18 Feb 2016

Brendon McCullum's legacy

11:34 am on 18 February 2016

Sports Call - The battered black cap on New Zealand cricket captain Brendon McCullum's head is set for its final appearance.

Brendon McCullum

Brendon McCullum is heading for his final appearance as a Black Cap. Photo: RNZ / Photosport

The cap, a little rough around the edges - somewhat like its 34-year-old owner - bears the scars and sweat stains of 100 Test matches.

McCullum first wore the cap in Hamilton in March 2004, when he made his Test debut against South Africa - and it hasn't missed a New Zealand Test since.

The retiring captain made his international debut in 2002, in a one dayer against Australia. It was another two years before he made the Test side.

At times in his career, McCullum has left cricket fans utterly frustrated. His Test average was mired in the mid-30s for much of the time, too low for a batsman of his calibre.

But he only knew one speed, and that was full-speed.

He had to dominate opposition bowling attacks and, at times, did not give them the respect they deserved by playing defensively and remaining at the crease, rather than keeping the runs flowing, only to fall to an ill-judged shot.

Interestingly, since taking over from Ross Taylor as the Black Caps captain two and half years ago, his Test average has improved markedly. His average as captain is 45, and a better reflection of his abilities.

After becoming the first New Zealander to score a triple century when he made 302 against India at the Basin Reserve in 2015, McCullum gave an insight into just why his average had languished where it had.

Asked if during that 13-hour stint at the crease he had to deal with many demons when he was forced to be patient and defensive, McCullum replied "every ball".

Brendon McCullum has created plenty of New Zealand cricket records.

Brendon McCullum has created plenty of New Zealand cricket records. Photo: Photosport

He went on to say he had finally got to the point with his batting that he was confident of his defensive abilities, as it was something he had worked on.

Attack had previously been the best form of defence in his mind - as he didn't believe he could be defensive and not get out.

It marked a maturing of McCullum as a player.

Yes, he will be sorely missed. His runs, obviously, and his top-notch energetic fielding are all key parts of the Black Caps' set-up.

But McCullum's greatest asset to the team has been the self-belief that he has been able to engender in his team-mates.

Under McCullum's reign, the Black Caps have never been more confident of their abilities - not with any arrogance, but simply in knowing they have the ability to compete against top class sides.

Tactically, McCullum reacts on instinct. He goes with his gut, and is always ready to take a gamble to avoid letting a game stagnate. Patience is not his strongest suit, it must be said.

His partnership with Mike Hesson didn't get off to the best of starts when the coach sacked Taylor as captain mid-tour in Sri Lanka.

But it has ultimately flourished, and so has McCullum. He has built a 'team first' approach, and the captaincy has also brought out the best in his own performances - although, despite the rise in his average since he became captain, there is still a sense that he's never quite fulfilled his ultimate potential.

Former New Zealand cricket captain Ken Rutherford believes McCullum was always earmarked for top honours.

Rutherford played alongside McCullum's father Stu for Otago in the 1980's and saw a lot of both Brendon and his older brother Nathan as they grew up as they would often turn up at Otago's practices and scurry around returning balls to the bowlers at net sessions.

Rutherford said McCullum loves being part of the "Kiwi cricket culture" and is the "heartbeat" of the side and he should be proud of the legacy he has left.

There's no doubting what McCullum will miss - the camaraderie.

"To be able to sit around and see a group of guys who've been able to achieve something over five days, sitting around with smiles on their faces and (a) bit of music going and you've got dirty whites, sweaty black caps and a beer in hand and to be able to look back on the hard work (and what's been) achieved - that's what I got into the game for, and that's going to be my last memory of the game as well," he said when reflecting on his career.

Brendon McCullum leaves the Basin Reserve after his final test innings in Wellington.

Brendon McCullum will be hoping for more success at Hagley Oval than he enjoyed at the Basin Reserve Photo: Photosport

"McCullum wasn't full-proof as a captain," said Rutherford.

"There were times there when you would look at a game of cricket and think defence is actually the best form of attack, especially in test cricket. Bowling a few maidens and keep things tight for 10 to 14 overs is actually a pretty good strategy and that's probably something Brendon wasn't keen on doing."

That is something that is likely to change with Kane Williamson as captain, for the Black Caps are about to get a very different personality leading the team.

Williamson is a world class batsman and quite possibly on his way to becoming New Zealand's most successful in the history of the game. But it would be wrong of him to try to imitate McCullum. He needs to develop his own captaincy style.

But that's for the future. The Christchurch test marks the end of the farewell tour for McCullum and yet again New Zealand find themselves in a familiar situation - battling to save a series, having been outplayed in the first Test against Australia in Wellington.

A victory would be a nice way to send McCullum into international retirement - but whatever the outcome, McCullum will relish the battle, for that's where he's in his element.