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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Brendon McCullum, lost and found: How a defeat and a death changed his outlook towards cricket

In an evocative lecture at Lord’s, Baz reveals how a defeat and a death triggered a change in his outlook towards cricket.

Updated: June 8, 2016 11:39:20 am
Brendon McCullum Brendon McCullum led New Zealand to their first ever ICC World cup final.

“I was the kid in South Dunedin who lived for Saturday mornings, when I’d pull the curtains back and hope it wasn’t raining, that the wind was blowing from the north and the sun shining. Any of you who’ve spent a summer in Dunedin will know I was often disappointed… So I grew up not taking summer for granted. A day of sunshine was precious, because a day of sunshine meant cricket.

“Turning up at the ground, my thoughts were not of nervousness or fame or fortune; nor of disdain for the opposition. It was all about the game; it really was the beauty and innocence that sport can bring. There were no concerns that if I didn’t perform I may lose my contract. No worries about lost fame or relevance in a game that can make you a household name in countries all over the world…No media that seemed to delight in criticism. No second thoughts about charging the spinner only to check myself because I remember the mortgage, the mouths to feed at home and the ramifications if I ran past the ball.

“In the early days of my international career I was proud to be called brash, aggressive and perhaps even arrogant. When I first made the New Zealand ODI team, there were at least a couple of guys who were my heroes who had a swagger and sense of entitlement and arrogance about them. Did I want to be like them? You bet I did!

“I became incredibly competitive; winning was everything and I didn’t really care what it took to win.

“I now look back on that part of my game with regret. There are many things I would change if I could. I guess growing up in a cricketing sense is no different to growing up in life, except that it’s a much more public rite of passage where everything you do is scrutinised.


“There’s no escaping some of the things I’ve done. It’s on video — posterity in the worst possible way. You probably want an example, and fair enough too. Much as it pains me to talk about it publicly, I’ll tell you how I ran out Muttiah Muralitharan.

“We were playing Sri Lanka at Lancaster Park in Christchurch in late 2006. Kumar Sangakkara scored a magnificent 100 in the second innings. When Kumar reached his 100, Sri Lanka were nine down — the ball was still in the air being returned to me as wicketkeeper when Murali left his ground to congratulate Kumar. When the ball arrived in my gloves, I removed the bails and appealed. Murali was given out and we went on to win the match.

“Not surprisingly, the incident created controversy and bad feelings. If I could turn back time, I would. We were within the laws of the game but not the spirit and there is a very important difference which is glaringly obvious to me years later, and it’s that aspect that I want to focus on a little more this evening. Because nearly ten years after running out Murali, I view things very differently and I would hope that I am a very different person. Kumar Sangakkara is here tonight. Sanga, I admire you enormously. I regard you as a friend. And I take this opportunity to apologise to you and Murali for my actions on that day.

Change of approach

“I want to share with you the things that I think were the primary catalysts for my change of approach. And I think it’s fair to say that they came late in my career.

“At the time they were particularly challenging for me and forced me to confront my character and question why I was playing the game. Eventually, they allowed me to see what was important about playing cricket and, as a consequence, my love of the game returned — very slowly at first and then in a flood.

“The first event was my first Test as captain of New Zealand. I had taken over the captaincy of the team from Ross Taylor and, to put it mildly, it was a controversial decision. To give you an example of the depth of feeling in New Zealand, the late Martin Crowe, a magnificent player, announced to the media that he had burned his New Zealand blazer in disgust.

“In early January 2013, we played South Africa at Cape Town. It was a gorgeous day, but the pitch at Newlands looked a little bit green. When I went out out to the pitch to toss the coin with Graeme Smith, I’d decided that if we won the toss, we’d bat. I wanted to make a strong statement, particularly to my team but also to the opposition.

“Nineteen overs and two balls later we were all out for 45. The tenth lowest total in 2069 Tests. If an innings of 45 all out doesn’t force you to reconsider what you’re doing, I guess nothing will. After returning to my room that evening, there was a knock on my door. It was the coach, Mike Hesson. Soon after we were joined by Mike Sandle, the manager, and then Bob Carter, the assistant coach. This uninitiated meeting was to play a significant part in what was to unfold over the next few years.

“We grabbed beer from the fridge and talked. We didn’t ‘white-board’ it, we just spoke from our hearts; about who we were as a team and how we were perceived by the public. It was agreed that we were seen as arrogant, emotional, distant, up-ourselves and uninterested in our followers.

“The environment that the younger players were being welcomed into was really poor — there was a very traditional hierarchy, where senior players ruled the roost. Ultimately, we concluded that individually and collectively we lacked character. The key for all of us was the team had no ‘soul’. We were full of bluster and soft as putty. It was the first time I had really stopped to consider this in 11 years of international cricket.

“The significance of what occurred that evening day was that we recognised that we had to change. We wanted to personify the traits that we identified in New Zealanders — to be humble and hardworking. We wanted to be respected by our long-suffering fans in New Zealand. We wanted to be respected by our opposition; and before we could demand this we had to learn to respect them.

“In changing the way we approached the game, and respected the opposition, we wanted to be true to our national identity. In terms of that, New Zealanders identify with strong silent types. Perhaps our greatest hero is Sir Edmund Hilary — the first person to climb Mt Everest. He had a chiselled jaw — he never spoke boastfully about his remarkable achievements and he devoted a considerable part of his life seeking to improve the quality of life of the Nepalese people he loved so much.

