Brendon McCullum – The Ultimate Punt

Sometimes I don’t understand Andrew Strauss. He was conservatism personified as England captain. And yet, since becoming an administrator, he’s turned into Mr Funky. We’ve had his irrational support for The Hundred, his decision to prioritise white ball over red ball (even though he was more of a red ball player), and now he’s appointed a high-risk / high reward candidate who everyone thought was a better fit for the white ball role, as England Test coach. What’s more, in doing so, he eschewed the safe but experienced Gary Kirsten who was the mirror image of Strauss as a player. Sometimes I wonder if the real Andrew Strauss was kidnapped by aliens and the imposter we’re seeing today is just trolling us for shits and giggles.

Although Rob Key was technically in charge of this appointment, I’ve read more from Strauss on the interview process than the new MD. In fact, my gut tells me that Strauss led this process as he’d been in situ for a lot longer than affable Rob. However, I don’t doubt that Key was very much onboard. I can see him being extremely impressed by a man of McCullum’s stature, flamboyance, and self-confidence.

I am a little concerned, however, by the press notes following the announcement. Apparently McCullum got the job because of his ‘clarity of purpose’ and ‘positive intent’. Indeed, his strategy can basically be summarised thus: play your natural game and seize the day. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that – it’s hardly original – but one would’ve expected Strauss, who may or may not be going through a midlife crisis on the evidence available, to have been attracted to something a tad more scientific. Indeed, McCullum’s MO is the polar opposite of the mechanical ‘bowling dry’ strategy that Strauss bored the opposition to tears with as skipper.

It’s all extremely interesting if you ask me – although ‘curious’ might be a better word. Just three years ago, McCullum declared that Test cricket was dying and T20 was the future. And yet here he is, apparently wetting his pants in excitement at the prospect of leading England’s Test side into a future that doesn’t exist.

So what do you make of this rather left field appointment? My impression is that supporters are polarised. Some quite rightly point out that he’s an inspirational personality, an infectious personality in fact, who can’t help but motivate England’s beleaguered troops. Others, quite rightly, point out that he’s basically got bugger all experience. His extremely short CV as a coach is limited to T20 franchises, where he’s been mostly successful but not exclusively so.

What do I think personally? I’m conflicted. I’ve always liked McCullum as both a player and a captain. How can one not? But I have to say that I’m a bit concerned about his credentials. I mean, how relevant is captaincy to coaching? It’s related, I suppose, but they’re not totally aligned. Michael Vaughan was an excellent England captain, for example, but I imagine he’d be a bloody terrible England coach.

In addition, England have now got the least experienced MD and head coach combo conceivable. I would’ve thought that Kirsten would’ve been the steady hand and wise old sage that the green Rob Key needed. Instead, we’ve got two rookies in charge of an extremely tough brief. Will it be inspired fresh thinking or two naïve novices leading a listing ship into even choppier waters?

Basically, therefore, although I’m quite excited by McCullum’s appointment – not least because he’ll relish beating Australia just as much as any England supporter – I’m slightly concerned by the rationale behind this decision. The problem with Chris Silverwood was his lack of experience. So how is it logical to appoint a candidate with even less experience?

Finally, McCullum never seemed to be a particularly technical player. He was most famous for innings when he played by the seat of his pants. Are England’s inauspicious XI really talented enough, or naturally free-spirited enough, to play in the same way? I have my doubts. Perhaps this particular XI would’ve been better served by a coach with experience of extracting every single modicum of talent from his body (someone who over-performed as a player) rather than a great entertainer? I dunno.

So I’ll leave it there for now. McCullum, as I said above, is a high-risk appointment that could pay off spectacularly. The positive side is that he could be credited with installing a culture that eventually took New Zealand to the World Test Championship. But the negative is that he’s pretty new to this coaching lark. Great players, and even great captains, don’t always make the transition successfully.

So have the ECB appointed the new Pep Guardiola or the next Kevin Keegan? Time will tell, I guess. The good news, however, is that I’d probably settle for the next Frank Lampard at this point – someone who’s experienced mixed success in the dugout. After all, some success, and a basic level of competence, would surely be an upgrade on the last couple of years. What’s more, he should be used to fighting it out at the bottom of the table with a team accustomed to losing.

James Morgan

31 comments

  • So before starting on the appointment let me just say that, as much as I loath The Hundred, Strauss’s decision to support it was not irrational but just plain greed for both money and complete control thereof. Supporting the Blast would not have quite provided all that!

    I am leaning towards the inspirational in the appointment of McCullum. England test cricket is really at the bottom of the pile just now and needs some significant attitude adjustment as well as technical shoring up. Remember also that England has more technical staff on their books than an NFL team, covering pretty much all the bases and then some. There is so much analysis going on that they need their own library to accommodate it all!

