As Sri Lankan cricket struggles with the demands of the international game, a true legend and pioneering innovator said his farewells and hung his Black Cap. His leadership and brand of cricket fascinated and rallied the world behind New Zealand and there’s a lot Sri Lankan cricket can learn from it.
Gimli: Then it has all been in vain. The fellowship has failed.
Aragorn: Not if we hold true to each other.
They say after defeat comes redemption, riches and glory. This has not always been true, the loss of everything doesn’t make the recovery any easier. But sometimes even the gravest of defeats has a way of delivering a savoir, a champion, a king.“Men? Men are weak. The Blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten. I was there three thousand years ago. I was there the day the strength of Men failed”
In December 2012 after a short period of utter turmoil a hastily organized press-conference announced Brendon McCullum as the new Black Caps captain. The hard hitting Otagan inherited a legacy of what ifs, a band of misfits showing glimpses of brilliance but falling short nonetheless. Their bullying big brother almost laughed at the selection, where be his tactical acumen to lead? they laughed. There was no strength left in the world of Black Caps. They were scattered, divided and almost leaderless.
The journey was almost impossible. The route to the top was marred by treacherous wickets, general’s marshalling far greater armies full of seasoned warriors, bludgeoning champions and wily magicians. Each path was full of many an obstacles they had to overcome. The funny thing is sometimes it’s not how strong your army is, how skilled your warriors are or how familiar you are with the territory that matters. Sometimes what makes a difference is how much you believe. How much you believe that you are capable of defying feats, that no obstacle is beyond your conquering and if you fight, true to your heart, even the greatest of enemies can be felled. This is what Brendon McCullum has brought to the Black Caps.
Firstly he united a failing group. There is a saying in the Caribbean “10 guys is not a team, it’s a gang’. BMac was the 11th that managed to turn this gang into a cohesive unit. And not only his teammates but also the coaching & support staff bought into his vision with new found enthusiasm. Maybe it was his relaxed yet authoritative nature, maybe it was his tough but understanding features, but there was no doubt everyone wanted to follow him. He challenged the common down under view of, to be aggressive you need to be inhuman. That, only through a mongrel like abusive approach can you unsettle the opponent. The approach that you need to do whatever to get in the opponent’s head. Ian Chappell has often said a well played forward defensive stroke shows great intent to the bowler as much as a caressed drive through the covers. And that is exactly what BMac brought to the Black caps cricket.
Make no mistake, their bowling was aggressive. It was precise and it was fast. Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Mitchell McClenaghan, Matt Henry and Adam Milne all hit the right lengths and made the batsman jump. But with every little bit of chin music, toe crushers or dance move balls they let rip, they bonded with the opposition on a different level. The batsman never really hated them. It was more of a duel of will, a tussle of skill and a dance of expression than a barrage of abuse. They would have staring contests but unlike the Aussie version of ‘F*** you’ yelled by Waugh to Ambrose this was a more “I’ll get you next time ol’ fruity” or “aha well played ol’ chap well played”. After the tragic death of Phil Hughes to a bouncer, the Black Caps under BMac’s guidance as a sign of respect bowled an entire innings at Pakistan without a single bouncer, even if it meant they lost the upper hand. Contrastingly in the first match after the death, Mitchell Johnson bowled one that hit Virat Kohli on the head, Mitch then preceded to have a cry for a bit. Such is the differing nature he brought to the Black caps.
They showed great aggression in the way they fielded. BMac’s mantra of never stop chasing the ball left fans at awe. BMac while being the oldest member of the team led with great example, often sprinting after the ball, diving left right and center and even taking the helmet at short leg a couple of times. The fans loved this and wanted to see more. During their successful but failed world cup campaign they manage to win the hearts of cricketing fans around the world, albeit a few kangaroos from across the Tasman. Bmac single handedly managed to turn the black Caps in to a well oiled professional machine playing with pride and showing a lot of heart while winning a lot of them around the world.
In his very first test as captain, the Black caps were blown away for 45 by a marching South Africa and in the 2nd they were bowled out for 121. Even with a rear guard action they lost both tests by an innings. But in the ODI series that followed they had the upper hand by 2-1. The next home series against England they fared a bit better as but in the return leg back in England they were once again humbled by an on song Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann. 2 drawn test series against Bangladesh and West Indies and a test series win against India were followed by Bmac being crowned the first Kiwi to hit a test triple hundred. What followed suit was the golden era of Kiwi cricket. They had their best year in test cricket, and in early 2015 they had their best showing in an ICC world cup making the final before going down to their cross Tasman rivals. During this period young Kane Williamson also emerged as a force world in cricket and was dubbed to be the greatest batsman Black caps would ever produce.
All of his efforts in bringing this new brand of cricket culminated into one special moment when he won the ICC’s Spirit of the Cricket for the year 2015. And true BMac style he shared the victory with everyone saying “This award is much the team and staff’s as much as it is mine, for I wouldn’t have won it if they didn’t buy into this new culture”.
It’s no secret that since the retirements of Mahela & Sanga Sri Lankan cricket hasn’t been it’s swashbuckling best. There are a lot of glimpses of genius, rare raw talent but for most part, as a close friend put in, some don’t look like they ever belong there. Nevertheless BMac’s career, drive, leadership and character can teach a lot not just to our emerging talent, but also to the core senior group. At the age of 34 he stepped down and retired from the game at a time when the urge to play one more T20 world cup would have been extremely high. He always led from the front & and by example, he never expected his team mates to do something that he wouldn’t. There were instances in tests where he would take the helmet under short leg, a position normally reserved the team newbie. He was tougher than tough, put his body in line even when a Mitch Johnson thunderbolt nearly burst through his arm. He trained the hardest, set the standard for everyone to follow but never put anyone down for falling. He was always calm, gentle but authoritative and decisive. But above all he was an entertainer for the ages, who risked dying by the sword if it meant his team would come on top
As international cricket farewells this juggernaut of a batsman and a Leonidas of a leader. Thankfully T20 cricket will let us, fans enjoy his presence for a bit longer.
Vikus Vandersmurf is a Connoisseur of Cricket