Aus v NZ, Final, MCG March 29, 2015

Gracious McCullum hopes run will leave legacy

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'We can hold our heads up high' - Brendon McCullum

As Michael Clarke and his team-mates held the World Cup aloft on the MCG outfield on Sunday night, the New Zealanders stood and clapped politely. Then they filed away one by one, ready to head indoors to commiserate. Brendon McCullum was the last man standing, the last one watching the Australians and applauding. It could have been no other way.

There is no such award but if a prize existed for Captain of the Tournament, McCullum would have been the only possible winner. His approach has been infectious, his aggressive style responsible not only for New Zealand reaching their first World Cup final, but for dragging the entire nation with them on the journey. And he has done it with incomparable class.

That continued during and after a loss that must have been heartbreaking. As Clarke walked off having been dismissed for 74, with Australia nine runs from victory in his last ODI, McCullum was the first to run over and shake Clarke's hand. Dignified to the end, McCullum refused to offer excuses for his team's loss. Sometimes, he said, you just have to doff your cap to the winner.

"Tonight's performance is somewhat disappointing but at the same time Australia played better," McCullum said. "It came down to one game. We gave ourselves an opportunity in this tournament. With so much on the line, ultimately Australia stepped up and were too good for us on the night. It's a credit to them that they were able to do so on the big occasion.

"I'm really proud of the guys. I thought the way we played throughout this tournament, the brand of cricket we played, we've entertained the people and left nothing out there. It's been one hell of a ride and something we'll remember for the rest of our lives. It would have been great to have got the silverware, but it wasn't to be.

"I think what we were able to achieve in this tournament will last a long time, the friendships we created the experiences we've had, and the people we've been able to inspire throughout the tournament is something we're really proud of. It's never nice running second, but sometimes you've got to doff your cap to the winner."

Clarke, he said, deserved to bow out of the one-day game a World Cup-winning captain. Of course, this might also be the last ODI for members of the New Zealand side, most notably the 36-year-old Daniel Vettori. There have even been suggestions McCullum might follow Clarke in quitting the ODI game to focus on Tests. But McCullum insisted today was about Australia's triumph.

"There may be guys within our group who will retire," McCullum said. "We'll let the dust settle on this final and we certainly won't look to grab any headlines in the next couple of days, because they belong to Australia and they've earned the right to do so. We'll be gracious in defeat, and then we'll work out a plan in the next couple of days for some guys who may look to retire. But I think it's the right thing to allow Australia to bask in the glory of their success."

A captain who was just lost the World Cup final could be forgiven for being churlish. That is not McCullum's way. He was as good-natured after this loss as he ever is. When he tried to locate a New Zealand journalist asking a question in the packed press conference, the reporter said "over here at wide mid-off". The next questioner was next to him. "Two catchers!" McCullum quipped.

It was just one of a handful of friendly jokes McCullum shared with the press after the game. It would have been no different had they won. That is just the type of character McCullum is. And they gave themselves a chance of setting the game up by batting first, although chasing has been their more regular method through this tournament. They might have been better off losing the toss.

"I thought it was a good toss to win at the time," McCullum said. "Michael Clarke also said that he would have batted. The pitch played okay, and that was testament to the partnership we were able to create with Ross and Grant. They were able to swing the ball early on and that posed a few problems.

"If we'd lost the toss and found ourselves bowling, who knows, they might have got 400 the way they played today. You can't have those regrets. We won the toss, we took the aggressive option, that's what we wanted to do, runs on the board in the final. If we'd made 260 or 280 we might have been having a different conversation now."

Whatever the result, New Zealand have won a lot of friends throughout this campaign, both at home and around the world. For the first time after six lost World Cup semi-finals, they reached a decider. Whatever McCullum's own future, he hopes that the legacy created by this side, which went through undefeated in eight matches at home before this final, will live on.

"Hopefully the style of cricket and the things we've been able to implement with this team and the brand we're trying to play will remain and develop over the next little while," he said. "Hopefully that will the filter down to our domestic cricket as well and we'll get some youngsters start to play the game, and try and play it the same way we've tried to operate in this World Cup.

"Once you're in the final you give yourself an opportunity to win it. If we can keep making finals we'll win one at some point."

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale