Opinion: McCullum a greater leader than cricketer

10:19 am on 7 August 2019

History has already begun to treat Brendon McCullum well.

Former Black Caps captain Brendon McCullum

Former Black Caps captain Brendon McCullum has announced his retirement from all cricket. Photo: Photosport

An often polarising character during his international career, attitudes towards the former New Zealand captain have softened in retirement. Now news that he's now stepping away from Twenty20 franchise cricket too merits a look at the man's burgeoning legacy.

McCullum isn't just a cricketer of New Zealand significance. His influence can be felt across the world game as well and few Black Caps have ever achieved that.

He was a useful player. Twelve Test hundreds, at an average of 38.64, tells its own story. The one-day international and T20 international averages are similar and suggest a batsman who mixed good periods with bad.

For much of McCullum's career, which began as a very, very fine wicketkeeper, there was a feeling that he under-achieved with the bat. That, with more application, the numbers might have been better.

But what emerged towards the end of his 15 years in the national side, was the impact of McCullum the man. The tactician, the statesman, the gambler, the leader of men.

Partly by necessity, McCullum changed the way New Zealand played cricket. Behaviour that had become boorish, is now the template for all teams. Hard, but fair. Courteous. Human.

Again, circumstances helped dictate that. As the broader game struggled to know how to move on from the death of Australian batsman Phillip Hughes, McCullum showed the way.

He, and everyone else, had seen the worst that could happen on a cricket field and that helped encourage a brand of positive, recrimination-free cricket that's been adopted everywhere too.

England, unashamedly, built a one-day team in the image of McCullum's Black Caps and are now Cricket World Cup champions for the first time in their history.

About the only lesson people haven't taken from McCullum's career is that a team's best batsman isn't necessarily their best choice as captain.

There are few lamer, less truthful, terms in cricket than the 'captain's knock'. Batsmen are selfish; the best ones doubly so. They know exactly what their average is, how many Test hundreds they've scored and where and against who.

The idea that someone gets runs because they're the skipper is as stupid as suggesting not being captain means a batsman won't bother when the team's suddenly three for not many.

Dejected New Zealand captain Kane Williamson after the game. New Zealand Black Caps v England.
ICC Cricket World Cup Final at Lord’s, London, England on 14 July 2019.

New Zealand's best batsmen Kane Williamson also doubles as the Black Caps captain which Hamish Bidwell believes shouldn't necessarily be the case. Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2019

Leaders lead and that's what McCullum did. When he wasn't captain, he was the player his team-mates congregated around during a break in play. It wasn't just that he had charisma or was entertaining; they went to him because they valued his judgement.

India's Virat Kohli is a great batsman but, as a captain, he appears only mediocre. The same with England test skipper Joe Root.

Here in New Zealand, we admire Kane Williamson's batting and humble nature, but do any of us know what kind of captain he is? Or do we judge that purely on all those 'captain's knocks' and the way he deflects any praise?

We're seeing it now with Australia's Steve Smith. Banned from cricket for a year, and stripped of the team's captaincy - following a ball-tampering incident in South Africa - Smith's batting credentials are not in doubt.

Now, having scored hundreds in each innings of Australia's 251-run win over England, in the first Ashes Test, people are predicting Smith will be reinstated as captain once his 24-month ban from that post expires.

Firstly, if you believe that ball-tampering situation was a one-off moment of madness, you'll believe anything. But it wasn't the sandpaper on the ball that cost Smith his job, but the fact he rocked up to a press conference afterwards and lied about it.

Former Australian skipper Steve Smith hit 144 on day 1 of the Ashes

Former Australia captain Steve Smith returned to Test cricket with two centuries in the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston. Photo: All Rights Reserved

Smith is what's known as a 'cricket nuffy'. He lives and breathes the game, particularly batting. He, famously, hits more balls in practice than anyone. In the hotel lobby, while he's waiting for the bus, even in the shower, apparently, Smith is 'shadow batting'. Everywhere he goes, he is thinking about batting and playing imaginary balls.

They also say of Smith that he's very awkward socially and found the public role as captain of Australia difficult. A quiet guy, he's happiest when in his own bubble out at the batting crease.

And they want to make him captain again? This isn't kids' cricket, where the coach's son/best batsman (the two tend to go hand-in-glove) is always the skipper, and yet these weird ideas persist despite the example set by McCullum.

Maybe if McCullum had been more selfish then, statistically at least, he'd have been a 'better' cricketer. Instead, he was a leader. Not just for New Zealand, but the game in general.

The way teams bat and bowl, how they treat the opposition, the things they say in the media; so much of that is borrowed from McCullum.

Will he be remembered as a great player? No, he won't. But he put bums on seats and held people's attention, for however long or short his innings' might be.

More than that, he left New Zealand and world cricket better than he found it and his impact will be felt for many years to come.

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