It may have been the back, it may have been the need to be fairer to the family, or it may have been the awareness that retiring at the zenith guarantees longer goodwill but Brendon McCullum has got everyone sitting up with his decision to say goodbye to international cricket. Over the last two years he has batted and captained New Zealand up the rankings and into the hearts of cricket lovers.
In spite of Hadlee and Crowe and Fleming and Vettori, and the boutique star that Shane Bond was, people didn’t always spend too much time thinking of New Zealand cricket. It was about England and Australia; it was the return of South Africa and the fascinating yo-yo that Pakistan cricket is; it was about Murali and Jayawardene and Sangakkara in Sri Lanka and it was about India’s batsmen and its wealth. “Oh, New Zealand, is it?” was the most likely reaction to a tour.
Out of the indifferent cricket that New Zealand played towards the end of the decade, when Vettori had a higher batting average than the batsmen for a while, out of the many dangerous sub-plots in the captaincy tangle when Ross Taylor was captain, emerged a mature, refreshingly positive Brendon McCullum. Between then and now, New Zealand has made friends, won matches and earned the respect of the cricket world.
New Zealand had, always, done one thing better than the rest of the world. They made the most of what they had for it is but a small country with a small cricket economy and where the rock stars play rugby with a black shirt on. It was back in the mid-eighties when Richard Hadlee was interrogating batsmen and Martin Crowe was a sleeper hit as a batsman, that they were world class. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that they rediscovered that position. And McCullum led the way in Sharjah, in England, at Christchurch and most dramatically at the World Cup where, for the first time, a team was attacked relentlessly for being too nice!
New Zealand were nice. They played hard but they respected the game and their opponents. In Sharjah they mourned Phil Hughes and played without celebrating a wicket or a win, they accepted DRS verdicts that would have drawn a snarl, they didn’t trash talk the opposition, and they made cricket a pleasant sport to watch. That was mainly McCullum. Some say it was the after-effects of the terrible earthquake at Christchurch which reminded them of how fleeting life is. And in an excellent article on ESPNCricinfo’s The Cricket Monthly, Dylan Cleaver talks about McCullum’s ability to look at the strife of others and put life into perspective.
But they also played aggressively. McCullum didn’t mind adopting an approach that could lose them games because, and he was right, it could win them more. Under him Boult and Southee and Watling flowered as did Guptill, Anderson and Neesham played key roles, Ronchi re-emerged, Taylor returned to being a world class player and McCullum himself hit a purple patch like he had never before. And they found Williamson and left him alone to play cricket like only Crowe had before in his country. Williamson apart, it could have been just another side, but McCullum ensured it wasn’t so.
And then they played the World Cup of 2015. They didn’t just beat opponents, they pulverised them. New Zealand were playing cricket like bullies do in the early rounds of an inter-college tournament. It produced a couple of scares but when they got it right there was only one team playing. Then the final happened. McCullum the batting destroyer and the captain of the tournament went early and New Zealand never recovered. Maybe that was how much they depended on the captain but for once they were insipid, maybe they were over-awed, maybe for once, they feared losing. They did lose but emerged the most popular team of the tournament.
And now, with his career on a high, with New Zealand playing as well as they have ever had in their history, McCullum is saying goodbye. With so many of their players having played T20 cricket on the sub-continent, with a side that had a nice balance to it and with one of the most feared T20 batsmen in the world as captain, New Zealand were talked about as potential winners. Surely McCullum had to take them there.
Instead, astonishingly, he has chosen to say good-bye at home. He may not finish among the greats of the game, that title could well go to his young successor, but he enriched it in his country and elsewhere. He played cricket well and made it endearing.
You could say Brendon McCullum, and latterly New Zealand under him, played cricket the way it was meant to be played. And for that, he can be proud of himself.