Dubai November 28, 2022: Speaking to the Vaughany and Tuffers podcast, the New Zealander discusses passion for Test cricket and making England the great entertainers
Brendon McCullum is passionate about Test cricket
Brendon McCullum is unsure what to say when asked about his style of coaching. We know he’s not a drill sergeant autocrat barking orders but he is not a soft touch either.
“I don't really know what my style is. I'm not really sure I'm a coach either,” he says. We know he wants to do things differently and in Ben Stokes has a captain “of the same ilk” keen to build an environment where “fun” and “enjoying” playing cricket are paramount.
But there is a bigger end game and more seriousness to it than that. He talked about saving Test cricket when he took on the job in June, but then he was picking up English cricket after an Ashes hammering. It felt like a message for the fans.
Now he is more open about the challenge really being about ensuring it is the players who still want to put up with Test cricket’s hard slog when they have a much easier, and more lucrative, gilded path in Twenty20 enticing them to give it up.
“Cricket's in a really fascinating space at the moment. The opportunities are great and ultimately people feel they need to look after their families and ensure their careers are successful long term but I just want them desperate to play Test cricket. It is the best form of cricket. The journey it takes you on, the novel that is Test cricket is so great that if we ever lost that then to me cricket becomes just another game. Embrace T20 cricket, embrace franchise cricket, but try and do what you can to ensure that the purest form of the game survives.”
McCullum is chatting from Abu Dhabi on zoom for the latest edition of the Vaughany and Tuffers Cricket Club podcast, which will be available on Monday, before flying to Pakistan.
He has only been back together with England for a week but did not take long to show his different approach; cutting short the last day of the team’s only warm up match against the Lions for a golf day instead - “fun is an important element of what we are trying to try to achieve” - and promoting 18-year-old Rehan Ahmed to the full Test squad, more on him later.
The Twenty20 World Cup win in Australia united both global crowns and confirmed England’s place as world’s best white ball team but it is the remarkable improvement in the team’s Test cricket under Stokes and McCullum that is the biggest achievement of 2022.
Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes have gelled together nicely
They gave the team an identity after so many years of muddle, and will stick to their method, win or lose, until England or McCullum decide it is time to move on.
“I look at what it used to be like being a player and think what would I like from the people who are running the structure? A lot of the time I think players are right but sometimes you kind of go, you know what, we need a little bit of, not a firm hand, but we need someone to just tell us what we need to do in this situation. It's kind of like, ‘right, this is what we signed off on lads let's go and have a crack. This is what you've all agreed. So let's do it and remain on task’. But I don't really know. I'm sort of feeling it out myself, to be honest. I just try to turn up every day and be consistent with the guys and I just want to see them be as good as their talent suggests.
“One thing I have noticed since I've been in the England job is I thought England players were good but I didn't realise they are as good as they are. There's some serious skill operating around English cricket and I'm not sure we realised how good it is. Skill is not a problem in English cricket. It is now about the language we talk, and the environment we create to allow those players to become the best possible players they can be in the shortest period of time. That's what our job is.
“We want to free guys up so that the talent comes through and look, both the skipper and myself, we hate losing. But you can accept losing when you're trying to entertain. You are risking losing trying to achieve something and you walk away as a fan and you say, ‘you know what? I've had an absolutely great day. We got beat but gee what a day’. Ultimately that's what you're trying to achieve, right. It is like watching a movie. You sit there and you've got all the big actors and if it doesn't grab you, then it's kind of pointless. At least we're going to fire some shots and we're going to try and achieve it. And if we don't, well, that's okay too.”
'We want to leave an impression'
The week in Abu Dhabi was a chance for the group to come together again, and it will be a McCullum trademark to start a tour by bonding first. There is a week planned in Queenstown before the New Zealand series in February and likely to be something similar in the lead up to the Ashes. Unwind first, don’t do anything for show and then go hard. England net for the first time in Rawalpindi today, getting down to business properly before the first Test on Thursday.
“We all know that the game is difficult and there's so many demands on us,” he says. “We are judged by our results but ultimately, we want to leave an impression, not just on the game, but leave an impression on ourselves of this period of time in our lives. We have looked at what we need to do to be at our absolute best and to perform in Pakistan and I think the last week has been about camaraderie amongst the group. One learning we had from earlier on in the year is that because now the team is very separate to the T20 set up, a lot of our guys go off and they do their own thing, so if we're asking these guys to push the boundaries, then we need to get them together a bit earlier. A lot of that is not to do with cricket but breaking down those barriers, spending time socially, playing golf or at the pool. Once you have spent a couple of days together, you can put the graft in and start ticking off the skill side of things. That is the idea. The skip says ‘I think the boys would like this’, so we will see where we land.”
'Rehan's got something pretty special'
So on to Ahmed, who could become England’s youngest Test cricketer over the next couple of weeks. McCullum hates the word “Bazball” - “it just doesn't make any sense” - but picking a wrist spinner who has played only three first-class games is a “Bazball” selection. He admits it looks a “rogue” pick but insists he was on the radar for a while. Even so, he still needed to find out what makes him tick before arriving in Pakistan and potentially throwing him into Thursday’s Test.
“This morning he was downstairs, doing his skin fold test and I said ‘ah bugger that let’s go and have some breakfast instead.’ And anyway, I was sitting there at breakfast and I said, ‘What are you into outside of cricket?’ He said ‘cricket’ and I said, ‘What’s your passion? What are the things which really drive you? And he said ‘cricket’. What about school? And he said ‘well, I left school early because they just wanted to tell me what to do. And all I wanted to do was play cricket.’
"So what a fabulous kind of opportunity for someone like him. He's young and his family is obviously really invested in the game. He seems really confident in himself. I want to get to know him and I want to try and help him out. Here he is. He’s 18 and on an England tour to Pakistan so there's some real opportunities there and there'll be some challenges along the way, but it's our job to figure this out. We know that he's not the finished product. He's a long way away from that, but he's got something which is pretty kind of special. We’ve got a lot of senior players, a lot of guys who will look after him in the set up.”
Rehan Ahmed could become England’s youngest Test cricketer CREDIT: Getty Images
McCullum never played a Test match in Pakistan. His assistants Paul Collingwood and Marcus Trescothick played in the 2005 tour but that is it for experience, of knowing what to expect.
“We'll have a crack,” he says. “If we lose, then we'll deal with that when it comes. To me, the really important thing is to have a resilient environment. We believe in what we are doing. Well, that's okay (to lose). We will just get up and go again and have another crack at it.”
The Ashes are looming and the Australians are tearing themselves apart - old coach Justin Langer is not hiding his grudge. But McCullum laughs before playing about the only leave of his career when served up with an Ashes phoney war half volley.
“Obviously I do read some of that stuff and you read what is unfolding but unless you're on the inside, you don't really know, right? So you sort of…I expect when we come Ashes