Sri Lanka v New Zealand, 2nd Test, SSC, 3rd day August 28, 2009

What's ailing Brendon McCullum?

Brendon McCullum's attitude doesn't reflect his ambition to become the world's premier wicketkeeper-batsman

Is Brendon McCullum becoming a problem? He won't admit so, but his inability to curb his natural aggression is hurting New Zealand.

McCullum's presence means so much to this New Zealand side. Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder, before him, are sandwiched between a woeful top order and the absence of a quality allrounder at No. 6. After McCullum comes a weak tail and he hasn't been successful at batting with the lower order. When the chips are down he almost always starts swinging. New Zealand's batsmen are largely inexperienced in subcontinent conditions but McCullum's dismissals this series - and a few times this year - have been more due to poor application.

McCullum is a supremely talented player but his Test figures don't reveal that. While his limited-overs career has soared, McCullum's batting in Tests leaves a lot to be desired. Just three centuries in 45 matches, including one each against Bangladesh - five years ago - and Zimbabwe.

McCullum's talent and ball-striking ability have never been in doubt. His promotion to the international scene was seen as a major investment by selectors. He had a credible CV on the domestic front, yet a couple years into his international career it was evident he was more skilled in limited-overs cricket. While over the past two years he's shown a maturity to carry the innings in times of trouble in ODIs, McCullum hasn't repeated the feat in Tests. True, he's been shunted up and down the order due to New Zealand's relatively inexperienced but perennially shaky line-up. But this is an explosive player who wants to be the world's best wicketkeeper-batsman. His attitude doesn't reflect it.

What has stood out most is his frequent lapse in concentration. On his maiden trip to England, in 2004, McCullum was promoted to No. 3 and responded with a ballsy 96 to give New Zealand an outside chance of victory at at Lord's. McCullum was pushed up the order during the Tests against England in early 2008 and when he fell for 97 at Lord's again, he admitted that for four years he'd thought about that 96 and how hungry he was to get a century in England. "You do have to rein yourself in a touch, not because of the Twenty20 stuff, but because of my natural aggressiveness," he said then. "It's not so much the technical change, it's the mental shift."

Something isn't working. Maybe it's a healthy diet of limited-overs cricket. Maybe it's the pressure of a wobbling top order. But the most glaring reason is a lack of patience.

Something isn't working. Maybe it's a healthy diet of limited-overs cricket. Maybe it's the pressure of a wobbling top order. But the most glaring reason is a lack of patience. He just doesn't seem capable of batting out sessions when the chips are down. True, he has been on the wrong end of some poor decisions this year, notably against West Indies and India, but McCullum is not pulling his weight. Rarely has McCullum grinded his way out of tough situations.

The difference between a good and a very good batsman is the ability to make starts count. In McCullum's case, what is hampering his average is his tendency to throw it away after getting a start. After judging the measure of the attack and crossing 20, he has fallen 23 times before 49. In recent times, Daniel Vettori has been a better batsman. He averages 39.11 in his last 26 Tests, against McCullum's 29.32. Vettori has been exceptionally gifted in judgment, patience, technique and run-scoring. McCullum has appeared as if caught in a fog of indecision.

Against Bangladesh in Chittagong last October, he threw away his wicket when New Zealand were 99 for 5, chipping to mid-on. In the first innings in Adelaide last year, he batted 100 balls for 30 before playing a half-hearted drive, seemingly anxious to do something. In the deciding Test at home against India in April, he edged a cut off a wide delivery from Harbhajan Singh when New Zealand were 181 for 8. In the next innings, McCullum was out playing an expansive drive when the need of the hour was solidity. He can point to an aggressive 115 the Test before - his first century against formidable opposition in Tests - but when he walked in the score was 415 for 5.

In the first innings in Galle, with New Zealand 188 for 5, McCullum walked in and made 1 before he pushed feebly at Thilan Thushara and had his middle stump uprooted. At the SSC today, he remained torn between attacking and defending, and edged a doosra to slip. Taylor put it down to inexperience in the subcontinent. "Not just Brendon, we've all struggled. I won't single him out; we all had a job to do and haven't done it."

But McCullum is something of a veteran in this side and his indifference in the middle has hurt New Zealand. You expected more from him in Sri Lanka. McCullum has typically been used at No. 7, but New Zealand's relatively inexperienced batting line-up meant he became a more important middle-order man. Vettori has supported McCullum's desire to settle at No. 5 but that always hasn't worked out. Against Australia last year, McCullum moved back down to No. 7 and was uncharacteristically restrained; in fact he admitted his approach had changed since moving down a spot. He hasn't replicated it here.

Having kept wickets for long periods in this series, he would have watched Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera, two men as outwardly tranquil as an entire ashram, bat hours on end before turning aggressive. For New Zealand's future, McCullum must soon find that perfect balance.

Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • adam on August 29, 2009, 14:55 GMT

    McCullum must be the most frustrating of all the inconsistent performers in the NZ side right now. Those that suggest he should just play his natural game - I have some news for you. His natural game is recklessness and soft dismissals. He's been doing it for nearly 50 tests and his average is bad and getting worse. A lot of the runs he has scored have been in pointless 4th innings slogs when the game is up. He needs to get his batting sorted out and do some hard work to tighten it up. No-one slogs their way through test cricket no matter how good their eye. I honestly think one of the problems he has is that he is an automatic selection, and therefore no accountablity for his consistent underperformance in tests. I think one of two things should happen - either he should be dropped for a keeper who is prepared to earn us some hard runs in the lower order (even if they are less talented) - or take the gloves off him and make him hold his place a batsman. NZ need some runs from him.

  • Jonathan on August 29, 2009, 14:34 GMT

    Now now guyz.. Stop "over-battiering" New Zealand here. The fact is they are losing to a supreme bowling regime in cricket. SL arent No-2 ranked in test by a coin toss. Yes, NZ should pull up their socks and give it a fight and McCullum my friend you need to be batting in the top order mate !!

  • Cricinfouser on August 29, 2009, 13:41 GMT

    its not only in the case of his performance,his skills in his captaincy for the team, if after daniel vettori, must also be taken into consideration.His captaincy for the kolkata night riders really tested his character of being a captain .Losing 8 consecutive matches in a row in the IPL he underwent a lot of stress in raising the team to a fine position, but in vain.In the case of his performance, i agree with many of the comments made by the people, patiency is what he lacks and he must try for it, for it is always the key to victory.but I am sure he will come as good as new if really focuses to do well to gain his role as a wicket keeper-batsman for his team.I would be really happy on the day he emerges for he is one of my favourite players

  • Justin on August 29, 2009, 12:38 GMT

    As a kiwi, I cant begin to explain how disappointed I have been with the Black Caps over the past few seasons. Today I want to talk about test cricket, and I must say this team is seriously WEAK! Chris Martin: Just plain ordinary, hes what you call a "has been" or "never was". Obrien: Has potential if he becomes more consistent with his line and length. Patel: Average, needs to become more consistent with line and length. Oram: Is a has been who must be dropped ASAP. McCullum: I think he should be dropped ASAP, not good enough for someone who could offer up a lot more.Flynn: Too inconsistent, should be dropped. Taylor: Must stay but needs to accept more responsibility. Guptill: Should stay but should not be opening. McIntosh: No good, get rid of him ASAP( try Redmond). Ryder: Needs to accept more responsibility and lose some weight. Elliott:Deserves a chance, shown he has good fight in the few games played. Vettori: Need to kick his players arses much harder! Moles:Get rid of him ASAP!

  • Rohit on August 29, 2009, 12:17 GMT

    McCullum is arguably the best batsman in the kiwi line up. Your best batsman should bat at No 3 or 4 and not No 6. Daniel Flynn, with all due respects has never helped the team's cause. He should bat at No 6 instead of McCullum.

  • Peter on August 29, 2009, 12:06 GMT

    Totally agree with NZCampbell, this author is wrong.

    Brendan McCullum needs to play his natural game, use his feet and be given the freedom to hit the ball hard. Making him poke around is handicapping the guy and taking away his main weapon. The blame lays with NZ's top order. They are not getting NZ any decent starts, so when Brendan comes into bat he is already forced to save an innings. If he gets out slogging in this situation people would start calling for his neck.

    If the top order did its job Brendan would have the freedom to play his natural game.

    Which he should always do. Hit that damn ball Brendan, just hit it.

  • Vignesh on August 29, 2009, 11:46 GMT

    McCullum is a key player for kiwis,probably out of colour now,that does'nt mean he should be dropped all of a sudden.He needs to be promoted up the order in test matches,number 4 would be appropriate and vettori should come in at number 6. The biggest problem which New Zealand has faced post 2007 world cup is the retirement of several valuable players like astle,fleming,styris,mcmillan etc. But there are some good prospects like Flynn,Eliott,Ryder etc who can be given some chances to prove their ability.They have to follow trial and error method with selection atleast for next 4 months

  • Geoff on August 29, 2009, 10:16 GMT

    Agree with Mobiasprime.I haven't been impressed with McCullum for the last year in fact. I would drop OBrien but keep Oram though even though he has been struggling. Where is Mr Bond?all very well him playing for the A side in India where we need him in SL!

  • James on August 29, 2009, 9:44 GMT

    McCullum is one of the most underachieving players in world cricket. 3 centuries in 45 tests? Says it all. And 2 of those barely count coz they're against rubbish opposition. He's ok in the candy floss of 2020 but when a fight is needed in difficult circumstances in a test match he's nowhere to be seen. Just because he smashes it miles every 7 or 8 inings does not make him a good player. Totally inconsistent. Vettori's efforts put him to shame.

  • Daniel on August 29, 2009, 8:47 GMT

    "...the absence of a quality allrounder at No. 6. After McCullum comes a weak tail and he hasn't been successful at batting with the lower order." WTH? Firstly McCullum himself is at No. 6, he is talented enough to be there (which I believe is the point of the article). After McCullum (i.e. the "weak tail") includes Jacob Oram (Test Average 36), and Daniel Vettori (Avg 28, 3 test centuries), and then Patel who has a 1st Class century. Fair enough O'Brien and Martin are bunnies but they are only 10 and 11, how can you possibly consider that a weak tail!?

  • No featured comments at the moment.