Match Analysis

How Brendon McCullum stripped the formal out of the Test format, to reinvigorate England

Faith in Crawley epitomises coach's desire to take the sport back to its basics

Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum have made a formidable pairing in England's rebooted Test team  •  Getty Images

Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum have made a formidable pairing in England's rebooted Test team  •  Getty Images

Ahead of South Africa's second innings in the opening Test match of their 2007 series with New Zealand, a 24-year-old Hashim Amla was circling the drain. A maiden century for the No.3 batter in April 2006 had been followed by just four fifties in a run of 23 innings spanning 19 months, the last of which featured him being beaten all ends up by Shane Bond on day one of the series, in Johannesburg.
The knives were being sharpened ahead of Amla's second go, which many posited could be his last if things went a similar way. And when Bond found the edge again off an attempted square drive when Amla had just two runs by his name, there was a split-second when perhaps even the man himself wondered if this, his 16th Test appearance, was going to be his last.
The edge, however, was dropped. It proved a catastrophic miss: Amla seized his lifeline and scored 176 not out in a total of 422 for three. He followed that immediately with 103 in the second Test at Centurion and eventually called time on his own terms 12 years later, with 28 hundreds and an average of 46.64 across a glittering 125-cap career.
The person who dropped Amla on that fateful day in November 2007 was Brendon McCullum. And the reason that's important is because, though he kicked himself behind the stumps during the eight-and-a-half hours in which Amla was doing his thing in front of them, the Kiwi was struck by the manner in which the error was seized upon. Amla was liberated from his funk by the idea that he had nothing left to lose. He forgot about the travails, the struggle, the emotional toil of being so out of nick, and just started playing the game he wanted to play. He never looked back.
That sense of playing for love is something McCullum carried with him, and has been steadily reinforced during his playing career, particularly with the passing of Australian cricketer Phil Hughes. It is a mindset England's managing director Rob Key identified with when the pair first spoke about the job he has now, and it has subsequently driven the England men's Test side to six wins out of seven in the first summer under McCullum's watch.
Perhaps the situation around Zak Crawley epitomises the ethos McCullum believes he saw Amla unlock that day. In the midst of his consistent selection over the summer, every new failure has taken Crawley that little bit closer to an "ah screw it" approach, and there is a quiet hope the 69 not out to close out the summer and secure England a 2-1 series win over South Africa will prove to be just that moment. The domineering strokeplay that McCullum and Ben Stokes had talked up became abundantly clear in the 36 deliveries it took Crawley to reach a first half-century of the summer.
But, really, the most productive aspect of McCullum's approach has been the liberation of a group of players who had become accustomed to the seriousness with which England treated the sport of Test cricket, but dismayed by the impact on their lives and fortunes. McCullum has steadily stripped away a lot of the formality of the format, aided by captain Ben Stokes who has long found elements of ECB-ness too constricting: whether that's allowing players to show up when they want on the mornings of games (provided they're ready by 10.50am), McCullum's own wireless stereo blaring in the dressing-room or discouraging players from watching their dismissals immediately after getting out. On one occasion, when Jonny Bairstow was starting to query a bad shot - and there weren't many of those this summer - McCullum ordered him to sit next to him and talk about anything but cricket. Bairstow was in the form of his life, and there was no need to obsess over one of the few mistakes he had made. The game is serious business, and there's no need to take it too seriously.
"I don't really do a lot, to be honest," McCullum said with a smile after the Oval Test. "Just let the guys do what they're born to do - to play cricket in the style and manner they want, and try to bring the group together and make sure they're enjoying themselves.
"Sometimes when you're playing this game ... you start off as a kid and it's so much fun, and you get thrust into the bright lights and the big cities and the expectations are thrown on you, the enjoyment can go out of the game, and it can start to lead to negativity seeping in.
"My job is to ensure that we're always reminding ourselves that this job is meant to be the greatest time of our life, being a cricketer at the highest level, and trying to create memories that you look back over in time. That's the results, but it's also the fun and the camaraderie that you build up. Hopefully we've been able to achieve that."
At the age of 40, McCullum speaks from a position of experience. As a player, his career spanned three decades, but it was only in his final years as New Zealand's captain that he believes he found the right balance. Ultimately, he embraced the notion you are there to entertain and should enjoy that responsibility above all else. A cricketer's active years are too short to be doing otherwise.
