Brendon McCullum: ‘New Zealand Got Its Soul Back’

In England playing for Middlesex in the NatWest T20 Blast, Brendon McCullum delivered the annual MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey lecture at Lord’s this week. In a wide-ranging exclusive interview he spoke to Jo Harman about his evolution as a cricketer, his thoughts on the game today and the essential spirit in which it should be played.

It’s interesting to see you taking on the MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture. You had a reputation for playing the game in the right way, thinking of the greater good of the game and speaking up when you felt it was needed. Will that continue now you’ve retired from international cricket?

Firstly I don’t think I was always like that. I think for the majority of my career I was quite different to that. I was lucky enough to play for long enough to be able to work out that the game is a game and that you can take it too seriously. And once you get to that stage when it’s not as important as you maybe thought it was, or the result is not as important as you thought when you were a bit younger, you can take that attitude towards the game in the end. Will I maintain a stance in public after this speech? Probably not! It’s nice to have some separation from the game. Especially with New Zealand cricket. I had a great time but the last thing you need is a recently retired New Zealand captain in the media talking about the team. So I’ll give those guys space, but if they need anyone to talk to, then they can always pick up the phone.

The team you led became so popular – not least in England where the way you played last year was widely credited with giving England new, attacking impetus. Alastair Cook has said that some of those matches changed the way he thought about how to captain a side. That must be quite a thing to hear, that your philosophy has an impact on how other teams are set up?

It’s a form of flattery I guess! That was just a really cool series to be a part of. They played well enough under pressure to beat us at Lord’s, and we played some really good cricket as well. I think we got 700 runs! I was under pressure about my captaincy at the time because we were so aggressive, but I said afterwards: We got 700 runs and took 20 wickets and still lost the Test match, so fair play to the opposition if they’re good enough to beat you. And then we bounced back with the same mentality at Headingley to draw the series. We were pretty lucky that we had a group of guys who were prepared to do things a bit differently to what we’d been doing before.

How easy was it to persuade people to come out of their comfort zone?

Ah, it took a long time to be fair. And we lost some people along the way. And the ‘no d***head’ policy is pretty important too. There were some fellas who didn’t necessarily buy into what we were trying to achieve, and they were really talented as well, but unfortunately we just couldn’t have them in our side. Jesse Ryder for instance. Incredibly talented player. Probably the most talented player, outside of Kane Wiliamson, in New Zealand, but you can’t base a team around a guy like that. We need everyone on the bus heading in the same direction, and we need to be quite dynamic in how we go about things. So that was one of the things we tried to instill along the road as well.

The way you first got the captaincy was messy. That must have been one of the toughest parts of your captaincy tenure?

Yeah it was rubbish. And I almost turned it down, purely because some of my closest friends and confidantes said, ‘Why do you want this?’ And I said, well, I don’t really want it but there’s no one else that can actually do it. If you looked around the changing room no one was really equipped to do it. Even the guy who had the captaincy beforehand wasn’t equipped to deal with it. Without sounding harsh, no one was equipped. I was the best-equipped person to deal with it at the time, so I took it on. Even my wife said, ‘Why do you want it?’

How did you turn things around?

We had to hit rock bottom first. Our public perception and image was low and our performances were poor, but we hadn’t actually, as a team, had that stage where you’re embarrassed to get on the bus as you leave the ground because your performances have been so bad. But we had that in South Africa in one of my first Test matches as captain when we were bowled out for 45. From that point we were outstanding. We stripped everything back, put some plans in place, changed our personnel and our belief. It took a long time, but it all happened from that day.

It’s over to Kane Williamson now. Will he continue your philosophy?

When I was captain, we needed to strip away all the garbage and get back to what was important about playing the game. Forget all the pressures of playing the game, and the media speculation, all the stuff that stops you from actually going out there and enjoying the game. And we got that back, and we played for the right reasons and found what was important for the New Zealand cricket team, but it wasn’t overly professional! In terms of long-term sustainability, my captaincy always had a shelf-life. But now that our soul’s back, Kane will bring about that level of professionalism that will bring consistency in how we play the game. Even at a young age, he’s got his head screwed on, and he knows how to bring a team together. He understands the soul of the team. He might be slightly conservative at times, but he’s also smart enough to understand that they need to win games to be able to create memories, rather than worry about losing.

What’s he like as a person?

