February 19, 2016

The people's legend

Brendon McCullum is a New Zealand icon because he's equal parts good bloke, straight shooter and gambler - not an untouchable deity but rather the guy from two doors down

A magnet for attention, but not an attention-seeker © AFP

Brendon McCullum's international cricket career comes to an end in a sliver of Christchurch cricket heaven, an oasis for our great game in a small pocket of the 164-hectare public park that is Hagley Oval.

It's appropriate that the park is for the people, because McCullum is a cricket fan's cricketer - a man of the people. He's the kid from King's High School, South Dunedin - a place that is heartland New Zealand and a place where you play rugby, drink beer and don't cry. McCullum is a product of his environment.

He was a bloody good footy player, famously reprimanded for heading off to club rugby training after he had been named in the Black Caps for the first time. The reprimander? Mr Rhythm and Swing himself, Sir Richard Hadlee, chairman of selectors.

He loves a beer. Or three. He is not the type of bloke you would expect to be popping the corks on a Dom Perignon and mowing into a super bowl of caviar. You get the feeling it'd suit him best if there was a telly with the Wingatui horse races on, somewhere close to that trio of beers too.

He doesn't cry. When he compiled the greatest New Zealand Test innings of all time that overcast day at the Basin Reserve, slashing a Zaheer Khan delivery to the third-man fence to surpass 300, he didn't break down at the time or in the aftermath. Emotions in check - like the typical Kiwi bloke, stoked inside, proud as punch, but not revealing much on the outside. When asked if he got a bit misty-eyed, McCullum replied: "Nah, no tear in the eye. I'm from south Dunedin."

McCullum has become an iconic figure in New Zealand because of the way he plays the game and his reputation for being equal parts good bloke, straight shooter and gambler. He has not become an untouchable deity but is rather the guy from two doors down who knows how to swing a bat and is not prepared to die wondering.

There is a dichotomy: McCullum is an intriguing, compelling character and a magnet for attention, but not an attention-seeker. He has also shown he is not afraid to stand up for himself when things overstep his line of reasonableness and call his integrity into question. The post-Taylor Parker Posse captaincy fiasco and the Cairns court case are two examples where he was prepared to endure off-field headlines and gossip because he saw it as the right thing to do.

We love McCullum because he plays cricket like a backyard cricketer. A backyard cricketer with extraordinary hand-to-eye and possibly the most effective proprioceptors of all time. He is a freak.

But more than just a freakishly good cricketer - we've had these before in our black caps and coloured pyjamas - McCullum has managed to connect with people. Credit here must go to the people around him, most notably coach Mike Hesson and manager Mike Sandle. They've let Brendon be Brendon. He is down to earth, but not devoid of personality. He is a swashbuckling cricketer who plays aggressively but he is no "bad boy". He loves to win but won't throw his toys if he loses trying to get there. We like that.

He loves a beer. Or three. He is not the type of bloke you would expect to be popping the corks on a Dom Perignon and mowing into a super bowl of caviar

When he took over the reins from Ross Taylor in controversial circumstances, he soon showed a trait unusual in highly paid, successful sportspeople: self-awareness. The cathartic moment was in the wake of the 45-all-out degradation in South Africa in 2012. Since that annihilation he has spoken about the fact that New Zealand fans can cope with their national XI losing but they could never embrace a team of "overpaid, under-delivering, lazy prima donnas". McCullum put himself in that category, and set about the panelbeating required to put that right.

His New Zealand team has subsequently become an awful team to play against - combining human decency and respect for opposition with relentlessly positive cricket and an absolute refusal to give up easily.

On his watch, we see a New Zealand team prepared to damage limbs to stop a ball from crossing the boundary rope, and we see a team that plays the game with the same joy that emanates from kids playing cricket on Saturday mornings.

The McCullum reign has been the catalyst for a fantastic renaissance in New Zealand cricket. As Sonia Gray put it so simply, translating Neil Manthorp: "Right here, right now, we are in a golden era for New Zealand Cricket. What a disaster it would be if we finally reached Peak Black Cap and failed to recognise it until it was over."

These are the halcyon days of New Zealand cricket, so we need to celebrate them and acknowledge that a little bloke from South Dunedin has played a critical role in making this happen.

Paul Ford is the co-founder of the appallingly dressed Beige Brigade and one-seventh of the totally inappropriate Alternative Commentary Collective. @beigebrigade

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