It’s been a hot summer, both on and off the field, for the New Zealand cricket team, with the home calendar for international assignments concluding with a resounding draw — enough to secure a rare Test series win against one of the best Test teams in the world.
It has been an ‘Indian Summer’ for Brendon McCullum and the Black Caps, with the Indian and West Indian sides visiting New Zealand.
Much to the delight of every cricket fan in New Zealand, McCullum and his team have come out on top in both Test series, performing with a consistency not seen by watchers of New Zealand cricket for decades.
Success in the shorter formats against both sides also bodes well for the ICC World Cup next year, when New Zealand will enjoy home advantage while co-hosting the tournament with Australia.
But the talk of the summer really has been the side’s much improved performances in Tests and it has come with McCullum leading from the front — with newfound self-control and a sense of calm. This has brought some balance to a character who has never backed down from a challenge and has played high-risk high return cricket in the past.
McCullum, the number-one ranked batsman in the ICC’s ratings for T20, has curbed his natural strokeplay and accepted the responsibility to lead the side. He has bailed them out of several difficult positions this summer — none more perilous than during the last Test, when he strode in the team were 94/5 in the 2nd innings, still 152 runs shy of making India bat again.
That’s when McCullum really knuckled down. In BJ Watling, he found a partner with who he could temper his natural aggression and inhibit his instinctive desire to destroy the bowling attack in a very public display of disdain. His 775-minute stay is the longest innings on record in Tests by a New Zealander. He also became the first Black Cap to score a Test triple-century — two amazing feats made even more impressive because they were achieved by the man who is currently the world’s best batsman in the shortest form of the game.
The signs are there that McCullum has come of age and has an understanding of his game that, hopefully, sets him up to achieve the greatness many bestowed upon him at an early age. He has always been a leader, regardless of whether he had the Captain’s “c” next to his name. Unfortunately, the controversy that surrounded Ross Taylor’s removal from the top spot tainted the new regime and quite possibly, stunted McCullum’s and the Black Caps’ growth at a time when a raft of young talent was coming through.
Now, with all that behind them, we are seeing what can happen when a motivated captain works closely with a well-organised coaching staff to create a style of play and a team ethos that everyone believes in, and the captain lives by.
Mike Hesson, the current Black Caps coach, has a long history of working closely with McCullum. Having come through Otago’s coaching system, it is no surprise that they’ve continued to build on that rapport with the national team. Hesson is a meticulous planner and in a country obsessed by many of it’s former sports-men and women, he has done exceptionally well to make it to the top without having played international cricket. There were many doubters before his appointment, but there was only one choice for captain once he was confirmed as coach.
The Otago connection is strong and I have no doubt some serious thought and planning is going into the upcoming ICC World T20 to try and build on the momentum the team have generated, and secure a rare trophy on the world stage.
New Zealand has a young, dynamic and talented side that will be capable of upsetting anyone when they perform to potential. So, the New Zealand public has every right to be excited about what lies ahead. With individuals like McCullum, Corey Anderson, Jimmy Neesham and Ross Taylor in the side, any one of them could take a game by the scruff of the neck and get New Zealand across the line.
The challenge that lies ahead for McCullum is how to harness that power and create an environment that gets the best out of all his players in a way that conforms to the team’s strategy and has the end goal in sight. McCullum need only look in the mirror to see the best example of what can be achieved when you harness raw power and put it in a space where it can capitalise on its talents, delivering on what the team is trying to achieve.
It has undoubtedly been a spectacular summer for McCullum and the BlackCaps but New Zealand fans, worn down and skeptical after years of frustration, will want to see this progress continue before they buy in to the Cricket World Cup hype and excitement that awaits them next summer. Just the type of challenge McCullum relishes.
(The writer is a former New Zealand international.He tweets @petermcglashan)