain we needed to get back to what was important about playing the game,” says McCullum. “We got that back, played for the right reasons and found out what was important for the New Zealand cricket team. But it wasn’t overly professional! In terms of long-term sustainability, my captaincy always had a shelf life.
But now that our soul’s back, Kane will bring about that level of professionalism that will bring consistency in how we play the game. Even at a young age, he’s got his head screwed on and he knows how to bring a team together. He understands the soul of the team. He might be slightly conservative at times, but he’s also smart enough to understand that the team need to win games to be able to create those memories, rather than worry about losing.”
As we talk McCullum passes me pages of his lecture to read, holding back the juicier segments for the big show at Lord’s. It’s clear how much thought and effort has gone into it. He’s proud to have been asked to follow in the footsteps of people such as Richie Benaud, Martin Crowe and Kumar Sangakkara and seems uncharacteristically apprehensive about leaving his comfort zone. I suggest it must be refreshing to be able to set the agenda, rather than responding to journalists’ questions. “To a degree, but there’s probably a bit of pressure that comes with it as well. I’m just going to try and talk as openly and honestly as I can, address the issues that I see as vital to the ongoing success of the game and retrospectively look at New Zealand cricket and how we were able to progress over the last couple of years, and the catalysts behind that. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s received, but I don’t think it’ll be overly controversial.”
It’s true that McCullum’s lecture doesn’t cause shockwaves of the kind that followed Sangakkara’s opus of five years ago, in which the Sri Lankan called out his country’s “partisan cronies” and the “corruption and wanton waste of [Sri Lankan] cricket board finances and resources”, but his criticism of the ICC anti-corruption unit, and specifically the way it dealt with the Cairns case, does grab the headlines. He describes the unit’s gathering of his evidence as “casual” and complains that the information he passed on was then leaked to the Daily Mail. “It goes without saying that if players do not have confidence in the organisation, they will be reluctant to report approaches and the game is worse off,” McCullum says from the podium. “If we are to get rid of the scourge of match-fixing, a robust governing body is essential.”
I ask McCullum if a player confided in him now, and told him he had been approached to set up a fix, would he encourage the player to share that evidence with the ICC, even though his own experience of whistle-blowing was such a chastening one. “Yes, without a doubt. I’d tell them to make sure they get it on file, get it on tape and make sure the process is right, so that person is protected as well. Otherwise you’ll get nobody coming forward. It took me ages to come forward – there are various reasons behind that – but the education players receive now is at a stage where you need to come forward. I’d go with them as well, without a doubt, to make sure it was done properly.”
Does he think cricket is clean now? “I think you hope it’s clean. We’ve had challenges over the last few years and we’ll consistently have challenges over the next few years. It’s just how we deal with them. I think the game will always have people who aren’t 110 per cent committed to trying to win, and that’s just sport in general. It’s how we deal with those people that’s important.”
McCullum says that while “I hate what he did”, he believes Mohammad Amir has served his time and deserves his second chance. “One of the key things is that Mohammad Amir admitted his guilt. He put his hand up, admitted he’d wronged the game and then went about serving his time and going through the right steps.”
McCullum insists his lecture isn’t the first step into a career in cricketing politics, and says he looks forward to having some separation from the game when he eventually calls time on his T20 world tour, which has brought him to Middlesex this summer. He’s firmly in favour of day-night Test matches – “I’ll admit I was slightly hesitant but it works, it definitely works” – has concerns about the relevance of international T20 – “Test and one-day cricket are two incredible products that we can take to market, there’s no need for another one” – and cautiously advocates an English franchise tournament. But these aren’t the topics of conversation that grab him. It’s when he talks about his teammates and the experiences they’ve shared that he really lights up. Tom Latham: “What a bloke! An incredible read on the game. Good captaincy potential.” Mitchell Santner: “He’s a gun, eh? Plays off scratch, throws darts like Michael van Gerwen – genius!” Kane Williamson: “One of those guys who you look at and genuinely wish he was your son.” Matt Henry: “He’s a champion as well. Can bowl, proper bowler.”
“That’s what it’s all about I reckon. That’s why you got into the game. Only because the stakes go up do people lose sight of that. The pressures that you come under make you change as a bloke. Not only how you play the game, but also how you are as a person. There’s no need for it. So just get back to playing the game because it’s fun.
“You’re going to come into the game at 20, hopefully leave at 35 or 36. You’re going to grow up a lot during that time, you’re going to meet someone, you’re going to have kids. From where you were when you initially came into the set-up, to where you are when you leave… you’ve lived a life, effectively. So you need to embrace it and allow people the opportunity to develop at their own pace. From 20-35: greatest years of your life! You just happen to be playing cricket for your country.”
When pressed on what the future might hold for him, he shrugs. “We’ll see what happens.” He says he might fancy a gig in T20 franchise coaching but wants to give New Zealand cricket some breathing space. For the time being, though, he’s just happy doing what he’s doing. Those days of visualising what might be around the corner are long gone. “I’ve pretty much done what I’ve wanted to do in the game. Now I just want to play T20, have a good time, try and slog a few over the ropes and be part of a good team. If we lose, we lose. But we’ll have a good time.”