Balancing the oval rugby ball on the tip of his fingers, curled like a cup, Brendon McCullum flips it upwards. The ball makes a few vigorous revs over his head before it nestles back exactly where it had been launched off—on the tip of his caroused fingers. “This is what you call spin,” he informs a bunch of puzzled schoolchildren, gathered around him. He demonstrates the manoeuvre a few times overs, each time with the nuanced measuredness of a seasoned pro. Then, maybe to sound a little grounded, he chuckles, “It’s easier to spin this than a cricket ball. I’ve tried the other spin all my life and couldn’t (grasp it).” The kids giggle in chorus.
Then without even bothering to curl up the sleeves of his speckless white shirt, or even breaking as much as half-a sweat, he demonstrates a spiral pass, one of the most difficult acts to master in rugby. He sprints forward, then with a singular, swivelling motion, he passes it sideways from his hip. The ball swerves, whirs, more like a top than a cricket ball, and drifts, to the recipient, not a schoolboy but a Delhi Rebels Rugby regular, who fumblingly pouches it. McCullum then stops and has a word of counsel to the kids, “It’s more difficult to judge the spin and catch it. You should have the correct grip, which you can develop of course with a lot of practice,” he instructs.
He then illustrates how to receive the spiral pass, though the delivery hadn’t much of spin or swerve on it. Like, say, an Axar Patel delivery. The ball is sucked into his palms, as though guided by an invisible magnetic field. Here McCullum was conversing the language of a different game, but with the assured authority of a has-been. While the schoolchildren uncomplicatedly enjoyed the evening, even if some of them hadn’t the full grasp of the sport, several of the elders might have wondered how McCullum pulls off the rugby gigs with as much as ease as he tucks into a short-ball or unleashes a pugnacious cover-drive. He looked every inch the part —you could easily visualise him scowling in the middle of their intimidating haka routine. So much so that some of the senior players, among them several current Indians players, were put to shade. “Think we should take a few tips from you,” chirped Gautam Dagar, Delhi Rebels and India skipper. “Not a bad idea actually,” McCullum bantered.
Then, if there was a slight quirk of fate, he would have been an All Black than a Black Cap. “Not really,” he says. “I was decent at the school-level, and then I stopped. Everybody back home plays rugby, like you guys play cricket in India. It’s something in our blood and I was just one of them,” he understated his rugby expertise.
He wasn’t just “one of them” though. At the school-level, he was good enough to keep would-be All Black legend Dan Carter on the bench during their King’s High School. There were stories that the school cricket coach hid his rugby boots so that he would stick to cricket. No wonder when he became the New Zealand skipper, you could spot the Black Caps involved in a bout of rugby during practice. McCullum claims he hasn’t played any decent rugby for years, but he didn’t show any semblance of rustiness at the Jesus and Mary College Ground on Wednesday. And this without even creasing a single fold of his shirt or trouser or disturbing his hair strands.
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After the demonstrations, or as he later said a re-acquaintance with his childhood sport, he handed out a sheet of paper to the kids and asked them to write the favourite positions. Almost everybody had written “scrum”, which prompted disapproval from McCullum. “So none of them want to be a fly-half? It’s like in cricket, everybody wants to be a batsman,” he quips.
There might not have been a teeming gathering to greet or meet him — rather unusual considering the stature he commands around the cricketing globe, even more so in India, where he is an IPL glitterati — but the cricket queries couldn’t be kept abreast of him. His observations were on the touring Black Caps were expectedly sought. The tone was more sympathetic than stringent—it’s sometimes characteristic of former players to critique younger peers. “Look India is always a tough place to tour. It is incredibly difficult here, the conditions are so different to what we have back home. I think the guys will take a lot of learning out of this tour. I am sure in time we will see the benefits of how tough this tour has been for the boys,” he reckons.
He was also impressed with his successor Kane Williamson. “I think Kane is going to be an incredible leader. At such a young age, he is already very mature. He is a world-class player, and I am sure over the coming months, the leadership which is in place will stand up in their own conditions,” he avers.
The former New Zealand skipper left as he came—through the back gate of the ground, without breaking as much of a sweat, and surprisingly without the teeming adulation of the fans.