He’s one of those guys who you genuinely look at and you wish he was your son. He’s a legend bloke. And he just happens to be pretty good at batting too. But he also knows there’s more to life than cricket.

Is he the best New Zealand has ever had?

Best I’ve ever seen – by far. Ross Taylor is incredible, but Kane is… No one can ever take away what Martin Crowe did, or what a lot of those guys did: Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle, those sorts of guys. But looking at Kane and what he does – he’s genius, in my mind. I wouldn’t change him for anyone in the world, put it that way.

Steve Smith, Joe Root, Virat Kohli?

Gun players, but I would not change him for anyone in the world. Lock in Kane Williamson at No.3 – happy as. You can have the other blokes, they are gun players, but in my mind he’s the best.

Can you explain your decision to retire when you did? Some people were disappointed not to see you play on for the World T20 and worried that the Chris Cairns court case might have accelerated your departure. Is there any truth in that?

Yeah, maybe. I came to the decision when I was in Perth that I’d just had enough. I knew that my captaincy would only last a certain amount of time. I also didn’t want to be a cricketer that hung on because he needed the adulation and the respect and all that rubbish that people crave when they’re younger. I didn’t want to cling on for those reasons. I just wanted to play the game and have a good time. When I started to feel like that was diminishing, then it was time to get out. I got out at 34 – that’s pretty young. But I said to Mike Hesson, ‘Mate, I’ve only got a couple of fights left in me and in all honesty a T20 tournament in India does not interest me’. I wanted to go out against Australia, playing against the best team in the world, in our conditions. It was my home ground, I walk out of the ground and I walk home. It’s the purest form of the game. Hey, we got beat, but I still walked away happy. I now look at that New Zealand team and I am genuinely a fan. I think a lot of guys if they hang in too long actually start to resent the game, whereas I went out genuinely still loving the game.

You seem to think you’ve changed a lot in the time you’ve been playing…

Loads, yeah.

Because you used to go out a lot?

Not so much going out. But I was brought up playing pool, playing darts, drinking pints and smoking durries. That’s my upbringing. I was never against that just because you’re playing international cricket. You just have to try and fight it! It was only the last few years where I just embraced it and funnily enough our country quite liked it! I was lucky that I got married young, as well. I’ve been married 13-and-a-half years, I’ve got a 12-year-old boy, six-year-old girl and two-year-old girl, so my life was going on outside of cricket as well.

If you look at an international career, you’re going to come in at 20, you’re going to hopefully leave at 35, 36. You’re going to grow up a lot during that time, you’re going to meet someone, you’re going to have kids. From where you were when you initially came into the set-up, to where you are when you leave… you’ve lived a life, effectively. So you need to embrace it and allow people the opportunity to develop at their own pace. There are guys I’ve seen with three or four girlfriends come in and go in that time, and that’s fine as well, because they’re going through that learning stage. Twenty to thirty-five: greatest years of your life! You just happen to be playing cricket for your country.

Your involvement in the Cairns case must have been tricky, not least because you had to fly home to captain your country in a Test match?

Yeah, it wasn’t ideal, but I had to do it. I stand by my evidence 100 per cent. It was never about guilty or not guilty. It was about turning up, giving my evidence and moving on. There were a lot of other people who could have given evidence but didn’t but for me that was an important thing. I turned up and stood by the evidence that I had given.

If a young guy came up to you and said they thought something was wrong, would you encourage them to come forward?

Yes, without a doubt. I’d tell them to make sure they get it on file, get it on tape and make sure the process is right, so that that person is protected as well, which I think is quite important. Otherwise you’ll get nobody coming forward. You need to come forward, that’s what people should do. It took me ages to come forward – there are various reasons behind that – but the education now is at a stage where you need to come forward. I’d go with them, as well, without doubt, to make sure it was done properly.

Are you confident that cricket is clean?

I think you hope it’s clean. We’ve had challenges over the last few years and we’ll consistently have challenges over the next few years. It’s just how we deal with them. I think the game will always have people who aren’t 110 per cent committed to trying to win and that’s just sport in general. It’s how we deal with those people that’s important.

What do you think about Mohammad Amir, who will return to Test cricket with Pakistan this summer?

I think he’s served his time. I hate what he did but he’s served his time, now he’s back and let’s move on. He’s so young. I think one of the key things is that Mohammad Amir admitted guilt. He put his hand up, admitted he was wrong and that he’d wronged the game and he then went about serving his time and going through the right steps.

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