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A captain's homecoming

This week Brendon McCullum will lead his country's team in the town where he grew up

Andrew McGlashan in Dunedin

March 5, 2013

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New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum practises before the final ODI against England, New Zealand v England, 3rd ODI, Auckland
McCullum: rugby's loss, cricket's gain © Getty Images
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If it hadn't been for the absence of a pair of boots, Brendon McCullum might have been representing New Zealand in a different sport.

Like other southern hemisphere cricketers, McCullum could have chosen rugby for his career. And it would not have been the lesser option. He was once good enough to keep Dan Carter out of a South Islands schools team.

There is a story told by those who know him from his days at Kings High School in Dunedin - which has perhaps been slightly embellished over time - that shortly after being selected for a rugby match at about the age of 20, McCullum was hurrying around trying to find a pair of boots to borrow. However, before he could find them, Richard Hadlee, who was New Zealand's chairman of selectors at the time, was on the phone with the message, "Don't give him those boots."

McCullum had already been involved in New Zealand age-group cricket, and Hadlee was understandably reluctant to let one of the sport's most talented youngsters go. McCullum had a decision to make: All Blacks or Black Caps? He picked cricket.

"He was a freak," says Daryl Paterson, who worked at Kings High School during McCullum's time there, and still does today. "I've no doubt he could have played rugby for New Zealand. But he stood out at everything: batting, keeping, scoring tries. I was only involved in his cricket for a short time because I coached Year 9, and Brendon scored so many runs he was soon moved up a level. He was only a little bit taller than the stumps and he was standing up to the fast bowlers."

Now he is New Zealand's captain, a position acquired in a messy turn of events that exposed divisions in the side. On Wednesday he will lead his country on his home ground. He has previously captained in a one-day international here, but that was a far more subdued affair, against Zimbabwe. There are few grander occasions than a Test against England.

McCullum isn't the first New Zealand captain from Kings High School. Ken Rutherford, whose son Hamish is set to make his Test debut this week and is another alumnus, came from the school. "We are very proud about that," says Paterson.

McCullum's mother will be in the crowd, although his father, Stuart, a former Otago player, will miss Brendon's homecoming, as he is on business in Adelaide. But he will be keeping a close eye on his oldest son and speaks with great pride about both him and his brother Nathan, who is part of the one-day and T20 teams.

"You always hoped that they would play for New Zealand," he says, "but to captain them, it's a wonderful honour, and hopefully he will do a fitting job. It will be a very proud day. He's proud of his roots. Any game he plays is special but there's some added significance [to this one]."

Did it hurt to see his son caught up in the melee that occurred when Ross Taylor was sacked? "It wasn't so much how it happened," Stuart says. "Some people don't understand Brendon, some have a false impression of what he is like. Brendon looks upon the captaincy as a privilege rather than a matter of course. He is a team man through and through. He never actively went out and sought the captaincy. He had nothing to do with the process. It took him a long time to decide whether he would accept it.

 
 
"He was a freak. I've no doubt he could have played rugby for New Zealand. He was only a little bit taller than the stumps when he was standing up to the fast bowlers" Daryl Paterson, who worked at Brendon McCullum's school
 

"He has no beef with Ross at all - they are friends. It was disappointing to hear some people casting aspersions over his integrity, but you just have to sit back and listen to it. I admit there are times when you'd just like to get on the phone and ask if they actually know the facts, but it's not for me to get involved. People seem to get the wrong idea of what he's like."

Brendon, his father says, has always had drive and determination. There is also a combativeness about him, which stands out in a New Zealand side that can often struggle to impose itself. "He's always been confident," says Stuart. "He's a 'see ball, hit ball' kind of batsman, but I don't think anyone can play down his skill."

It was towards the end of Stuart McCullum's first-class career with Otago that the cricketing future of the next generation of McCullums started to be forged. When aged about six and seven, Brendon and Nathan would accompany their dad to training, but he was never a pushy father. He didn't need to be, really, as it was clear his sons would chart their own paths.

"They were always around when I was playing, and used to take part in a lot of fielding practice when they were young kids. But it was very much a natural course of events. If they ever wanted extra time in the nets I'd happily go with them."

Paterson remembers Brendon as someone with vast self-confidence. "He has always carried himself that way," he says, "but it never verged into cockiness. Everyone knew he was something special but he was also one of the lads."

At stages during the T20 and one-day series, it was very much Brendon McCullum v England. He struck three blistering half-centuries in the one-dayers, and a match-winning 74 in the Hamilton T20. If they are to compete in the Tests, McCullum will again have to lead the way.

Do that he will. "He loves challenging himself against the best," Stuart says. "He measures himself against the best. He's never completely satisfied with his own performance, and that's an attitude he has had all the way through his career. He never takes anything for granted."

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by GavtheKiwi on (March 8, 2013, 17:49 GMT)

Not the first story like this I've read, a good 15 years ago or so it was all about how Geoff Allot had kept Andrew Mehrtens out of a school boy rep side, and he only came to focus on cricket because of a badly broken leg - from what I recall at least.

Posted by Ankur_cricinfo on (March 5, 2013, 12:39 GMT)

Brendon is an outright entertainer. He's got a great heart and the skill to do just what is required for NZ cricket's betterment. He also is one of the fastest mover on the pitch as well as behind the stumps.

NZ has had few good players who came, showed glimpses of potential and went. I dont recall a GREAT batsman in their ranks since Nathan Astle & Stephen Flemming.

My best wishes are with Brendon..!! Way to go

Posted by Rahii_Aamir on (March 5, 2013, 5:34 GMT)

Best of luck Brendon.

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Andrew McGlashan Assistant Editor Andrew arrived at ESPNcricinfo via Manchester and Cape Town, after finding the assistant editor at a weak moment as he watched England's batting collapse in the Newlands Test. Andrew began his cricket writing as a freelance covering Lancashire during 2004 when they were relegated in the County Championship. In fact, they were top of the table when he began reporting on them but things went dramatically downhill. He likes to let people know that he is a supporter of county cricket, a fact his colleagues will testify to and bemoan in equal quantities.

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