Hurt McCullum begins healing process
Brendon McCullum looked a broken man in more than ways than one after the final day of the series. By the last session at Eden Park, he could barely walk. He pulled his hamstring chasing a ball to the boundary during the morning, but nothing was going to keep him off the field and he limped into position at slip or silly point between overs.
Most players who field at silly point these days don a helmet along with plenty of other protective equipment. Not McCullum. He stands there, under the batsman's nose, with his New Zealand cap on, stubbled face and steely glint so the opposition player gets an up-close view. As captain he could easily have devolved close-catching duties to a younger member of the team, but he loves nothing more than being at the heart of the action. And that's where he has been throughout England's tour.
Victory at Eden Park would have been McCullum's finest hour, but his side came up one agonising wicket short. You could see it in his eyes, he was shattered - physically and mentally. He may not have scored the defining hundred or taking the crucial haul of wickets, but McCullum's bristling intent was never far away.
"It's not as bad as some of the other parts of my body are feeling at the moment," he said of his hamstring. "It wasn't ideal, but I was trying to stay out there to win a Test so I certainly wasn't worried about my hamstring. My role was to captain the team and pull a few rabbits out of the hat."
And he almost did just that. On the fourth evening he brought Kane Williamson, the part-time offspinner, into the attack with a hunch to bowl at the left-handed Alastair Cook and four overs from the end of the day Cook edged to slip. Williamson also removed the nightwatchman, Steven Finn. In the dying moments of the final day he went to Williamson again and he removed Stuart Broad and James Anderson within three balls.
"It's everything you dream about when you are growing up to be able to be in the park with your team-mates trying to bowl your team to a Test win," he said. "Unfortunately we weren't able to get the win but it was a magnificent Test match and we played our part."
McCullum has galvanised a team that were a shambles a few months ago, a situation stemming from his messy transition to the captaincy, which he was not part of. He inherited the situation and had to try to make it work. Initially, at least, the plan from Mike Hesson was only to have McCullum as one-day and T20 captain while leaving Ross Taylor in charge of the Test team. But such was the breakdown in communication that a complete change of leadership was effected.
There had long been a strong school of opinion that McCullum should be New Zealand's captain, but not like this. It should also be remembered that Taylor's last Test in charge was the team's previous Test victory, when they beat Sri Lanka by 167 runs in Colombo, although that ended a run of six defeats in seven matches. Occasionally, though, out of mayhem comes the beginning of something better. The change from Kevin Pietersen to Andrew Strauss (and Peter Moores to Andy Flower) in the England set-up in 2009 is such an example.
McCullum's reign started with a harrowing Test series in South Africa - minus Taylor, who had taken himself on a break from the game - where they were twice blown away by an innings. By the end of that trip the signs of rebuilding were on show as they took the one-day series. However, the challenge of England in the longest format was expected to expose those frailties again, especially after the visitors had finished strongly in the two limited-overs series.
That it has not proved so, and that New Zealand dominated two out of three Tests is a mark of what McCullum has instilled in his players and equally how he has helped the team play as one. In the midst of the Taylor departure there are all sorts of stories and rumours about player cliques and who supported whom; of one thing there is no doubt: everyone has been playing for McCullum in this series, never better shown than by the commitment of his pace bowlers. The efforts of Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and Trent Boult on the final day were testament to that.
However, let's not forget Hesson. Yes, the much-maligned coach who, at the height of the controversy, had to contend with what bordered on abuse in some of the comments directed at him. Whatever the absolute truth about which formats he wanted to change the captain for, he clearly knew the leader he wanted was McCullum. He was a new coach and that was within his remit. The way he articulated that to Taylor will not be making any coaching manuals in the future - and the tension has perhaps not entirely dissipated, if Taylor's Test form is any guide - but he was doing what he felt was best for the team.
This series is a pretty strong vindication of that. Hesson and McCullum have between them pulled together a team that has made the best of the resources available. Some of that has happened by accident, some by design. Doug Bracewell would have started the series if not for stepping on glass after a party; his replacement, Wagner, set the ball rolling for New Zealand in Dunedin with four first-innings wickets and has not stopped charging in since. Hamish Rutherford, who scored 171 on debut, would probably not have played if Martin Guptill hadn't been injured. McCullum was forced to open in South Africa by a lack of other options but had always envisaged himself batting in the middle-order position that has brought him seven fifties in ten innings during England's visit.
Hesson and McCullum who, though unofficially, has just as big a say as the coach, can be particularly proud of two other selections. The 34-year-old Peter Fulton is the stand-out success with his triumphant twin hundreds and Bruce Martin, although ending wicketless in Auckland, has not looked out place.
In the short-term, this near miss will hurt but when the dust settles this could be seen as a watershed period for New Zealand. Of course, though, what happens next is vital. They come to England in May for a two-match series, which will be an important marker in the team's development away from home, but there should be nothing to frighten them. In fact, that notion is just the sort of idea to spur McCullum on even more.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo