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Book of the Week: Who the hell does Brendon McCullum think he is?

Brian Turner wades through the hyperbole in Brendon McCullum’s biography, and recalls the old saying: “Self-praise is no recommendation.”

On the front flap of the cover of Declared, the blurbist trumpets Brendon McCullum “could reduce the world’s bowling elite to quivering wrecks”, and “As a captain… his influence has been so profound it will likely change the way the game is played forever.” Phew, really? Throughout Declared such hyperbole never lets up.

Let’s think about the claim McCullum’s “influence” was “so profound it will likely change the way the game is played forever.” I assume reference there is being made to his methods, field placements, tactics and overall approach. Where is the evidence that other international teams have followed suit? It’s not even evident in the way his successor, Kane Williamson, goes about things.

McCullum: who is he? Some would say he’s cricket’s equivalent, in so far as name-recognition is concerned, of rugby’s Richie McCaw. But just a whole lot more… what? Rascally and brazen are two words that fit. Anyway, let’s leave that and simply say Brendon “Bazza” McCullum grew up in working class South Dunedin, “on the flat”, as I did. I know the place, and where he comes from, well. Back then it was susceptible to flooding and it still is. It was also, in my youth, often plagued by fog and smoke from house fires and factories.

McCullum doesn’t hold back. He freely admits he was a bad boy, often, what’s termed a “repeat offender”. Reckless, naughty, harum-scarum, he got up to lots of mischief and, sometimes, “more than that”. He says he was lucky to get away with some of it and, one way or another, was a bit of a larrikin. He’s upfront about that. That won’t come as a surprise to many, given the way he presented and performed as a cricketer. There’s a fine line between fame and infamy, as he may yet find out.

In his late teens he says he tried to settle down, become more reasoned and co-operative; a tad more conventional in the way he conducted himself and played cricket. But it wasn’t all that long before he became increasingly disturbed and dissatisfied by the… oh, I have to use the phrase… “culture and environment” in and around cricket, and the New Zealand team in particular. He decided it was time for a change and he was the man to bring it about. He has never had to search far to locate self-belief and the certitude that goes with it. He also made it plain that it was important that he took the ‘boys’ with him – or, to put it another way, got the numbers needed to allow him to take over.

It’s clear many applauded the way Brendon McCullum went about things, on and off the field, saw him as a breath of fresh air, as one who was pushing the boundaries, knew exactly what he was doing. Therefore many saw McCullum as mercurial, exciting, and transforming – for the better – the way cricket was played. A trailblazer, if you like, taking the game to a new level. Others felt a lot of what he was doing, thinking, was nothing short of idiotic and selfish. Some maintain that his field-settings were often silly, if not stupid, and that tactically he was responsible for NZ losing a couple of series they ought to have won. Also, when considering the last World Cup final, I’ve heard some notable older heads argue he lost it for us.

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Sometimes the team benefited from his frequent smash and bash approach to batting, sometimes not: if not, too bad. One could envisage him fronting TV adverts for energiser batteries, or anything at all that gave you a charge, a boost. Some saw him as irrepressible, others felt he was reckless, irresponsible. For a guy who often refers to his bad back and the need to gobble painkillers, his habit of diving and occasionally banging into boundary fences beggars belief, especially if you like to be seen as setting the right example to one’s team and cricket as a whole.

It’s become evident that sport in general, as with many areas of life, is subject to a fair bit of scheming and back-stabbing. Some say it’s got worse over time, especially as the amount of money has increased greatly and the numbers of “support staff” have swelled, and are seen as vital. On tour host nations pay for teams to bring with them up to eight support staff – so I’ve been told. We seem to feel the need for a coach, batting coach, bowling coach, manager, physiotherapist, psychologist, scorer, and…who knows? The players’ incomes, and work-place conditions, in a time when the numbers of people outside of professional sport are struggling hard to make ends meet, are generous.

Today’s sportsmen and women, and administrators, constantly refer to the need to get the best out of the “boys” and “girls”, of the importance of creating the right culture and environment, getting buy-in, building a team-first attitude. It’s all about the “ethos”, pressing the right buttons. McCullum’s big on that. He says he and “Hess” (coach Mike Hesson) knew what was required, whereas his predecessor Ross Taylor and his backers, did not.

McCullum says, “Hess’s influence [was] telling. He’s never been a forceful technical or tactical coach, but he [was] a great organiser [who got ] to know the players as people and allows them to feel comfortable in the environment and to just go and play the game.” He “brought them all together”, said Brendon, and gave “them the confidence to buy into the team cause.” Yes? Who would dare express a contrary view? McCullum is seldom short of swingeing certitude.

He tells us that “Tactically” he and Hess worked “well in combination” and “Normally” they’d “end up sailing toward’s [McCullum’s) point of view”.

To use a rugby metaphor, McCullum was convinced a big clean-out was needed in NZ cricket, and the national administrators seemed happy to oblige. Brendon, modestly, saw himself as the man, a messiah, NZ cricket’s saviour. And in Declared, as always, he’s not backward in coming forward, he’s on the front foot saying so. He appears to sincerely believe that the boys were crying out for him, and Hess, to rescue them and, by inference, NZ cricket from Ross Taylor’s and many others’ inadequacies. The list of those who didn’t cut the mustard includes coaches Matthew Mott and John Wright, former selector Mark Greatbatch, John Parker, and McCullum’s one-time sports psych Kerry Schwalger. There’s no love lost there. McCullum says wife Lis “gave me enough warnings about him”. Schwalger, he says, had been there “to help [him] deal with the day to day frustrations as the Black Caps fell apart under Ross’s captaincy.”

McCullum continues: “At that time, Ross was no doubt conferring with his confidants and referring to me in less than complimentary terms. Maybe he was clever enough not to do it by email.” Huh, is that a smear, or not?

McCullum and Taylor in happier times, 2013. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

McCullum and Taylor in happier times, 2013. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

I’ve heard it said that Taylor was a bit too “inward looking” and “retiring”. It’s been said that he believed what was most important was “what happened on the field” and that was what a captain should focus on. He was heard to opine that “off the field stuff” could surely be left to others in the touring party. “Isn’t that what they’re paid for?” He was also said to have become a bit “inward-looking, withdrawn”, and that he may have got wind of what some saw as a “plot” to get rid of him.

Most of us know that illusions are rife, and that, in many cases, everywhere one looks, sincerity and delusion appear to co-exist quite easily. And yes, players have a right to be listened to, but not pandered. In sport, like never before, self-serving behaviour and clichés galore carry the day.

Nowadays, across all media, broadcasters and journalists say we don’t just play and win games, we “take on” the opposition and ‘take out’ the game. In rugby, captains (and a few others) are frequently in-the–ear of referees and umpires. Tennis players – more than a few – rant and rave, smash rackets and scream. And in cricket, so-called “sledging”, usually nothing but puerile abuse, continues, but it’s not termed such; it’s called “banter”. Bah, such is, mostly, infantile and offensive. One umpire told a former international cricketer I know that often, “out there” on the field, it was like “being in an aviary”.

When reading Declared I frequently recalled that many of the adults I grew up among reckoned that “Self-praise is no recommendation.” And also, a few years later, of listening to one of the best hockey coaches of the day hammering home the message, “There is no substitute for skill.” Skill (and a sound technique) came first, fitness next, and much of the rest was fluff by comparison. Those were days a decade or more before a team of thoroughly professional NZ amateur hockey players won Olympic gold medals.

Back then very few sportsmen and women put on histrionic antics and yap-yapped on the fields of play – certainly not nearly as often or badly as what goes on today. Which reminds me of a column I read in The Spectator in July 2012 where Michael Henderson wrote, “Sport, in its best moments, is a wonderful distraction but it is essentially trivial, and trivial things do not translate into genius. The great contests may illuminate our lives. The great players may live in our memories. They do not alter the way we see the world.

“In his grace and beauty, Federer is without parallel in his sport. He deserves every prize that comes his way, and merits almost every superlative laid at his feet. He has given more pleasure to more people than almost any champion in any sport, and it is the dearest wish of his admirers that he plays on until his legs can carry him no more. But he is no genius.”

Oddly, Greg McGee – in this case let’s call him McCullum’s co-author – seems to have bought in to McCullum’s fevered self-justification, his jaundiced accounts of his, as he sees them, hard-bitten, yet triumphal times.

McCullum was a very good cricketer; in the eyes of many, one of our best. Many found him bold, a great entertainer, scallywaggish till the end. But like a lot of us he had his full quota of limitations.

In many respects McCullum belongs to the sector of society looking for instant gratification and entranced by a seemingly, or hoped for, eternal present comprising lots of wham and bam. And yet, think of his undefeated triple century at the Basin Reserve. That saved NZ from defeat. One way or another we can be assured he won’t be forgotten in a hurry.


Brendon McCullum: Declared (Mower Books, $39.99) written with Greg McGee is available at Unity Books.

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