The New Zealand cricket team’s incredible ascent to the World Test Championship final has been built on the shoulders of the squad led by Brendon McCullum. The Spinoff’s cricket podcast, The Offspin, was glum following a first-day washout, but sun came out in the studio at the chance to speak to the Black Caps legend .
In between a roofing job and running out at fullback for the Matamata rugby team, former New Zealand cricket captain Brendon McCullum found time this morning for a call with The Offspin podcast to talk about his career. While it is Kane Williamson who has led the Black Caps to top spot in the test and ODI rankings, and to the World Test Championship final, it was McCullum who began the team’s upwards journey from its lowest point when he took over as captain in 2013.
Because there was no actual cricket to talk about after terrible weather in Southampton meant play was impossible in the first day of the World Test Championship final, McCullum shared his expert knowledge on what players do during rain delays, his first summer on the Spark Sport commentary team, and how to let players know they’ve been dropped, as well as sharing some highlights of his career. The big difference between his team and Williamson’s? This group, he said, had the consistency to take New Zealand cricket to the next level.
Below, six full-pitched deliveries from his conversation with The Offspin.
How do you stay focused during a rain delay as a cricket? How do you fill the dead air as a broadcaster?
You just get used to it. As a cricketer you become accustomed to rain. And there’s a saying that does the rounds, mainly in county cricket, you never begrudge the rain. You take your days off when you get given them and then you just try and force the result in the game if it has been shortened.
[As a commentator] it’s hard work. But sometimes that’s when some of the real gold will come out. You get an opportunity for longform discussions and it can go in different directions, there’s no real set agenda when you have those chats. I find those are some of the most intriguing. I’ve enjoyed listening to the likes of Michael Atherton when they dive into some of the old stories when they get time during some of the rain breaks. I’ve found as a commentator it’s quite a good experience, but it can be quite difficult at times.
How was the process of building the Spark Sport commentary team?
There were some really nice moments right throughout the season when you could see developing relationships and friendships in the commentary box. Everyone that’s in there is different in their own way. Everyone’s got great pedigrees in various aspects and it is a very diverse group of commentators. But there’s a real nice collective harmony in the group and I think that comes out with a softness and enthusiasm for the game and a sense of positivity on the screen and that’s what we’re trying to achieve anyway. And that’s what I felt within the commentary box.
After every day everyone would sit back and have a beer after the day’s play and just talk through, “How we’d go today? Anything we can do differently tomorrow?” And that’s pretty rare to have a culture develop within a commentary box. Normally what happens the minute you’re not scheduled to be on air, you’re in the cab back home and you don’t even hear what’s happening. But maybe because we’re slightly more inexperienced as a commentary group we have to grow together. We made a whole lot of mistakes, too, but I think from Spark’s point of view they wanted that and they wanted us to be different and wanted us to sell the game a bit differently. Hopefully we achieved that.
Guys like Grant Elliot are just gold behind the scenes. He’s a great conduit for everyone else within the commentary box to just relax and enjoy themselves and not take themselves too seriously – you’re obviously professional, but just really be a part of a team. No different to when he played. Grant was a fantastic player, but he added more to the group behind the scenes more than he did on the field and that’s not to be derogatory of his performances, that’s to explain how key an ingredient someone like Grant is in behind the scenes for a culture.
How is team culture built in the Black Caps?
It doesn’t have to be a beer. In my case it is. Not everyone has to go down that route. It’s more the sense of being together and having a sign-off or investment outside of the pressure that goes on in your daily job. It’s a way you can turn the page on that night and learn the lessons and move forward to the next day, rather than what can really get to you especially on the field in cricket, and I’m sure it’s the same in commentary, is it becomes repetitive and it becomes mundane and you start dragging past poor performances into future performances and it just makes it impossible to be in the absolute present which is where the gold is. I think it’s a really pivotal thing for teams and that they spend a lot of time together and there’s a lot less pressure on during those moments.
I’m fortunate enough to have been in some leadership positions in cricket in terms of teams, but also now luckily in broadcasting and commentary, and if you are going to be thrust into leadership positions you need to be authentic to how you want to do things and everyone has jumped on board with all of those.
What is the difference between your team and Kane Williamson’s team?
I think he’s taken this team to a whole new level. The job at hand was very different back then. The job was very much about earning respect and try and drag us out of the doldrums. And it’s certainly no one’s fault that had been before, that’s just how things had sat, and we just had to be brutally honest with ourselves and just start to try and climb our way back up the ladder of respect within the New Zealand people first and foremost, then hopefully, eventually around the world. And that was the job at hand for us.