“For us as New Zealand cricketers we wanted to be ‘blue collar’ in how we went about things, not aloof and superior. We wanted to be a team that people could be proud of; and if in doubt we wanted to play the game aggressively, not fear failure.

“And the joy of respecting the opposition was a revelation. There are times in a game where you simply have to enjoy the skill of the opposition and acknowledge it appropriately.

2nd catalyst: Hughes’s death

“I want to talk now of the other really significant happening that affected my approach to the game. The events leading to it took place at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 25 November, 2014. On that day, Phil Hughes suffered injuries that were to prove fatal, playing for New South Wales against South Australia.

“The New Zealand team was in Sharjah playing in a Test series against Pakistan when the news came through that Phil had been hit and was in intensive care. We were about to begin the third and final Test against a dominant Pakistan side. We had been well beaten in the first Test at Abu Dhabi. We drew the second Test but certainly performed better.

“Going into the third Test, we were very conscious that we hadn’t lost a Test series since 2012, and we desperately wanted to preserve that record by getting a win at Sharjah to level the series. Misbah won the toss and at the end of day one Pakistan were 280 for 3. Just before the start of play on the second day, the bombshell arrived — Phil had died.

“On hearing the news, my initial attitude was that we shouldn’t be playing. I looked around the dressing room and felt that no one wanted to be playing cricket. It had lost all meaning. There was also the realisation that it could have been any one of us. None of us ever anticipated that someone could die from a cricket ball, not in this day and age. I always wanted our fast bowlers roaring in, having a winning attitude; intimidating, ready to exploit any lack of certainty or technique in a batsman, but not at the expense of someone’s life. Cricket was meant to be a game, not a life or death struggle. It hit us all hard that for Phil, it had become exactly that.

“Mike Sandle, Mike Hesson and I spoke to the match referee, Andy Pycroft from Zimbabwe. We told him we didn’t want to play. It was decided that we should take the day off and see how things looked the following day.

“That night I rang Gilbert Enoka and told him that I didn’t know what to do. Gilbert is a sports psychologist in New Zealand who is held in very high regard. I explained to Gilbert that we had a group of men who were shattered and wanted to get on a plane home as soon as possible. It didn’t feel right to continue playing, but we knew there was a good chance we’d have to.

“Gilbert was incredible. He said we should not judge anything that anyone did during the week, and that people should grieve in their own way and concentrate their energy and emotions on themselves rather than the team. He told me to try and bring everyone together; to try to lighten the mood if at all possible. Most meaningfully Gilbert said: ‘All your preparation, all you have ever thought about in cricket, just throw it out the window for this one game.’

“In saying this, it was like Gilbert took the weight off my shoulders and gave me a way to deal with what was happening — to realise that there were no rights or wrongs and the rule book could be thrown away.

“That night most of the team shared a few beers in my room. The mood lightened at times but there was such a profound sense of disbelief, shock and sadness.

“Soon after arriving at the ground we were told that the game was going ahead, like it or lump it. In our dressing room there were a number of players weeping uncontrollably. As a captain, I felt unable to protect the team and, as we stood in the middle before play began, I apologised to them for having to play. I fell back on Gilbert’s words. I reminded the team that there would be no harsh judgement on any player’s performance and no consequences for failure. I believe that what motivated us was Phil Hughes. We knew we had to play and we would do that as best we could, to honour Phil and the game itself.

“The outcome of the ‘uncaring’, no-consequence play was a revelation to me. I suspect it was something I had been trying to achieve on a personal level for years; but I had been unable to do so, except for fleeting moments. Here there was a release of many of the external factors that can creep in and influence a player. There was an instinctiveness that took over — no fear of failure, just playing and being ‘in the moment’.

“In my new-found mental freedom, I managed a double-century and Kane Williamson scored a much finer 192…A splendid win by an innings and 80 runs and the Test series was squared. This Test was New Zealand’s first win against Pakistan in Asia in 18 years, and the first innings win by New Zealand against any team in Asia in 30 years.

“The team had drawn strength from one another and Gilbert Enoka’s ‘no consequences’ brought a ‘joy of life’ in a cricketing sense that was richly ironic but, nevertheless, liberating. The big thing I took away from this Test is the way Phil’s death affected our mind-set and the way we played in the rest of the match. It was so strange, and yet it felt so right, that after Phil’s death we didn’t really care any more about the result. Because nothing we could or couldn’t do on the field really mattered in comparison to what had happened to Phil. Our perspective changed completely for the rest of my time playing Test cricket for New Zealand, and we were a much better side as a result.

“Many observers have said that we were playing the way it should be played; as gentlemen who respected the history of the game. People undoubtedly warmed to the fact that we no longer sledged the opposition.

“We worked out what would work for us, based on the traits of being Kiwis. To try to be humble and hardworking and to enjoy what we were doing. It is vital that you understand that we were never trying to be ‘nice guys’. We were just trying to be authentic in how we acted, played the game and carried ourselves.

“In terms of our New Zealand side, we weren’t righteous in our stance and demanding that other teams follow our lead, but for us it was so good to play free of the shackles — to genuinely love the game again, to acknowledge and enjoy the opposition. And for me, when I pulled back the curtains in the morning, wherever we were, I smiled when the sky was blue and felt the same anticipation I did growing up in Dunedin.

“And so, in reflecting on my 14 years of international cricket, I again acknowledge my numerous failings and mistakes throughout my career. But I also celebrate that when I retired from international cricket the New Zealand team, through the contribution of everyone, has rediscovered its soul. It’s now a team that our country is proud of.”

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