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ESPNcricinfo Awards

ESPNcricinfo Awards 2015 Captain of the year: the tattooed evangelist

Brendon McCullum found and fostered an approach that was true not only to his team but to his nation, and thus got New Zealand to embrace cricket anew

Brydon Coverdale
14-Mar-2016
Brendon McCullum once again gave his all at the field, New Zealand v Bangladesh, World Cup 2015, Group A, Hamilton, March 13, 2015

Bird or plane? Baz at it in the game against Bangladesh in the World Cup  •  Getty Images

How much impact does the captain have on a team's success? How do you define great captaincy? It is one of cricket's great intangibles, the win-loss columns telling only part of the story. There are other things to consider. Does the team seem happy? Is there harmony in the group? Are they playing above themselves or below? Does the captain connect, not only with his men but with the public? Is he a leader in nature or just in name?
You could look at New Zealand's results in 2015 and wonder how Brendon McCullum came to be captain of the year. They did not win the World Cup. They did not win their Test series in England or Australia. They did not win their one-day campaigns in England or South Africa. What they did win - as well as some other series - was respect. They played their cricket in such a way that you could not help but fall for them. And for a country of less than five million people, they played above themselves.
That New Zealand went through the World Cup undefeated until the final was an outstanding achievement, even if they did play all their matches at home. The morning after Australia lifted the trophy, Brad Haddin was asked in a radio interview about Australia's sledging and send-off to New Zealand batsmen, and he declared that they deserved it because "they were that nice to us in New Zealand and we were that uncomfortable".
In other words, New Zealand were the Ned Flanders to neighbour Australia's boorish Homer Simpson. Haddin's comments had the subtext that New Zealand didn't deserve to win because they were too nice, they weren't hard enough. In fact, leading his team in such a way, eschewing nastiness and sledging, McCullum got the very best out of his men. It was true to their nature, but it was also what worked for them. Fostering such an approach was good man management.
"It's got to be authentic," McCullum said of the approach later in 2015. "We're not trying to put up an act, we just want to be part of a team which gives it a good crack and be the best that we can. It's not forced upon anyone."
When playing the ball, though, McCullum's men were hard at it - and he led from the front. One of the defining images of New Zealand's 2015 was of McCullum sprinting towards the boundary and launching himself horizontally in an attempt to save a boundary in the World Cup match against Bangladesh. He had seemingly no regard for his own safety, and in the end his dive was in vain. But what a way to lead by example.
It is often notable at net sessions that the New Zealanders appear much happier than their opponents. The environment has helped new players to flourish
"The way that he's captained the side has been inspirational," Richard Hadlee said during the World Cup. "The way that he fields and leads the side in the field, he puts his body on the line, and his batting ability as well. If he can put all three things together, the other players will follow that."
And not only the players. Over the past year or so, the New Zealand public has embraced the Black Caps as they would the All Blacks, which is almost unprecedented. McCullum found and fostered an approach that was authentic not only to his team but to his nation. And in doing so, he galvanised the country behind their cricket team. Quite an achievement for a man who, when he succeeded the popular Ross Taylor as captain, was seen as something of an usurper.
Part of that public perception was based on the way McCullum acted during the earlier parts of his career, when he could be petulant, but there is no question that he has won over the public now. New Zealand's cricket team has a distinct national identity, and that is largely down to McCullum. Respectful to your opponents but relentlessly attacking tactically, as during much of the World Cup, when he set Test-like slip cordons - it was a winning combination.
It is often notable at net sessions that the New Zealanders appear much happier than their opponents. The environment has helped new players to flourish - the likes of Mitchell Santner and Matt Henry, for example - but has also ensured that New Zealand have got the best out of some of the more established members of the outfit, including Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Kane Williamson.
And their results in 2015 were seriously impressive. They won a World Cup semi-final for the first time in seven appearances. They drew a Test series in England, which Australia did not manage to achieve later in the year. However, their remarkable run of not having lost a Test series at home since McCullum and coach Mike Hesson joined forces ended in McCullum's farewell series, won 2-0 by Australia.
It seems fitting that ESPNcricinfo has only this year introduced the Captain of the Year award, for it seems made for McCullum, a man for whom captaincy has fit like a glove - certainly better than the wicketkeeping gloves ever fitted him. And this is the last year he could win it, for in the final week of 2015, McCullum announced he would retire at the end of the home Test series against Australia. Cricket will miss him, and not just in New Zealand.