Then the job at hand for Kane was, with an element of respect earned from our own people, trying to earn a level of respect around the world as a formidable world class international cricket side. And they’ve added that level of consistency which under my leadership was never going to happen, because of the style of play I was asking of the guys. I’m unapologetic about that, I felt we needed that at the time. I felt there was going to be some big hits and some big misses. But we needed that to free ourselves up and become aware of how good we could be.
I’m almost most proud of when I stepped away to be honest. I could have kept hanging on, and the ego of captaining New Zealand will always be there. You could’ve just hung onto that for a couple of years. I knew the team was ready to go in a different direction. I’d done as much as I possibly could with them, and the selfless thing to do, and thing you should do as a captain or a leader, is know when to step up. The team was ready for Kane. And it’s been a perfect ascent for Kane to the heights they’ve got to. And it’s now definitely, the team is in his image, which is fantastic because I think the best sporting teams are always in the image of their leaders. And he’s encouraged a lot of leaders around him and they’ve been sensational in their performances.
How do you let a player know they haven’t made the team?
I think it’s pretty easy to be honest. I think most of those players will know if they’re in or they’re out. Cricketers are realists. Matt Henry will know he got the opportunity in that test match because Tim Southee, who’s been arguably one of our greatest ever opening bowlers, was resting to get right for this. You just have to be honest with players when those conversations do come about. Back in the time I was captain, Mike Hesson and I always had an agreement that I’d always go and tell the guys in the squad who weren’t playing. Just for consistency of message.
They’re uncomfortable at times because you’re letting guys down, you’re starving them of an opportunity to represent their country but the guys are great. As long as you’re honest with people and you’re transparent and consistent with your messages, and the messages coming from Mike and me were very consistent, then guys understand. There’s going to be a moment when they suffer natural self disappointment and that’s why you try and tell them as early as you can that they won’t be in the team, so I’d try and do it the day before. Then it gives them time to try and digest things themselves. Then when you turn up the following day their job now is not to run in and swing the new ball, their job is to try and make sure the guys who are out on the field are given everything they possibly can to perform their role the best. And when it’s their time, when the time does come that they get the opportunity out on the field then the same would be expected of those who aren’t playing.
You just have to make sure you’re spending time with those guys too, particularly in test matches. I’d normally try and get the guys who aren’t playing, who are on the bench, after day one, I’d try and get them together for a beer and invest a bit of time in them too. Because it can be quite lonely on the road as guy who’s not playing.
What are your personal career highlights?
I have a few favourite moments for different reasons.
Obviously the 302. That moment, that morning, when the crowd wouldn’t sit down after I reached 300. And the significance of what that meant for the past players and the New Zealand cricket public. That was a pretty emotional moment.
The last test match, I was able to get that fastest hundred against Australia. That was special for different reasons, because that showed to me that no matter where you think you’re at and no matter how down on confidence you are – which I was at the time and I could see the finish line from a career point of view – you can still steel yourself if you’re authentic to yourself. You can still find a way to rise up and have your moment if you are 100% in how you want to do it and you stay true to that. If you masquerade and try and be someone you’re not, you will fail. That moment taught me that I could still find a way to deliver even against the odds.
Some of my favourite moments are team moments, and that for me is what it was all about. It’s a bit morbid, but Kane and myself and Tim Southee, we always talk about how your runs and your wickets don’t go on your gravestone, they say “loving father, friend to many etc…” So, I played for those around me and the experiences of those and the relationships and friendships which developed. The team moments for me were always more important. The most amazing, yet emotional time and sad time was the Phil Hughes situation and the performance of our team which followed that was just unbelievable. And what it did for us beyond that. It was a terrible time, but it freed us up as cricketers. We realised that the game just needs to be played for the game. We get ourselves so caught up in the white noise and the pressures and that moment where we are having to play and we didn’t want to, but we were playing just to be with one another had some pretty lasting impacts on our cricket team and our relationship and our culture within that group. And that brought us a lot closer.
The other big moment was the 2015 World Cup, which was just a ride of a lifetime. It was unbelievable. It was six weeks for everything you hoped for as a kid. I still pinch myself now. Why us? Why did we get the chance to have a home World Cup? And just take the country on that ride. We didn’t win the World Cup, but it kinda didn’t matter because we’d done the job of inspiring the next generation and it wasn’t our time. Maybe it’s our time now, in this World Test Championship.