There is an old story about a Somerset team meeting sometime in the 1980s, when they were struggling to come up with plans for how to bowl to the other side’s batsmen. “Easy,” Ian Botham said about the first opener, “I’ll bounce him out.” As for the second: “I’ll bounce him too.” It was the same for the No 3. And the No 4. And so on right through the order. “Bounce him”, “bounce him”, “bounce him”. It can be a simple game when you’re that good at it. It reminded me of a conversation I had with Andrew Flintoff last year. “Let’s be honest,” Flintoff said, “everything in English cricket feels better when the Test team are winning.”
This is the Flintoff prescription. He’s right. If England beat, or even just play well against New Zealand, India and South Africa this summer, everything in English cricket will begin to seem a little less desperate and the rows about the structure of the County Championship and the role of the Hundred will become a little less pressing. This is the job Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes have taken on, and according to McCullum they’ve got a similarly uncomplicated formula for doing it, too: “We’re going to try and take wickets with the ball, absorb pressure with the bat and identify times to put pressure back on the opposition, and chase every ball to the boundary.”
This is the model McCullum used back when he was captaining New Zealand. They were eighth in the Test rankings when he took over from Ross Taylor, and fifth when he handed it on to Kane Williamson, who, using that same template, then led them to victory in the inaugural World Test Championship. In the same period New Zealand also reached three world finals, in 2015, 2019 and 2021. England’s managing director, Rob Key, said this was the biggest single reason why the England and Wales Cricket Board hired McCullum, even though he has never worked as a Test match coach. It feels like a good appointment, too. Expect England to improve.
But if and when they do, listen out for a nagging voice of doubt underneath all the plaudits that will come their way. It might sound something like Ashley Giles, the man Key replaced at the ECB. “Unless we look at more systemic change, a collective responsibility and collective solutions, we can make whatever changes we want – you can change me, the head coach, the captain – but we’re only setting up future leaders for failure,” Giles said in January. “That’s all we’re doing. We’re only pushing it down the road.”
Going back to New Zealand, one of the key questions about their recent success is how much of it was down to the changes McCullum made and how much to the behind-the-scenes work done by their administrators on systems, soil types, talent pathways, governance structures and all the boring stuff that “bounce him out” doesn’t begin to cover. There are two sides to what happened in New Zealand, one is from the great man school of history, in which everything is explained by the work of one visionary individual, McCullum, and the other is a boring story about a series of good decisions made in New Zealand Cricket’s boardrooms.
This is the version laid out in the new book Crickonomics, by Stefan Szymanski and Tim Wigmore. They trace New Zealand’s improvement back to a report on the governance of the sport done by John Hood, the future vice‑chancellor of Oxford University, in the mid‑1990s. They talk about the creation of an independent board, “with an appropriate mix of business management, media and marketing, strategic, cricket-playing and cricket-administrative experience”. They talk about the introduction of professional contracts for domestic players, the formation of the Players Association, and the negotiation of a fixed player pool from the NZC revenues.
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 a portion of each domestic head coach’s salary, so that, for example, the national team were able to ask Northern Districts to stop using BJ Watling as an opener and start playing him as a wicketkeeper in the middle order. They talk about how NZC reduced the number of fixtures in its first‑class programme so that it could fund increased investment in New Zealand’s A team, and about the development of the High Performance Centre at Lincoln University, which is one of the best in the world.
And they talk about the work NZC did relaying pitches, which means batting averages in domestic cricket in New Zealand are now higher than they are 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 sides of New Zealand’s story had more influence on the team’s improvement. “Depends who you ask, I reckon,” he said. “I don’t know. I wasn’t privy to those developments at the time. I was focused on my role as captain and leading the team out on the field to be better versions of ourselves and to play a more attractive brand of cricket.”
That’s what he will be doing here, too. “That other stuff? That’s for Rob Key and all the boys to work out. I’m just focused on the cricket.” In the long term, the most important changes England make this year may just be the ones that Andrew Strauss and Key cook up in their high‑performance review which is due at the end of the season.