Brendon McCullum: England must 'explore the line' for new positive approach

Head coach calls on team to go 'too far', as other opponents wake up to new approach

England head coach Brendon McCullum speaks at the end of the third Test  •  Getty Images

England head coach Brendon McCullum speaks at the end of the third Test  •  Getty Images

Brendon McCullum has challenged England to test the limits of their new attacking approach by taking it "too far", and hopes county cricketers look to emulate how the Test batters have performed in their 3-0 series win over New Zealand.
England ticked off three run-chases out of three in McCullum's first series as head coach of the Test side, sealing an emphatic seven-wicket victory at Headingley. Just as at Trent Bridge in the second Test, when 299 was chased comfortably in 50 overs, victory came in a flurry on the final day, sealed by Joe Root (86 not out) and Jonny Bairstow (71 not out) in a 111-run stand spanning 14.3 overs that ultimately saw off a target of 296 in less than two sessions.
This was only England's second series win since the start of 2021. But the manner of it spoke of much more than simply a team overcoming a dire run of form. With the 277 achieved at Lord's, England have three new entries in the top 12 of their all-time chases list, this one at Headingley coming in at No.7.
As observers of English cricket wonder just how much longer the team can sustain this run, and indeed this style of play, McCullum believes they will only find their limits if they continue to push themselves to go bigger and better.
"I hope we take it too far because then we'll know exactly where that line is. Until you do that, you're not really sure. We've seen it with the England white-ball stuff - there have been times where they've probably pushed too hard, and then they know. I think it'll be the same with us, and we've got to keep exploring what that line is.
"It's not just about batting either," McCullum added, reflecting on how England overcame a wicketless morning session on the fourth day at Headingley to run through New Zealand's lower order with five quick wickets. "If you look at how we've fielded and how we've bowled as well, some of the field placements that the skipper's had in place and the mentality the guys have had is constantly to try and chase wickets.
"Even yesterday [Sunday] when there was a partnership establishing between Mitchell and Blundell, maybe in the past at times there might have been a slight unease about the total that was building up. But we kept attacking, the fields were very attacking right throughout, the bowlers kept trying to bowl towards modes of dismissal and to me that's just part and parcel with how this team wants to play."
As dynamic as the batting has been, the bowling effort has carried a never-say-die spirit, typified by Jack Leach's maiden ten-wicket match haul (comprised of five for 100 and five for 66) and Matthew Potts' debut series of 14 dismissals, the most for the hosts.
Speaking after stumps on Monday, new captain Ben Stokes hoped his charges have sent a message to those angling for Test honours in the future, whether with bat or ball. "I'd like to think people watching would know what they have to do to bang the door down to get in this team". It was a sentiment McCullum was keen to amplify.
"It would be nice," McCullum said, when Stokes' comments were put to him. "We can't impose any of that stuff on them as well, because they've got things that they want to achieve, but I think you'll see if we can build this and we have success doing it, you see the type of player (we want).
"If I was a young player around county cricket and I saw what our No.5 for England [Bairstow] is currently doing and the role and how he's encouraged to play that way, then I'd probably look at trying to play like that myself to ensure that I would get noticed as well, in case something was to happen to that person.
"You hope that it filters down, you certainly can't be belligerent enough to think that it will always be the case. I think that we've already seen with county cricket scores over the past couple of days that maybe that positivity has filtered down."
Those inside the dressing room and beyond have heaped praise on the way McCullum and Stokes have lifted a group of players who were coming into this summer with just one win in 17 matches behind them. Speaking to Sky during this third Test, James Anderson, who was unable to take part due to an ankle issue, championed McCullum for making him feel "ten feet tall". Stokes, meanwhile, has practised what he preaches: batting selflessly - arguably to a fault, at times - and backing his bowlers completely in the field.
No doubt there is a far greater atmosphere around the English game, the tell-tale sign being how engaged those who have been in the stands seem to be with the way the game is being played. McCullum, however, was keen to dampen down the influence of both him and Stokes, insisting that they have benefitted from circumstance to a degree.
"Timing is important - you have got to be ready for change. I think taking over this job when the skipper and I have, there was a thirst for change. When your results haven't been good, people are more receptive to change.
"The freshness of some of the ideas, the approach, stripping out some of the noise, but getting guys to play the game for the game's sake. Still understand your obligations and responsibilities but just play the game. Enjoy the game with your mates and understand you have a very finite time as an international cricketer, so you should try and enjoy that, rather than being paralysed by the fear of failure or the noise.
"The skipper has taken them on a journey, I've tried to fill in the gaps where needed and they've got instant gratification for that change. It doesn't always happen. But that's why those guys are so keen on this style."
However, England are clearly benefitting from the fact that McCullum has already lived through the methods that he is calling for. Across an international career spanning 14 years, he was praised and pilloried for how he approached his cricket as a wicketkeeper-batter with a global profile. There were highs and lows, but most of the highs - certainly the ones celebrated fullest - seemed to come at the back-end of his career, once he had made peace with how he wanted to play and what he wanted from the game.
Having only retired from professional cricket in 2019, his connection to the generations he is now overseeing is strong. As is his appreciation of the pressures facing them on and off the field and why, as well as shedding doubt and blocking out the external noise, they should enjoy this time as much as possible.
"I had a great time during my career - loved it. It wasn't always beers and skittles, but it was fun and at the end you look back at where you landed and the time you had. That's why I'm so strong with my messaging, they should enjoy themselves.
"They need to now play the game in the way that will give them the most satisfaction to try and quieten down the other stuff. Because if you are able to do that, and you are able to have success, you build that camaraderie in the group and it's such a magic place to be. They're the memories which you create. Then you leave the game content and not wanting to go back out there and play."
The next challenge is right around the corner, with India on Friday at Edgbaston for the fifth and final Test of the series which began last summer. India lead 2-1 and will no doubt have played close attention to the noise coming out of the England camp, both in their play and their talk.
McCullum is looking forward to the challenge, in particular how his side copes after putting other teams on notice. In many ways, they have caught New Zealand cold. Other teams, including South Africa later this summer and Pakistan this winter, will not be as unprepared.
"It'll be quite good fun to look at a new opponent," said McCullum. "The world test champions were a formidable opponent to overcome and the alarm bells have probably gone off somewhat around world cricket as to how this team is going to play. We need to make sure against a different opposition we're well researched, well planned, well prepared for that and try and roll out a similar kind of performance.
"Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, let's enjoy the moment and see what unfolds in the next little while. It's exciting."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo