Since stepping off a plane three weeks ago and heading straight into a media junket at Lord’s, Brendon McCullum has opted to keep a pretty low profile. During the first two Tests of the summer the television cameras have regularly zoomed in on England’s new head coach up on the balcony, shades on, feet up, arms folded, chewing gum like cud as doe-eyed players and support staff jostle for the neighbouring seat. But public utterances about the team’s performances so far? Unusually, zero.
It may be a consequence of his initial opponents. McCullum – aka Baz – is a proud New Zealander, boasting tattoos of a silver fern and his cap numbers if there was any doubt. After England secured an unassailable 2-0 lead over his old team through Jonny Bairstow’s display of shock and awe at Trent Bridge, wariness about the possible perception of him gloating back home would be understandable.
But mainly McCullum’s reasoning is said to be for Ben Stokes and the team to claim the spotlight after a win. He will face the music when they lose. Trevor Bayliss used to reluctantly fulfil his media obligations either way during his five years in the job but was cut from similar cloth. Once he halted a chat with Sky before it had started because the interviewer – Rob Key, as it happens – said he wanted to ask about his trophies as a head coach. “I’ve won nothing, mate, it’s the players,” Bayliss snapped back.
In the case of McCullum, the upshot to all this is slightly ironic. As everyone tried to process England’s mind-bending day-five pursuit of 299 runs in 72 overs, Bairstow having emerged after tea like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface to end it in just 50, the players were the ones to do the talking; they just did a lot of talking about him.
“There’s no doubt that Baz has had an impact already,” said Stuart Broad, buzzing about a five-wicket win in what could be his final Test match on his home ground. “I’m extremely excited about what vision Ben and Brendon have,” purred Bairstow, similarly, albeit swiftly moving to couch this with a reminder of the pandemic-related strains that scuppered their respective predecessors.
Broad, who was padded up and ready to come in at No 8 for a quick thrash if required, added: “Baz’s team talk was very much: ‘Let’s attack the danger; let’s run towards the danger and every part of your mind is going for this win. Whoever is to come, the changing room has full belief that you can do your job to get the win’.
“So it was never a case of if we lose one we might shut up shop. It was always: ‘We’re going to win. And if it doesn’t work, don’t worry about it – but we’re going to go for the win’. The last two years have been very difficult. But there does feel like a mentality shift. I didn’t hear anyone mention the word ‘lose’ or anything negative.
“There’s very positive language in the changing room. It’s very forward thinking. All about how to move this game forward. Even at tea on the final day, four down with the game in the balance slightly, I’ve certainly been in changing rooms in the past – and this is no dig – that would be shut-up-shop time.”
You only have to go back to Lord’s 12 months ago when England turned their noses up at the carrot of chasing 273 in 72 overs against the same opposition, and Dom Sibley enjoyed an extended net, to know the type of scenario Broad is talking about here. This time, freed from the fear of failure, their minds were filled with adventure.
But the second Test was not solely won on the final day. Through a combination of dropped catches, a flat pitch, a fast outfield and Daryl Mitchell’s career-best 190, England shipped 553 runs in the first innings despite electing to bowl. And yet they still made 539 in reply through centuries for Joe Root and Ollie Pope, and at such a decent lick there was enough time to bowl out their opponents for a target.
“It’s become a bit less reflective,” Broad continued. “It wasn’t so much: ‘What could we have done better on day one?’. More: ‘What we’re going to do now to improve our situation and get ourselves in a more positive position’.
“McCullum’s whole mantra is about enjoyment and fun. The energy is: how good is Test cricket? How good is this ground? He seems like he doesn’t look too far ahead, it’s just enjoy the day and what can we get out of it?”
McCullum, by his own admission, is not a technical coach and this early geyser of praise from his charges may raise eyebrows in some quarters. There will surely be tougher pitches to come – day five or otherwise – as well as attacks not as hamstrung as New Zealand were after seeing Kyle Jamieson pull up injured mid-game.
Zak Crawley appears to be struggling, while the question over England’s spin bowling remains. Had Colin de Grandhomme not over-stepped when he bowled Stokes during the run chase at Lord’s – or Pope and Root been handed lives at Trent Bridge – the scoreline heading into next week’s third Test at Headingley would look very different.
But it would be churlish not to recognise the injection of relaxed positivity McCullum has brought in tandem with Stokes; the kind that has seen Alex Lees shake off his previous caginess, Pope take on an unfamiliar role at No 3 and deliver runs (two plus run outs), or Bairstow conjure up the innings of his life. How long it lasts is the key.
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