Brendon McCullum will enjoy a rebound in England only with boardroom support | England cricket team
JHere’s an old story about a Somerset team meeting in the 1980s as they struggled to come up with plans on how to play batsmen on the other side. “Easy,” Ian Botham said of the opener, “I’m going to bounce it.” As for the second: “I’ll bounce it too.” It was the same for No 3. And No 4. And so on throughout the order. “Bounce it”, “bounce it”, “bounce it”. It can be a simple game when you’re so good at it. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Andrew Flintoff last year. “Let’s be honest,” said Flintoff, “everything about English cricket feels better when the Test team wins.”
It’s the Flintoff prescription. He is right. If England beat, or even play well against New Zealand, India and South Africa this summer, everything in English cricket will start to look a little less hopeless and the disputes over the structure of the county championship and the role of the Hundred will become a little less rushed. This is the job that Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes have undertaken, and according to McCullum they also have an equally simple formula for doing it: “We’re going to try and take the wickets with the ball, soak up the pressure with the bat and identify the moments to put the pressure back on the opponent and chase every ball to the limit.
This is the model used by McCullum when he captained New Zealand. They were eighth in the Test standings when he took over from Ross Taylor, and fifth when he made way for Kane Williamson, who, using the same model, then led them to victory in the inaugural World Championship of testing. In the same period, New Zealand have also reached three world finals, in 2015, 2019 and 2021. England chief executive Rob Key said this was the main reason the England and Wales Cricket Board hired McCullum, although he never worked as a test match coach. It’s also a good date. Expect England to improve.
But if and when they do, listen for a nagging voice of doubt under whatever applause comes their way. It might sound like Ashley Giles, the man Key replaced at the ECB. “Unless we look at more systemic change, collective accountability and collective solutions, we can make all the changes we want – you can change me, the head coach, the captain – but we’re just doing prepare future leaders for failure,” Giles said in January. “That’s all we do. We’re just pushing it down the road.
Going back to New Zealand, one of the key questions about their recent success is how much of that is due to the changes McCullum made and how much to the behind-the-scenes work done by their administrators on systems, types of soil, talent paths. , governance structures and all the annoying “bouncing it” stuff doesn’t begin to cover. There are two sides to what happened in New Zealand, one comes from the great school of history, in which everything is explained by the work of a visionary, McCullum, and the other is a boring story about a series of good decisions made in the boardrooms of New Zealand Cricket.
This is the version presented in the new book Crickonomics, by Stefan Szymanski and Tim Wigmore. They trace New Zealand’s improvement to a report on the governance of sport by John Hood, the future Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, in the mid-1990s. an independent Board of Directors, “with an appropriate mix of experience in business management, media and marketing, strategy, cricket playing and cricket administration”. They talk about the introduction of professional contracts for domestic players, the formation of the Players Association and the negotiation of a fixed pool of players from NZC revenue.
They talk about the alignment between the six provinces and the national teams, and the balance of needs and responsibilities. How in New Zealand NZC pays part of every national head coach’s salary so that for example the national team could ask the northern districts to stop using BJ Watling as a fly-half and start to play him as wicketkeeper in the middle order. They talk about how NZC reduced the number of fixtures in its first-class program so it could fund increased investment in the New Zealand A team, and the development of the University of Lincoln, who is one of the best in the world.
And they talk about the work NZC has done to relay pitches, which means batting averages in domestic cricket in New Zealand are now higher than anywhere else in the world. So batters have some experience in building big totals and bowlers in how to take wickets on flatter pitches.
I asked McCullum which of these two aspects of New Zealand history had the most influence on the improvement of the team. “It depends who you ask, I guess,” he said. “I don’t know. I was unaware of these developments at the time. I was focused on my role as captain and leading the team on the pitch to be better versions of ourselves and play a more attractive brand of cricket.
That’s what he will do here too. “That other stuff? It’s up to Rob Key and all the boys to practice. I’m just focused on cricket. In the long run, the biggest changes England make this year may well be those that Andrew Strauss and Key concoct in their high performance review which is due at the end of the season.