I suspect I am not alone in the cricket world in applauding Brendon McCullum’s touching, and revealing, Spirit of Cricket address in London this week. It laid out, once again, the insecurities that even elite sportsmen have to grapple with and of the bubble they can find themselves trapped in. But even more, I enjoyed reading of the glorious escape from these constraints to growth, of the process of self-discovery and of the amazing fruits it bore him.
Also Read: Brendon McCullum, lost and found
Far too often, even elite sportsmen get trapped in a tiny world of sameness. It can cause them to fret over the minute, over bits of criticism here and there, perceived or real, when in reality they are destined for loftier peaks. It can drag them down as it can all of us. But success is as much about overcoming insecurity, life is as much about judging people as the length of the ball. When McCullum broke free of these irritants, he became a far far better player, he allowed himself to become the player he could always have been. It is a part of the lecture that I hope all young cricketers read.
McCullum also talks about the “uncaring, no-consequence” style of play post the tragic death of Phil Hughes and the realisation that we are visitors on this planet and fortunate to be playing a sport that is only that and no more. Just a sport. The expression “uncaring” might be a touch misleading for it might suggest a spirit of abandon and recklessness. Not true. McCullum refers to not caring, not worrying, about outcomes. “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’.”
Conquering the enemy
As some of have said before, and some will feel the need to in future, the fear of failure is often the greatest invitation to failure. By taking that away from their game, McCullum and New Zealand conquered the deepest enemy to success. In doing so, whether in Test cricket or at the World Cup, they gave us much joy. They exposed the hollowness of sledging and showed that you could be tough and combative without being abusive. It works for some, as Australia rather unfortunately admitted before the World Cup final, but it discredits our sport. McCullum and New Zealand elevated it.
It is interesting too that the two crucial moments in McCullum’s life, almost Buddha like realisations, came from a defeat and a tragedy. But the company of the people who helped find that path is revealing too. A sports psychologist in the Phil Hughes sadness and a team management who weren’t necessarily elite cricketers, post the 45 all out in Capetown. I liked the fact that he was willing to seek solutions from outside the limited world that athletes can sometimes inhabit.
If McCullum was uplifting in the early part he was hard-hitting in the second where he talks about Chris Cairns and Lou Vincent. He makes a very important point that the ICC, rather than refuting must introspect over. His reporting of an approach to fix games, he says, was handled rather superficially and thereafter leaked. I would imagine spilling the beans on a team-mate would be very difficult and so, someone willing to do that needs to be handled with a lot of care. Remember, not reporting an approach is seen as a crime too, but unless accompanied by absolute discretion, it can be difficult to do. There could be dangers of all kinds and that section of the lecture tells you how much more the ICC needs to do.
In recent years, with Dravid, Sangakkara and now McCullum, we have heard some wonderful orations and long may it be that way. Cricket’s practitioners need to open a window to their selves rather than shut it and merely allow the occasional nothingness in press conferences. A cricketer somewhere, or an accountant maybe, or a bricklayer or a sales executive even, can be inspired by stories of performers like these.
As a child, I wanted to read about sportsmen and read of many. As I grew older, I found their stories increasingly wearisome and drab for there wasn’t a storyteller within the athlete. And sport, and its history, is as much about the story as it is about the performance. The three I have mentioned tell their story well, and they tell it inspiringly.