McCullum: panacea or pretender? A Kiwi view

I had to admit I was surprised by the ECB’s interest in the explosive Kiwi (writes Jim Birchall). Primarily this owed to his lack of experience (see none) in coaching a Test side. Sure, as an innovative, aggressive, laterally-thinking batsman and captain, he won the respect of many in the world game. Who could forget his 54-ball hundred against Australia on day one of his final Test in 2016?

Whilst New Zealand regularly flourished under his guidance, success came more often in the white-ball game. After England’s embarrassing exit from 2015’s edition of the World Cup, those close to the game insisted England should adopt a “McCullum-like approach” to their 50-over culture. They did, and the white-ball side became formidable.

Baz’s aggressive, “devil may care” approach had some precedent, given the Kiwis reached the final at the MCG. In contrast, England recorded a solitary win in a Culloden-sized massacre of the Scots at Hagley Oval, after getting their backsides handed to them by everyone else.

As New Zealand cruised through the group games, visions of 1992’s title run on home soil ignited the country. After Grant Elliot’s six sent his former compatriots home, the final awaited.

It now seems stupid that I spent $1,600 on a (doomed) last-minute flight to Melbourne to link up with mates and witness our day in the sun. After arriving a couple of minutes late into the ground, the tannoy announced that B Mac and Martin Guptill had strode out into the autumn afternoon, and McCullum would be taking strike to Mitchell Starc.

After assuring myself that all was well; I joined a line to procure an average Aussie mid-strength beer under the stand’s concourse. The first couple of balls drew some mediocre oohs and ahhs from a half-cut crowd. Just as my beer order appeared, a huge, I mean HUGE, roar reverberated around the colosseum. McCullum was out.

After an overdue trip to the urinals, I caught a glimpse of the “shot” played by Baz on TV as I struggled with my own aim. I was incensed. Outside, I joined a bunch of smoking Kiwis who looked equally miffed. The polite amongst us remarked that the way Baz, our captain, had got out, was “pretty irresponsible to be honest”. The less polite said it was the “fucking dumbest shot” they have ever seen. “It will cost us the game” – and it did.

A few months later, I was left cursing Baz and his cavalier ways at the home of cricket. New Zealand, despite making 523 in their first dig, managed to lose the game on the back of some dubious tactics. An over-reliance on attacking fields coupled with a policy of bowling width meant boundary sweepers were disregarded, allowing Ben Stokes to get away on the flattening track, slapping around the Kiwi seamers like Will Smith on Chris Rock.

McCullum is a gambler by nature; his love and association with racehorses is no secret. Recently he has embarked on a sports radio career on a network owned by racing interests. One could argue that occasional recklessness comes with a personality like his.

England, now led by “good club man” Rob Key and pouched in the superhuman hands of “Kiwi” Ben Stokes, is hoping the out-of-the-box synergy between coach and captain flourishes and injects much-needed voltage back into England’s Test power cells.

Andrew Strauss spoke of being “blown away with his [McCullum’s] clarity of thinking” and said McCullum was a player who was always “a positive option who wasn’t scared of failing,” In press this week, Baz casually said he desires to simply” lift England from rock bottom”.

The new approach has impressed free thinkers like Mike Atherton, but he has had his detractors. Michael Vaughan, who seems to be rapidly morphing into Piers Morgan, is not a fan of the ECB’s bold choice. He may be right to have reservations about the imported antipodean upstart.

However, at this point, having won a solitary Test in the last 17, England’s playing personnel is a far more pressing concern. Strauss’s “line in the sand ” policy (as it applies to Anderson and Broad) appears to have been washed away by the incoming tide. New blood like Harry Brook has demanded inclusion. In Brooks’ case, by sheer number of runs in the county game. But can the best of Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, and most importantly, project players Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley be juiced out by McCullum and Stokes?

James Vince, under McCullum’s mentoring could become a batsman who finally pushes past stylishly compiled 30s and becomes the player he threatens to be.

Academy players don’t seem to be cutting it at the moment for England. How will McCullum’s forthright, “no dickheads” policy sit with the fragile Millfield graduate?

Via McCullum will we see a torrent of blue-sky thinking, a return perhaps to talented, but flawed players, a la Alex Hales? Key did hint recently the door is open for the Joe Clarke experience to finally take the stage after some immature off-field tribulations.

It’s certainly the right time for left-field selections. The Stokes-McCullum axis will push a style of cricket that will impress the MCC champagne-poppers and bring in the crowds – much to the ECB’s delight.

The Blackcaps front up to Lord’s on June2 in a different position to last year. After parading the ICC Test champions mace, they have enjoyed mixed results of late, and a fresh, baggage-less England led by Stokes and an unshackled Root may have the edge.

Will McCullum be a panacea or just another pretender? Who knows, but either way, it should be interesting to watch.

This piece first appeared on our weekly “newsandviews” letter, the Smaximum (working title), which is for Patreons only. If you would like to receive it too, you can by pledging £4 a month or more to keep Guerilla Cricket on air. Sign up here:

Broadcast Schedule

England v West Indies 2024
ENG v WI 2nd Test, Trent Bridge
18th July to 22nd July
Start time: 11:00 am BST
ENG v WI 3rd Test, Edgbaston
26th July to 30th July
Start time: 11:00 am BST