Brendon McCullum has been named as the new England men’s Test coach, but what to expect remains something of a secret.
The 40-year-old New Zealander is currently the head coach of Indian Premier League franchise Kolkata Knight Riders and his playing days are perhaps best remembered for his impact in white-ball cricket. But he also featured in 101 Tests for his country, 31 of which came as captain, and while he has never held a role as a Test or first-class coach, he has given plenty of clues as to the kind of team he would like to mould England into in the past.
First off, there’s his record as New Zealand captain, with McCullum pioneering an aggressive approach in all formats. Under his stewardship, the Black Caps were one of the fastest scoring Test sides in history, with an average scoring rate of 3.42 runs per over. Only five Test captains in history, with a minimum of 20 Tests in charge, have seen their teams score quicker: four Australia skippers, and England’s Andrew Strauss. And while most of cricket’s fast scoring Test sides were allowed to attack by virtue of their consistency, McCullum’s New Zealand didn’t have this luxury. Of the top 11 fastest-scoring Test captaincy eras, his saw the lowest combined batting average, of 35.31.
In ODI cricket, with the same cut-off, only England’s Eoin Morgan and Virat Kohli’s India have scored quicker, with McCullum’s New Zealand again the lowest averaging side in the top 11.
Even after retiring, McCullum has displayed a consistent distaste for what he perceives to be negative cricket, criticising teams that fail to grab games by the scruff of the neck. This will come as no surprise to those who watched his swashbuckling exploits with bat in hand, and McCullum has continued to espouse an attacking philosophy in his work as a pundit. Notably, he has been intensely critical of Joe Root’s captaincy of England, saying that he hadn’t seen any evidence to back up the assertion that Root was a capable captain.
“I think Joe Root is a wonderful guy and an outstanding cricketer,” he told SENZ radio during the Ashes. “They talk about him as a very good leader… I haven’t really seen it. To me, leadership is not only about making the right call at the right time tactically as a skipper. He’s not, to me, the best in the world at it. I think he allows games to drift at times.”
Despite McCullum’s admiration of Williamson and his captaincy, he too received similar criticism during New Zealand’s 2019 Boxing Day Test loss to Australia. McCullum labelled the New Zealand captain a “slightly reluctant leader at times”, accusing him of “submissive” tactics.
However, those expecting a hands-on technical resuscitation of English Test batting from McCullum may be disappointed, with the 40-year-old preferring those under his charge to back their natural approach. “One thing I want to see as a coach is I want guys to take what they feel is their best game out into the middle,” he said in an appearance on Matt Kabir Floyd’s All Out podcast in April 2021. “I don’t want them to play my game, or someone else’s game, I want them to play the game that gives them the most satisfaction. I think as a coach, the ability to give that freedom to those guys and also support them at the selection table, give them a little bit more rope than what they’re used to, can allow guys to really start to excel and perform.”
What seems clear is that McCullum is unlikely to impose himself on his players too much. Instead, he is likely to allow them the freedom to forge their own paths in the hope of freeing them from the heavy pressure of Test cricket, while giving them the backing so they don’t head into every match clouded by the fear that it could be their last.
For those expecting wholesale changes immediately upon his appointment, McCullum’s short career as a head coach may suggest otherwise. Speaking about his first year as head coach in the IPL in 2020, he said: “The first season with Kolkata was very much a matter of trying to get my feet under the desk and understand what skillset we had amongst the squad because I really didn’t know the guys. It was a matter of trying to get a few pieces of the puzzle in the right place and trying to keep morale high, and then observe some areas where we thought we might be able to then start to put some changes in place.”
McCullum is unlikely to adopt an authoritarian approach as England coach. “I’m an authentic person and I believe in being yourself, and I don’t mind being nice to people,” he told the All Out podcast. “Just because you coach you don’t have to constantly be jumping on top of people and saying ‘you’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that’. There should be a level of respect there, but you need to have the ability at times to make sure that you’re still ultimately responsible for the environment that you’ve allowed these guys to operate in.”
However, McCullum has explained, when discussing his relationship with former KKR captain Eoin Morgan, that he doesn’t shy away from taking a firm hand at times. “We also have very robust conversations and we can disagree on topics as well,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of drinking the same bath water.”
McCullum has also spoken of how crucial the role of captain is – perhaps no surprise considering his talismanic leadership of New Zealand – and how the Stokes-McCullum axis develops could provey pivotal. “The captain is the most important person in the team, hence you need to identify what type of captain you have, identify how they want the team to play and what tactics, direction, and culture they want the team to look like. As a coach, it’s just trying to keep the squad constantly on the same path towards that vision, and also to plug some gaps that the captain needs plugged.”
How the relationship develops between McCullum and Stokes – two aggressive cricket minds – will be central to the direction in which the Test team travels under their leadership.