England’s risk-taking future relies on McCullum handling unruly Test machine | Ali Martin
It was an accomplished first outing for Brendon McCullum, the new England Test head coach. Decked out in an official training top, skinny trousers and white trainers (no socks, naturally), a little bleary-eyed after the 12,000-mile journey from Dunedin, the former New Zealand captain rocked up at sunny Lord’s on Friday morning looking as relaxed as the team environment he intends to create.
Over the course of an hour speaking to various outlets – including a couple of European correspondents from back home – the 40-year-old espoused the philosophy which attracted Rob Key, director of men’s cricket, to hire a head coach with only white-ball experience on his CV: to be consistent in messaging, to keep things simple, to help players realise their potential and be role models, to cut out external noise, to be unafraid to take a risk if the upside demands it, to whip away the fear of failure he believes is inherent in the English game.
There was an insistence that he is not a technical coach, with man management more his domain. (Vibes, eh? Perhaps his nickname should be Bez, not Baz). The partnership with Ben Stokes, another streetfighter from New Zealand’s south island, will be about sweeping up all the peripheral problems to ensure the all-rounder is “the most authentic version of himself”. “There may be times I have to pull him back and times when I might have to push him forward,” McCullum added, citing a similar arrangement with Mike Hesson that brought New Zealand much success back in the day.
After a year of rest and rotation, conflicting priorities and a heavy slab of overthink, McCullum also wants to get the Test team back to playing the match in front of them. “My job will be to plan as if you’ll live forever, but live as if you’ll die tomorrow,” he said. More loftily came a desire to get England competing at the top of the rankings for the sake of Test cricket’s future itself. Truly, after one win in their past 17 outings, they have reached the point well known to followers of West Indies: the sport needs a strong England, apparently.
The big question will be how these commendable, sock-free principles fit with the angst-ridden corporate world of English cricket, where Test matches pay the bills yet the domestic calendar lays out a career path that makes white-ball specialism so enticing; whether a coach with no direct experience of performing the same role with a first-class side will be able to make a telling mark or find the machine too unwieldy.
This challenge brings to mind the MCC Spirit of Cricket Lecture that McCullum delivered at Lord’s back in 2016 to much acclaim, in which he detailed how New Zealand went from being “full of bluster and soft as putty” to World Cup finalists in 2015, while laying the foundations for a red-ball side that would last year go on to become World Test Champions under his successor, Kane Williamson.
Here he cited an article written by Ed Smith, the former England selector, which read: “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.”
McCullum said he could not agree more with Smith’s assessment of his New Zealand team; stripping away much of the above did set his players free to enjoy their cricket and thrive. Yet only a couple of days ago Andrew Strauss laid out the terms of reference for English cricket’s latest “High Performance Review” and the goal of being No 1 in all formats. With this came the announcement of a panel of experts from cricket and elsewhere to blue-sky the latest masterplan.
Perhaps McCullum will be able to shut the dressing room door on all these strategic flow charts and KPIs and bring in the “blue collar” approach that worked for him as a Test captain. Even with an injury crisis among the fast bowlers, he is confident there is a depth of talent and hopes to discover more when the job and time at home permits. A greater task than he faced with New Zealand? Certainly, but there is also nearly four times the number of professional players.
Ultimately, as much as McCullum hopes to breathe immediate fresh life into the setup after the strains of the pandemic, he preached patience during the adjustment period. But talk of a culture shift and a harmonious group will only go so far unless (without wishing to give the marketeers ideas) they start selling tickets to the dressing room. As ever, runs and wickets, wins and losses will be the currency by which his four-year contract is judged.
It all begins rather mouthwateringly next Thursday against his former charges at Lord’s, with McCullum confirming the one final batting spot – Jonny Bairstow at five as his fellow Yorkshireman, Harry Brook, waits in the wings – and talking up the experience of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. Trevor Bayliss and Chris Silverwood, his predecessors, probably thought they would be overseeing life after the pair but they look inked in to share the new ball once more.
Establishing their future plans is on McCullum’s to-do list – “For now, we should enjoy the fact we’ve got over 300 Test caps sitting in our bowling unit” he said – so, too, building the all-important relationship with Stokes.
“He plays the game how I like it to be played and puts bums on seats,” McCullum said. “I think he’s going to be a wonderful leader. He’ll go over the wall first, and guys will go with him.”
And his own prospects as head coach? “I might be terrible, I might change things completely. We’ll see how we go. It’s a big risk taken by everyone but you don’t get anywhere unless you’re prepared to take a couple of risks in life.”