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Brendon McCullum - The man you cannot help but love

The New Zealand skipper has surely been the most admired one of all leaders of men in the tournament. What's so special about him?

Brendon McCullum at a press conference prior to the World Cup final

Back in the summer of 2008, when Indian Premier League made its way into the cricketing mainstream, it was a hugely anticipated event. The Indian corporate hotshots had invested a fortune, put their brand at stake and nobody could have afforded to leave the tournament’s success to chance. However, there was still an air of anxiety. Despite the world having already witnessed a T20 World Cup and the format having significantly made its claims, the subcontinent was still not entirely familiar with it.

India’s success in South Africa the previous year had certainly helped build an audience, but for the tournament to click in an instant, it was vital for the showstopper event to push the extremes. Few had realized how appropriate the scheduling of the first match of the event would be to unfurl the extravaganza that this tournament was meant to be.

Pairing up with the Kolkata Knight Riders skipper and icon player Sourav Ganguly to open the batting in the curtain-raiser event was a certain New Zealander going by the name of Brendon McCullum. A couple of hours into the game and absolutely every doubt about the kind of entertainment the IPL could potentially generate had been put to rest.

McCullum’s whirlwind 158 reeked of strength. Brute strength bordering on arrogance. The audacity in some of the strokes he played could have dismantled a bowler’s confidence beyond repair. He didn’t play the entire course of the tournament owing to international commitments.

In the following editions of the IPL, he has been a regular fixture having represented three different franchises since but hasn’t quite been the volcano of Day 1. However, that one knock he played to get the tournament rolling will forever be etched in the memoirs of the franchise tournament. McCullum was raw. McCullum was unforgiving. McCullum was brutal.

A pioneer of a new brand of ODI cricket

It’s been nearly seven years since the day. McCullum is still raw. McCullum is still unforgiving. McCullum is still brutal. In addition, McCullum now is also at the forefront of New Zealand cricket – and more than merely being the de facto captain of the national side. McCullum has led a surge of monumental proportions with his fierce and unrestrained brand of captaincy that promises to reinvigorate 50-over cricket in general.

McCullum is fast becoming a cult – a cult that represents a no-holds-barred attitude to the sport, a cult that no longer treats ODI cricket more moderately on the field, a cult that believes the only one way to eliminate the fifth bowler problem in the one-day game is by not having to need the fifth bowler at all.

Of course, it doesn’t always work for him that way. Of course, on most days against oppositions of reasonably good batting strength, he’s going to need to bowl his fifth bowler and may even resort to more conventional means to win the game. But what separates McCullum is, despite realizing this, he finds the risk worth taking, which in effect also means that he backs the abilities of all the players in his side.

Fortune favouring brave McCullum

Few in the history of this sport have matched this intensity. There have been many manifesting aggression through their body language, through their pep talk or even through an occasional bowling change that challenges conventional wisdom. The current New Zealand side, however, is marshalled by a general who’s tactically aggressive and who knows exactly what he’s doing.

He was in complete knowledge of what was at stake when he chose to employ five slips to buy one more South African wicket in the semi final. He realized the price he might have to pay bowling his strike bowlers out against an Australian side of enormous batting depth.

The latter of these gambles paid off, the former didn’t. Regardless, New Zealand won both contests – of course, in nail-bitingly close manners, but that’s not something McCullum minds too much.

During the last home season, New Zealand played a seven game bilateral series at home against India. McCullum batted at five in the majority of the games and had a fairly minimal role to play as the top order managed to do the bulk of scoring. But the opening combination still warranted a change. Bypassing the safety route of blooding the likes of Tom Latham or Hamish Rutherford into the role, the skipper took it upon himself to deliver the goods. He did that and how!

His opening exploits throughout this World Cup are only comparable to Mark Greatbatch’s and Sanath Jayasuriya’s in 1992 and 1996 editions of the tournament. En route to the World Cup, McCullum exhibited little restraint in the longer format too – playing series-defining knocks demoralizing the Sri Lankan and Pakistani attacks in conditions which were poles apart. Little has changed in his game.

A captain with a difference

During his peak, Virender Sehwag used to milk opposition bowlers for what seemed like fun. In a press interactions, the India opener asserted he prefers not letting the reputation of the bowler he’s facing influence his game. I don’t care whether it’s McGrath or Caddick.

Of course, these statements often flirt with exaggeration but in case of McCullum, it’s hard to explain his game any other way. He sees the Zadrans. He hits the Zadrans. He sees Anderson and Finn. He hits Anderson and Finn. He sees Johnson and Starc. He hits Johnson and Starc. Not even when Johnson hit him in the rib at Auckland when the two collided earlier in the tournament, was McCullum flustered even for the tiniest moment. With no reluctance or change in attitude, he continued flashing hard at Johnson.

Going by conventions, that’s not the most responsible way for a captain to play – risking everything and forcing his middle order to do the repair work. The skipper ideally earns his teammates’ respect by showing the right amount of equanimity while out there and refrains from setting a wrong precedent.

Not Brendon McCullum. Like every other member in his side, he’s set a distinct role for himself too and he does that job in a pretty unabashed fashion. It doesn’t matter to him if it comes at the cost of sometimes coming back to the dressing room looking slightly juvenile.

Of the same cloth as ‘92 hero Martin Crowe

On Sunday, on the biggest stage in world cricket, if there’s one thing you can be certain of, it’s this – Brendon McCullum’s men may get battered by a superior opponent but not for a moment will they be overwhelmed by the grandeur of the atmosphere. They will continue playing the way they have and so will McCullum himself.

It won’t matter that he’ll be up against two tall, fast, fierce left-armers who are bound to trouble him – hurling in bouncers from a very discomforting angle with pace and ferocity. It won’t matter that the MCG’s mightier dimensions mean that mishits might actually cost his side big – a probability he didn’t need to entertain while playing back in New Zealand. McCullum will play one way and one way only.

There will be another man in the stands on Sunday who played a vital role in redefining the ODI cricket at large, back in 1992. The New Zealand side under the leadership of that man too was a hipster’s dream team and never failed to entertain.

That man is presently fighting a battle against time and painfully asserts this might be the last time he’d be witness to an occasion as grand as this one. That man is Martin Crowe.

McCullum is cut from the same cloth as Crowe. Come the big moment, nothing should please the neutrals more than his men crossing the final hurdle and pay the greatest tribute to one of the very best this game has seen. Surely, winning the cup for New Zealand’s biggest cricketing icon in the hardest moment of his life will make one of the greatest sporting stories of all time. Not that McCullum needs any added motivation.

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