    The leadership needs to set out the objectives, the expectations required of each and every contract player, set specific goals for them and sift out the better teachers within the support group and then hire and fire on results. It is not for them to micro-manage that process. In addition appointing a selection committee that is aligned with the objectives and goals of England test cricket and also actually monitors players who are not initially given contracts but show the potential to move into the group.

    I would expect the triumvirate of Key, McCullum and Stokes to be heavily aligned in setting and passionately chasing those targets. Kirsten is a proven, technically sound coach but he seems to be a bit of a chip of the old block in terms of the coaches we have seen in the past. I see McCullum potentially, not only, to emulate Shastri’s second tenure with India but also manage in a similar style. It could be an interesting ride…

  • You say “how relevant is captaincy to coaching?”, and I’m thinking, how relevant is coaching to captaincy? It depends on the individuals. How important is it likely to be to Ben Stokes, as captain, who the head coach is? What does the coach do? Takes the team to the ground, says Rob Key in his book. Which tells us enough about how this decision has been made. It is certainly a punt, but why not?

    • I think Key may have nicked the line about the coach from Shane Warne. Not the only thing he’s nicked off Shane!

  • Sorry to say it seems entirely predictable that the new broom sweeps gimmicks. McCullum is a gimmick, he’s a strong personality without any prior show of commitment to test cricket. He’ll get on well with Stokes but it’s hard to see any logic behind it when an experienced alternative like Kirsten is screaming from the rooftops, who should have got it last time instead of Silverwood. Perhaps the fact he didn’t get it then counts against him now. Just get the feeling the ECB want cosmetic individuals who won’t rock the ideological boat. Key and McCullum seem to fit that bill. I have no confidence in either’s ability or desire to rebalance the formats.

    • Gimmick appointment. I quite like that description. But we’ll see. Jamie Cox, the incredibly experienced former Aussie cricketer who knows a thing or two about captaincy, responded to me on Twitter by saying that McCullum is a very shrewd choice – shrewder than we know. I respect his opinion. A lot of well regarded people seem to like the appointment. It’s going to be very interesting.

      • The fact remains that he is on recent record of decrying the importance and future of test cricket. With that in mind is this seems a con job and if so who is conning who? I stick by the gimmick theory.

        • The fact remains that neither Key or McCullum have any experience of the jobs they’ve been shoehorned into. What other conclusions can realistically be drawn.

          • Well I have had plenty of roles throughout my career I didn’t have any experience of – kinda goes with the territory of moving into a new job. I’ve made some mistakes as we all do in new jobs, but I’ve grown into them. If we only ever offered jobs to those already doing them elsewhere we wouldn’t get very far!

        • He didn’t decry test cricket. He feared for its future given that only a few countries can afford to play it.

          Playing 100 consecutive test matches despite needing 2 hours of physio on his back before every day’s play of the last 30 of them isn’t the behaviour of Donnie who doesn’t think it’s important

    • No commitment to Test Cricket?

      That’s not fair, and not remotely close. He has a Test 300 for a start. But more importantly, it’s Test Cricket that was his rebirth – the infamous 45 all out in South Africa started his mission for a renaissance of NZ cricket culture.

      I’m a Kiwi – he *always* made us feel that being a great test team was his aim, even if he wasn’t a great test player himself (and he acknowledged that).

      This may not work, but don’t underestimate the guy.

      • He’s publically stated that test cricket has no future in its present form. How is that commitment to the cause? It’s what he stands for now that counts not what he’s done as a player. Our test problems are based on lack of application and technique, how is a player of Mc Callum’s style going to address that?

  • It’s that saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

    This may not work, I thought Kirsten would be a great fit. However, McCullum’s job isn’t to be the master technical expert. Its to instill belief, positivity, that sense of purpose and enjoyment. That seems more to be what is missing from English cricket. It really looks like your great players (such as Stokes, Root, Broad, Anderson, Archer) havent really been having much fun. Winning is fun, for sure, but its not the only source. What is fun for the English team? Aussie have always had it (winning while being d*ckheads about it); NZ found it (winning while just loving being out on the field with their teammates). What is the English cricket culture?

    Don’t underestimate McCullum – he learned from his mistakes (including trying to be a proto-Aussie early on). He knew he wasn’t a master batter, but he knew his *role* and aimed to do that well, not be another Kane Williamson. But he also said he became his best attacking version when he found his best defensive game (and then scored our only 300!). He’s a clever bloke, he will be well aware that probably half the English team are better test cricketers than he ever was – but he is a leader and Silverwood never really seemed to be that.

    That Coach/Captain dynamic is actually the main thing that might be a concern – McCullum had as his foil the inimitable Mike Hesson. They were great mates but also almost polar opposites in personality. Are Stokes and McCullum too similar? Might they encourage each other’s excess, rather than hone? We shall see.

