McCullum has sympathy but no slack for mate Morgan
New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum was genial when asked about the struggles of one of his "better mates," England counterpart Eoin Morgan, who has scored two runs in his last five innings leading up to Friday's clash in Wellington.
"I caught up with Morgs last night," McCullum said. "He's a champion player, probably one of my better mates from around the world in terms of cricket. He's obviously going through a bit of a tough time at the moment; hopefully at some point he'll come out of it. Hopefully tomorrow we're able to keep him quiet, but he's a quality player and he's a tough bloke too."
Morgan had begun his tenure as England's ODI captain with a century at the SCG but since then has scores of 0, 2, 0 and 0 in internationals, to go with another duck in a World Cup warm-up game. McCullum said it was during times of personal lows that the true quality of a captain would stand out.
"The hardest time, and the most important time, to lead from a captain's point of view is when you're probably struggling a little bit with your own form," McCullum said. "That's when guys are looking to you to see whether you still have it in you to think about the team and the team's game plan, and to drive the team ethos forward. It's the hardest time, but it's also the most rewarding when you do come out through the other side of it.
"I'm sure Morgs, knowing him, he will be very much focusing on the team, albeit wanting to get his own performance up. It is tough, but it is the game that we play that throws up different challenges and that brings out different traits in people. That's when you learn a lot about yourself, when times are tough."
McCullum's gracious mood was reflective of the surroundings New Zealand trained in on the eve of the game. The Basin Reserve, surrounded by grassy banks from which people watched the players train in the middle, is an intimate venue and some New Zealand players found time to indulge autograph-hunters and play a quick game of cricket with school children on an organised visit.
The stage for Friday's match - the Wellington Regional Stadium, nicknamed the Cake Tin because of its high silver-coloured walls - will be remarkably different. And McCullum's sunny disposition towards Morgan will certainly have disappeared. The thought of playing in front of 30,000 people at a stadium that amplifies noise excited McCullum; New Zealand have played there six times since 2010 and won four of those games.
"That's going to be pretty cool," McCullum said, when asked about playing in the middle of a full house. "The boys thrive off that, to be able to play in front of 30,000 at a ground where even when you've got five or six thousand can be quite loud. So it's going to be a great atmosphere. I'm confident our guys will be able to go about our work and perform their roles. We are familiar with these conditions, I guess they can be a bit different if it does cloud over, that affects where you need to bowl in terms of lengths.
"We learned a good lesson against Sri Lanka in term of the lengths we needed to operate, and we were able to make some pretty quick adjustments come the Pakistan game and we obviously got some success in that. So tomorrow will be another challenge, a pretty quick assessment of what length we need to bowl, what's going to be the most dangerous lengths for us to try and generate wickets, and if we can do that we'll certainly try and execute that strategy of trying to get wickets early."
Taking early wickets is part of New Zealand's blueprint, a word McCullum uses a lot when asked about his team's approach. If it were an actual dossier, the word aggression - whether with ball, bat or in the field - would be high on the front page. Irrespective of the opposition, McCullum says this strategy has been focal to New Zealand's form in the year leading to the World Cup.
"We'll try and be reasonably aggressive early on and we've got some quality craft-players at three, four and five, and then we got some power to follow. It depends if you lose early wickets - that can affect how you go about constructing an innings. Overall I think the blueprint is pretty set for us. It's just a matter of how we step up and perform against a different opposition."
New Zealand have done their research, McCullum said, against an opponent they are quite familiar with. However, this New Zealand side was well acquainted with Alastair Cook's England, not the one led by Morgan. McCullum said he wasn't entirely sure of how his mate's England would come at them.
"There's probably a little bit more of a maverick streak to someone like Morgs, so that again throws up different challenges from an opposition point of view. It's going to be an interesting game for us. We need to stand up and perform in this game, get ourselves into a really strong position in this tournament, and then we can enjoy a decent break after."
If New Zealand get past England - winning their third game in seven days - they can look forward to a week of downtime knowing their quarter-final berth is all but safe.
George Binoy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo