The way a sportsman plays his hand, the degree of belief and conviction he can muster in acting out the risks he takes, transmutes the cards he is holding
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Brendon McCullum has now achieved what even Bradman couldn't manage: a Hollywood ending. Perhaps the Don followed the wrong plot line. Clapped out to the middle for his farewell Test in 1948, Bradman, according to the commentator John Arlott, pushed his first ball "gently in the direction of the Houses of Parliament, which are out beyond mid-off. It doesn't go as far as that, merely goes to Watkins in the silly mid-off." The second ball, of course, was Eric Hollies' famous googly, and Bradman was out for nought. "It's not easy batting with tears in your eyes," Bradman reflected.
McCullum took a different approach to his last Test match. After a superb ovation from the crowd and the Australians, McCullum was promptly beaten first ball. To the second, he played a running swipe that he edged, soaring over the slip cordon for four. That second shot set the tone of the innings. To adapt Bradman's quote: it's not easy defending with tears in your eyes. But if Bradman had been slog-sweeping second ball, the small question of googly or legbreak would have been a side issue. Get the bat speed up to full throttle and the tears wash away in no time.
People close to McCullum were pretty clear about his specialness from the outset. In 2006, Scott Styris - McCullum's New Zealand colleague and Middlesex's overseas pro - couldn't stop telling us how marvellous McCullum was. McCullum the fearless, McCullum the bold, McCullum the competitor. When Middlesex finally played against McCullum (who had been signed up by Glamorgan) he was promptly out first ball, playing an extravagant reverse sweep. No good, this McCullum bloke, we ribbed Styris. It only encouraged the compliments - you can't judge a player on one ball, you'll understand when you see him in full flight…
And, of course, Styris was right. Where most top players fret about the question of greatness, McCullum now leaves the arena certain of something rather different: achievement. Cricketers, in Bradman's phrase, are only the temporary custodians of the game and their ultimate task is to leave the sport enhanced. McCullum has done that and more.
The manifestations of that contribution are well known - freedom, openness, sportsmanship, the embrace of risk and adventure, and rowing back from the toughness-is-sledging delusion. But how did McCullum reach the insights that led to those characteristics and opinions? And why was he able to stay true to them on the big stage?
After New Zealand beat England at Headingley last season - a historic achievement, given it was only New Zealand's ninth Test win over England in 101 attempts - McCullum alluded to the context of cricket in his country. "We'll never get near rugby - rugby's in our blood," he explained. "When you're born, you're trying to be an All Black - it's just the way we are."
McCullum was speaking from experience as well as observation. He was a fine rugby player. So good, in fact, that he was picked ahead of Dan Carter at fly half in the South Island secondary schools team in 2000. "That year, 2000, he [McCullum] was playing some awesome footy, so I spent a fair bit of time on the bench," Carter said.
As it turned out, by their early 20s, Carter was already the face of the one of world sport's most relentless dynasties, whereas McCullum had to find his way in a cricket team that lacks the resources - and celebrity - of its international rivals. Cricket is never going to become rugby in New Zealand. So it can become something different. When perpetual dominance is already sewn up next door, you needn't waste time on impossible targets. If you're Einstein's younger brother, you're not going to get too het up about maths exams. You're going to search for meaning elsewhere.
My conjecture is that the combination of proximity to All Black greatness, and the relative normality of being a New Zealand cricketer provided McCullum with critical perspective and freedom.
Athletes and sports teams waste huge space and energy on external motivators: mission statements about trying to be the best team in the world by 2057; blueprints for global dominance; strategic flow charts about key performance indicators. In fact, if every sportsman simply tried to be the best he could be, and attempted to behave decently along the way, you've pretty much summed up every available optimal strategy in one simple sentence. After all, you can't be better than your best. And nothing matters more than how you feel about the way you've lived your life.
What makes things tricky for most sportsmen is the issue of pressure and expectation: to live up to something, to overtake someone, to preserve a position - life lived looking in the rear-view mirror. McCullum was able to transcend that pressure and short-sightedness, to see things more clearly. Instead of wasting energy on what he knew he couldn't achieve (making New Zealand cricket pre-eminent in world cricket, or even within New Zealand sport) he got on with what he could do. And that was building a team in his own image - unencumbered, expressive and audacious. The presence of the mighty All Blacks in the background was not a burden but a useful slipstream.
The necessary preliminary for achieving what you can do is often acknowledging what you can't do. Focus is the fine art of not noticing what isn't relevant.
You could say that McCullum was lucky to have Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and company to shoulder national expectations, allowing him to captivate and entertain. But luck, as McCullum's hundred again proved this week, is a slippery subject in sport. On one level, the innings was outright flukey - edges flew over the slips, not to mention the small matter of him being brilliantly caught off a no-ball.
But the way a sportsman plays his hand, the degree of belief and conviction he can muster in acting out the risks he takes, transmutes the cards he is holding. In that way, the sportsman is different from the poker player or the investor, who cannot change the odds once he has made his decision.
McCullum batted as though it was his destiny to score a hundred. Conviction, obviously, is not sufficient in sport. But it's a very good start. For McCullum, it was also a perfect ending.