"I've had the benefit of a career in cricket as well, with the ups and the downs, and I had a young family early, and you get used to a bit of chaos at times," he said. "You find a way to deal with it. I like to keep things pretty relaxed, and the guys seem to enjoy that relaxed nature as well. It seems to be working at the moment, but we'll see."
Looking back on the summer, he admits to being surprised at how good the England team have been. And, to be honest, he's right - a side with one win from 17 have suddenly come into a run of six wins out of seven, against New Zealand (three), India (one) and South Africa (two). Even in home conditions - which, it should be said, have not been uniform - it is a remarkable shift from a dark period in English cricket.
"I knew there was a lot of talent in English cricket," he added. "I didn't realise it was this much and the guys were as good as what they are. With Stokesy, I thought he'd be good as a leader, but I didn't realise he'd be quite as good as what he is. You put all those elements into the pot, and you play against good opposition and still find a way to succeed, you look back on the summer and say that was pretty good fun."
Stokes' emergence as a talismanic skipper ranks as one of the highlights of McCullum's first season in charge, particularly the way he has been able to inspire those around him while reinforcing the coach's positive mantra in such a short space of time. Others include Jack Leach's ten-wicket match haul against New Zealand at Headingley, Joe Root's three centuries at the start of the summer and Jonny Bairstow's re-emergence as a dominator of the red ball. His stand-out, however, is England's response to defeat in the first Test against South Africa at Lord's, both in the immediate aftermath and the two victories that followed.
"Even when we lost at Lord's, you wouldn't have known we'd lost in the dressing-room, and that's such an important aspect of success and failure," he said. "It's a fine line, right? If your emotions are going to float up and down based on results, then you're guessing.
"The thing I was really pleased about was the way the guys responded to that performance, and they didn't change at all. They'd keep turning up, still had the smiles on their faces, stuck together as a group, and hence we were able to hold the fort and get the results, Pressed on it, I'd probably say that was my favourite moment - the response to Lord's."
Ahead of the series against Pakistan, areas of improvement will be picked out and rectified. The most glaring would seem to be the opening positions, though McCullum appears willing to give Crawley and Alex Lees more time, even with another attacking option in Ben Duckett waiting in the wings.
"The last two guys who nailed it at the top of the order are both called 'Sir' in this country," he joked, referencing the knighted pair of Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. "So it's not an easy thing to do. We've got to allow these guys the time and opportunity to develop. If you spend your whole days as a selector, as a coach or a captain, trying to catch form, you make things very difficult for yourself. You've got to give them an extended period of time, and allow that talent to come out."
He stopped short of pencilling Lees and Crawley in for the first Test at Rawalpindi in December, perhaps sensing the duty to those beyond a squad and an XI that has seen very little change. "Another thing I'll say though, is that are some very good players out there, and we've seen that with some of the guys who have come in," he added. "There are certainly some areas we can improve, but overall we've got to give it a resounding success."
For McCullum, the tougher days are ahead. Not so much because other teams are on watch after a summer which has drawn a lot of eyes and made a lot of noise. But rather because maintaining this joie de vivre will only get more difficult as time goes by.
To call this a honeymoon period would suggest ignorance to the reality of Test cricket, which certainly isn't the case. Yet you do wonder if we are not too far off from encountering a few contradictions: for example, at what point does backing someone for as long as possible in the XI become not backing the bloke who is next in? Already a handful of players posting good County Championship numbers have sought conversations about what more they need to do. That is only a good thing in the short term, as it shows just how desperate they are to be a part of all this. But the offshoot is a fear this is all a closed shop, which could breed resentment.
Perhaps, though, that is taking things a little too seriously. Perhaps, even to entertain that notion, at a time when an England team have put together more Test wins in a summer than they have since 2004, is a bit like winning a sports car and immediately worrying about the insurance.
After all, this is just a game. It's all supposed to be fun. The serious stuff will be addressed when it needs to be.
"You do plan forever in this job," McCullum said, when asked about how the future might look. "But you've got to live as if you'll die tomorrow as well. You've got to make sure that, while you do have an eye on what's coming, that you don't get too far ahead of yourselves. We've still got a couple of months before we have to head over there. Let's just enjoy this one."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo