Monday, December 19, 2016

Another New Zealand case of what might have been

Brendon McCullum Declared, with Greg McGee. Published by Mower Publications.

Brendon McCullum achieved, for a New Zealander, a significant place in cricket.

Just how that will be remembered, time will tell. There's no doubt he had an impact on the game with his blistering batting when on song. He retired with a dossier full of statistical credits.

Second highest run scorer in New Zealand's Test cricket with 6453, behind Stephen Fleming's 7172.

The highest score by a New Zealand batsman in Tests, 302, and the fastest century by any player in the world off 54 balls, and he has the three fastest Test centuries by a New Zealander.

He achieved the world record for most sixes hit in Test cricket with 107.

Second on the list of New Zealand wicketkeepers' dismissals with 179, behind Adam Parore on 201 – a feat that would have been significantly improved had it not been for back issues that forced him to give up 'keeping.

He was third on the list of Test appearances with 101, behind Daniel Vettori on 113 and Stephen Fleming on 111 and third also on the list of ODI appearances (260) and ODI runs (6083).

He captained NZ in 31 Tests, won 11, lost 11, drew nine, averaged 45.28 as captain, 38.64 as not and he captained NZ in 62 ODIs, won 36, lost 22.

There are many other credits in his career, including that memorable knock to launch the IPL cricket phenomenon that elevated his personal wealth quite significantly.

He led the New Zealand side in a distinctive fashion, not always with the support of the entire cricket community, but definitely in how he felt the game should be played. It was a policy that won praise from those who had wondered at cricket's direction on the field, even if it didn't quite deliver as many wins as it might.

The fact he was in the position to impose that style of play came after a harrowing transfer of power that is the subject of a thorough scrutiny in his autobiography, rightfully pointing out that it wasn't of his making. The manner in which the whole affair was conducted was yet another indictment of the way New Zealand Cricket too often operates. A world where smoke and mirrors come to mind.

Similarly, the manner in which the International Cricket Council handled the anti-corruption episode involving McCullum whose evidence against former team-mate, and hero, Chris Cairns was leaked to an English newspaper.

This treatment made a mockery of the entire anti-corruption system and would have been laughable were the subject matter not so serious. There are times when international sports administrators demonstrate an ineptness that defies belief, and this was one of them.

Either you take corruption in the game seriously or you shouldn't bother. This instance was not a good demonstration of intent. It ranked with the IOC's miserable failure to deal with the Russian drugs issue ahead of the Rio Olympic Games – a complete and utter indictment of the IOC system.

If there was one element to his game that McCullum inevitably shared with many of his New Zealand contemporaries it was the 'what might have been' factor.

Specifically, this related to summation of events by the belief that the action was reasonable because that was how he played the game. That's fine to a point but there comes a time in any sport, in any contest, when the relevance of the now, the key moment, the turning point in a game, occurs.

That is when the cleverness, the nous, the understanding, the difference between winning and losing occurs. That is when greatness is demonstrated.

History will show, as it has with several other top New Zealand cricketers, that greatness eluded McCullum. Too often opportunities to win were lost because to have pulled back a little, to have made a subtle change of course, would have meant departing from a basic, but sometimes flawed, philosophy.

Cricket is a game of many lessons. In it, there is nothing new under the sun. McCullum may never have heard of former Australian captain and opener, and television commentator, Bill Lawry's adage, "You play 110 percent to win and you play 150 percent not to lose." Even if the concept is mathematically impossible, the message is clear.

If he had applied it, there might have been an even rosier hue to his final career record.

No more obvious example exists than what was seen in the 2015 World Cup final. New Zealand had performed brilliantly in securing their first final place. The cricket world was their oyster.

But at a time when instinct over-ruled pragmatism, McCullum succumbed. Batting first, the opportunity was there to unsettle the Australians, to knock them off their game, to make them wonder what New Zealand had up their sleeve?

History had its own example of that 'something different' when Martin Crowe and Warren Lees achieved that back in the 1992 World Cup by unleashing Dipak Patel as an opening bowler with his off-spin as the prelude to a sensational win.

Instead of leaving the Aussies to scratch their heads and wonder where things were going, New Zealand blew it when McCullum rolled the dice unnecessarily early and departed in the first over – opportunity lost. That was the way he played the game – and while he might feel there were no regrets, that won't be a feeling shared by a cricketing public who had waited 39 years for New Zealand to win a Cricket World Cup.

New Zealand fans, many of whom were new to the game and the success of the men capped in black, hoped this might be the time. But it was a case of situation normal, another setback of the variety to which New Zealand cricket fans have been inured over the years. Cleverness, of the opportunistic type, is something other countries do better.

'Brendon McCullum Declared' leaves no doubt about McCullum's approach to his career. It is a fascinating insight into performance in top-level sport and is crafted in a manner expected of such a fine writer as Greg McGee but it also serves as yet another reminder of 'what might have been'.

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