McCullum primes NZ for second fight
Unlike his counterpart, the prim and proper Alastair Cook, Brendon McCullum looks out of place as the New Zealand captain. Bleary-eyed, sporting light stubble and with a demeanour that suggests he'd rather be under the duvet than training at Lord's on a cold Wednesday afternoon, McCullum is not the archetypal leader. Yet England should fear him.
McCullum is a gambler and a horse-owner, who knows when to use his instincts. McCullum showed these qualities in the series against England at home, which finished 0-0, by being aggressive with the bat when there was a wobble in the middle order and in his captaincy by attacking the opposition to push them on the back foot straight away from the first ball of that series in March.
Two months later, McCullum is aware of the dangers England pose at home. He knows the relative inexperience of his squad - only three players have played in England in the past - makes New Zealand vulnerable. He understands his batsmen will have to get used to the relentless swing in overcast conditions. By the same token the New Zealand fast bowlers cannot afford to get carried away with the swing and will need to exert the same level of accuracy and control displayed in March. And then there is the challenge of making sure his players do not overwhelmed by the distraction that is Lord's.
Even in his short stint as leader, McCullum has shown he is not a reactive captain. On the eve of the two-Test series, he sounded an alert to his troops: display the same level of determination as they did against England at home.
"If you look at the rankings we punched above our weight," McCullum said of the home series against England. "If we look at where we want to get as a team, that's the standard we have to operate at. The signs we showed during the home series are signs that we want to display more regularly as a group. It is a huge series for us to regain the consistency which we played with back home and also show fighting characteristics and innovation which, as a team, we showed at times. We will have to replicate all that now in foreign conditions against a team that is confident playing at home."
In that home series McCullum was easily New Zealand's best batsmen across all three formats - he was the leading run-scorer in the Tests and ODIs and second in the T20s. From 2000, he has been New Zealand's highest scorer in England: in six Tests he has made 412 runs but his average is just 34.33.
"Obviously it would be nice to make the honours board," McCullum said. "But it's about making a meaningful contribution whichever way that comes, to be able to give your team the greatest chance of success. If we are in a decent position, my role is to try to play reasonably aggressively and advance the game for us. And if we are not in a rosy position, then it is just matter of calling on the experience - that's more important than getting on the honours board."
The "whichever way" mindset is something McCullum has never been embarrassed about. What matters for him is to play to win and he is not shy about his intentions. Expanding on his batting style, McCullum agrees he's instinctive but that does not mean he doesn't think it through. "I would hope they're educated gambles," he said. "Just because you don't run past the principal's office doesn't mean you're not doing your homework. While it may appear at times I am just following my instincts there are elements of study and preparations which have gone into those shots as well."
Although he has played 75 Tests compared to Cook's 90, McCullum is one of the most experienced players on both sides. The Test captaincy might have come late in his career, but McCullum, now 31, could be the best man to lead New Zealand if for no other reason than he is one of the best man managers.
Stephen Fleming was the last New Zealand captain to win a series in England, back in 1999. As a leader, McCullum is still learning the ropes, but he has Fleming as one of his closest advisors. As a captain Fleming was never shy of placing an unorthodox fielder or taking chances as long as he believed in them. Fleming also had a knack for targeting opposition players, having one-on-one sessions with his bowlers. McCullum is of a similar ilk.
Asked to describe his approach to his brand of captaincy, McCullum let out a sigh to begin with. "It varies, it is still early days," he said. "You try and judge the mood of where your team is at and what you're trying to achieve in each situation. As a group we know that we are going to struggle to go toe to toe with big boys of world cricket playing their style for long periods so we need to skin it differently. We saw back home against England, some of our tactics and some of our game plans were very much designed around that with my style of play and captaincy."
As much as New Zealand would aspire to climb up from their No. 8 Test ranking, McCullum will be equally determined to establish his captaincy. And according to him, his big challenge will be to get New Zealand back in the contest when they are behind in the game, unlike when they were calling the shots against England back home.