    Atherton thinks it is a good idea; Vaughan doesnt. That’s a pretty good indication ;)

  • Firstly – and it’s a point made before but worth restating – the fact that there isn’t a remotely plausible English candidate is a damning indictment of the ECB. Nations, except those newly granted Test status, shouldn’t be allowed to appoint foreign coaches (although I would allow specialist coaches on short term contracts for teams to address specific technical weaknesses that have built up in their cricket culture). It’s allowed because it pushes in the direction of franchises.

    If McCullum must coach a team other than NZ, I’d have more time for him if he’d gone to a nation like Bangladesh instead of megabucks England. I await details of his renumeration package with interest but I doubt if he’s going to worrying about inflation like the rest of us.

    I liked McCullum greatly as a player (his double century in the only Test in progress when Phillip Hughes died is a particularly treasured memory) but I have grave doubts about him as head coach. People are saying he’ll get on well with Stokes – but can he cover the areas that Stokes can’t? Gary Kirsten looks the much better fit in that regard. I rather suspect Stokes’ appointment was the first one and that Key and McCullum have been selected to go along with it (whatever the formal order of announcements).

    It’ll probably get off to a flying start this summer. SA are ripe for the thrashing. The longer term remains to be seen. It would be nice to see a player get better when they play for England for a while – it seems a long time since that happened, they keep getting worse. My fear is that England will flail away and while occasionally pulling off a spectacular win the three day defeats will keep piling up. Kirsten again seems the more natural appointment if the ECB wanted to go back to grafting batsmen and valuing draws. They might be hoping the affection for McCullum and waffle about “attacking cricket” will act as cover for the de facto abolition of five-day Tests.

  • I reckon McCullum is the right appointment. England needs a complete cultural overhaul and McCullum is the best of the available options with that objective in mind.

  • Much as I liked McCullum as a player, I think my concern here is that the ECB would like to hasten the death of test cricket (given the recent performance of the England test team, it seems they may share this ambition!). Fortunately, there are many influential voices (not least Virat Kohli) who argue against this. Ultimately, though, I don’t think the identity of the coach is as important as the administrative attitude to test cricket. At the moment, England play far more tests than anyone else, which is likely to lead to burnout (look at the number of mental health breaks recently). It’s hard work, and the current schedule is turning it into a relentless grind.

    Test matches need to be special. If they come along every week, the results could become as irrelevant as T20 matches*. This will appear heretical to the likes of Tom Harrison, but it’s not all about maximising income. You don’t put a new housing development on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

    *I’m not having a “go” at T20 here. I enjoy it for different reasons to why I enjoy test cricket (just as I enjoy WWE). But can you remember what happened in England’s last 3 T20 series?

  • Barney Ronay hitting some nails on the head:

    “How did we get here anyway? Key didn’t actually apply for the job of managing director of English cricket. He was approached by his golf partner, Andrew Strauss. McCullum was approached in turn by Key, having been recommended by Eoin Morgan, who is one of McCullum’s best mates…. it is laughable that English cricket can preach about inclusion and opening up to new people, and then set up its seat of power in this way, by avoiding due process in favour of phone calls from mates and people who are good on TV. This is the problem, right there: closed shops, invisible barriers, hiring based on good feelings and whoever is in your eyeline. Even odder, those inside this process don’t seem to see any problem with parcelling out power in this way.”

    I’d only add that it’s worse than “good on TV” – it confirms the fusion of the ECB with Sky. He who pays the piper…

    • Who exactly did Barney Ronay want instead?

      I reckon McCullum is a decent choice, criticisms of the process notwithstanding.

    • “The cool guys are staking the summer sport out as their own private fiefdom. And to be fair these blokes, with their skinny trousers, their cool shades, their everyman vibe, do represent a current version of sporting masculinity: the sensitive alpha guy, banterish and clubbable, but also tattoo-sleeved and gym buffed and, like, totally down with mental health and cool views, more aggressively inclusive than you, high on big no-dickheads energy, on artisan coffee, on semi-ironical yoga, on just being a great guy.”

      Is he talking about PC Principal from South Park?

      • No he’s talking rubbish.
        I’m all for giving the bloke a fair chance, it can’t actually get any worse (or can it?). But I worry that well be going back to the ” let’s open with Jason Roy or Alex Hales and get more aggressive” mantra – and we all know where that ended up.

  • I think it’s a good choice. McCullum became captain when the NZ side was at a very low ebb and dragged it up to a point where it was one of the best sides NZ has had. Not many have that sort of experience and it’s just what England needs. He got NZers attending test matches, quite an achievement for one who early on known for his ODI talents. Oh and he took his ODI batting talents and became a decent test batsman. The only NZ batsman to get 300. I think he might have something to teach England’s white ball obsessed batsmen.

    • Spot on, I reckon. There is more to Baz than meets the eye. He changed himself and NZ cricket, and importantly he loves red ball cricket. Just because he was a better white ball player and played in a hurry, didn’t mean he couldn’t be patient and take time to think things through.

  • What an interesting post James. I must admit my heart sank at the appointment of Rob Key so was not that surprised when they doubled down on the appointment of McCullum as coach. They are of the same cloth. The problem is this is still the same old England Brand coming through. The Brand that demanded attractive attacking cricket whatever the cost and has led to the dire status of the Test team. It was a flawed PR strategy no doubt promoted by Graves when chairman after he declared that he didn’t like Test Cricket and wanted it reduced to four days if not three.

    Now we have a coach in place who also said he didn’t like Test Cricket. The plan seems to be to change the game into a longer version of T20 which of course is complete folly. Because it is the length of the game which dictates how to plan and play. You don’t value your wicket in T20. You value it more in 50 over cricket. But you treasure it in Test cricket. In the latter you learn how to build an innings, you learn how to build partnerships. You learn how to bat in all conditions because in five days the pitch can change and so can the weather!

    Test cricket for that reason takes the greatest skill. Our batsmen don’t appear to have the skills required. Root and Stokes excepted. Stokes learnt his hard graft on Durham’s rather unfriendly to batsmen wicket. Root on Yorkshire’s similar wicket. Both of them impressed as youngsters by their determination to get in and build an innings. Youngsters now are more inclined to take the “seat of the pants” approach because of the powerful influence of T20.

    To be honest it would be a joke to have a combination of Key and McCullum if it wasn’t a tragedy. Stokes might have his work cut out trying to build a Test side with such a coach and director of cricket. As for Strauss, no mystery, he is a Company man. But Stokes is no pushover and was brought through the Durham Academy with different values. You only have to look at the Durham side that won the Championship three times in five years to realise he has other models to follow. They were a team with a real mixture of strengths. One of which was playing as a collective. They didn’t all play the same way but they made a whole. They had their characters and those who hit out and those that grafted. And some that did both. Cricket wasn’t built in a day. Our Test side has to remember that.

  • One thing McCullum may do is to bring back some enjoyment to English test cricket. I have no doubt we need it.

  • Harrison’s gone!
    Whether the game can ever recover from the damage he inflicted is doubtful, but at least now there’s hope (well, until we find out who’s his successor…)

  • Some random observations;
    – Kirsten has not managed a Test team for a decade. He left the role citing “family commitments”, England play more tests than any other country, and whilst it is red ball only he would still be away from South Africa for the vast majority of time.
    – Our Test team was on an upward curve prior to Covid, we the really slogged our players throughout it. Living in bubbles, etc. No wonder they didn’t look like they were enjoying it. IMO whoever comes in will have a “bounce”
    – IMO it should not have been a binary decision McCullum or Kirsten. I would certainly have considered Otis Gibson
    – The modern Test “coach” is surely more a facilitator than a coach, employing specialists although the players will often consult their own gurus

    I wish McCullum good luck. The one thing that has instilled hope is that, from what I gather from the media, he was initially approached to be whiteball coach but wanted to be Test coach.

  • “In its present form” – important caveat that. What did he ACTUALLY say, can you provide a link?

    Because what I remember him saying was Test Cricket needed to succeed and it needed changes like the WTC https://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/brendon-mccullum-fears-for-the-future-of-test-cricket

    Seemed fair at the time, and the WTC has been a boon. But as a Kiwi, I would say that :) And from England’s point of view, 1 win in 17 Tests is not healthy for Test Cricket either

    Here is what he actually said – he loves Test Cricket, he’s reading tea leaves. And he said this before the WTC really got going:

    “”I firmly believe that Test cricket won’t be around in time, because there’s only so many teams that can afford to play it. *And whilst we all adore Test cricket, and for me it is the purest form of the game – I’m loyal to it* – I’m also a realist that people are turning up and watching T20.”

  • I see Mahmood has joined the injured bowlers list. That might be something McCullum can help address too – one of the less noticed reasons for NZ’s test turnaround I understand is an attention to fitness, especially for bowlers. A lot fewer injuries/breakdowns now – and their fitness trainer Chris Donaldson has a lot to do with that. McCullum/Hesson decided being fit was one controllable, from what I hear.

  • Promoting Pope to No.3 is going to be the archetypal Key-Stokes-McCullum decision i.e. brainless optimism over experience and judgment.

    I’m all in favour of Root batting at No.4 and so they need a No.3 but that’s Crawley’s best position. It’s not as if other openers haven’t been making a case for inclusion like Compton and Haines.

    Did anyone see Pope in Australia and think to themselves “yeah, what he needs is to be fired up by Stokesy and BMac?” He needs calming down and some technical issues ironed out.

    I’m only surprised they haven’t immediately recalled Buttler but that will come.

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