March 12, 2012

Mac the pragmatic

Nathan McCullum has a common-sense approach to cricket, which he picked over football, and he wants to make the best of the limited time available to an international sportsman

Café No. 7 Balmac in Maori Hill is not the kind of place Nathan McCullum would have been able to eat breakfast at when he was growing up. It is located in one of Dunedin's most expensive suburbs, two streets away from where McCullum now lives and a lifetime away from where he grew up down the hill in the southern part of the city, in a "small, wee house".

But though McCullum and his brother Brendon did not have a privileged childhood, it was carefree. "It had a nice yard for us to play backyard cricket with our mates and all sorts of sports," McCullum remembers while munching on a scone and drinking a latte in his new, posher surrounds.

"It was part of our lives growing up, all sports, just to play all day, every day, cricket, rugby, soccer, basketball. We got some mates together and played. That's the joy of being a young fellow with no responsibilities."

Still, he had to make some mature decisions at a young age, the first one before he was a teenager. "I used to open the bowling and bowl first-change but then I went to a tournament where I was captain and we didn't have a spinner," he says. "The spinner broke his arm the week before the tournament. The coach came to me and said, 'Since we don't have a spinner, do you want to bowl some?' As the captain, I gave it a crack and never looked back."

McCullum soon realised that the style of bowling that had been imposed on him was probably the best, because it gave him hope of playing international cricket. "I needed to be realistic about my options. Being just under 5ft 10, I am not a giant, so I needed to be aware that I am probably not going to bowl express pace. Spin bowling was a foot in the door. There weren't a lot of people bowling spin, so it was an option."

His other career choice was fairly impractical, but one driven by passion. "I love football. I was probably a better football player than I was a cricket player," he says. A one-time holder of the golden boot for South Premier League club Caversham AFC, with 19 goals in a season, McCullum was a prolific striker.

He considered turning it into a full-time gig but knew that would require a life-changing move. "If I was going to try football, I had to take the plunge and move to the UK when I was 17 or 18. At that time I wasn't quite ready to do that. I wasn't mature enough and I wasn't really sure that that's what I wanted to do. Then I started to earn a little bit of money from cricket with Otago and that forged the way for what I was going to do."

McCullum ultimately chose cricket over football, but not without a tinge of regret. "The more I watch football, the more it makes me want to play. I've got mates who play for Otago, and when I go watch them I just want to play, so I don't really even watch now." He has also all but abandoned his support of Arsenal, the club he was most closely aligned to.

Forgetting about football helped him concentrate on cricket, which needed his full attention because he found the going tough. "I was working part-time at a sports shop and training and trying to fend for myself. It was a tough gig. The time you put into training, you should be working and earning money, but you're trying to live your dream. You don't want to give up your dream, but at the same time you have to make sure you're earning money. There are a lot of people in that situation."

So he persisted. Having an example to follow helped as well. While he was in and out of the Otago side, his brother was establishing himself in the national side. Brendon moved from Dunedin to Christchurch when he was 22 and Nathan didn't see much of him in those years, but says he was "always right behind what he was doing".

Unlike Brendon, who was talked about as an immensely talented player, Nathan had to make do with old-fashioned hard work and grit. He was part of the generation of cricketers who had real jobs, one of which took him to Holland in 2007, as a player-coach for the Hermes Cricket Club, outside Rotterdam. He was in charge of the age-group and of the first team, for whom he also had to play every Saturday. "It really took my game to another level. It was about being responsible and leading from the front, and I guess it was big part of my career. I managed to mature and grow up a lot the last four or five years."

"We work hard, we fight hard, we do things well and we scrap, but we've got to do that 10% better. If we start doing that we can win tournaments, we can be No. 1 in the world"

It also allowed him to earn a living through cricket because he could play domestically in New Zealand in the summer and spend the winters in the northern hemisphere. Later that year he played his first international - a match against South Africa at the World Twenty20 in Durban.

He had to wait two years before he played again but in that time he worked with Mike Hesson, now coach of Kenya, who had a major impact on his career. "He always had faith in me and knew how to push the right buttons on me," McCullum says. "He gave me some great opportunities and pushed me a little harder and I pushed myself harder, and eventually I was able to get into a position where I was close to the New Zealand team."

McCullum is now a regular in both the T20 and ODI sides and said he is comfortable with that role, even though he'd like to also play Test cricket. "I love Twenty20 and one-day cricket: the hustle and bustle, the energy, the enthusiasm and the fast-paced nature of it. I guess at some stage I'd love to play Test cricket, and it's at the back of my mind. But I want to play Twenty20 and one-day cricket as long as I can for New Zealand and try and win a World Cup and be part of history."

In some ways his preference reflects his pragmatic approach to the sport. McCullum accepts that the career of an international sportsman is short and hopes to maximise the time he has, even if that means being branded a 20-over mercenary. "There is only a limited lifespan for an international sportsman, let alone an international cricketer, so you've got to take every chance you can. I've had a taste of a few [20-over leagues] and it's fantastic. The hype and excitement is incredible."

T20 has also given the McCullums the chance to do something few brothers can - play together for a national team. "It makes the special moments even better sometimes. We haven't really spent that much time together in recent years, but we probably spend more time together now, being on tour with New Zealand."

McCullum hopes more members of his family go on to play cricket. "That form of the game [20-over cricket] is growing and it's only good for the youngsters coming through these days. Hopefully my 18-month-old son might play cricket at some stage." Young Luke was in attendance during the first Test between New Zealand and South Africa, and is already a regular at cricket matches around the country. He will grow up in a bigger house in a better neighbourhood, and will likely have more opportunities than either his father or uncle had. McCullum hopes by the time Luke makes a decision on whether to become an international sportsman, the perception of New Zealand cricket will have changed from that of a team that scraps to get where it is. He believes they are better than that.

"The amount of quality players we've got is second to not many," he says. "We've just got be smarter. We work hard, we fight hard, we do things well and we scrap, but we've got to do that 10% better. If we start doing that we can win tournaments, we can be No. 1 in the world, and we can compete every day of the week with every team in the world. We've got the confidence and the ability to do it and we're just learning along the way."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent