There are plenty of people who say they can tell you what makes the All Blacks great. New Zealand’s rugby team supports a cottage industry of articles, books, seminars and podcasts explaining their success. Exactly how their cricket side got to be the best in the world, though, when they have a smaller budget and player base than almost any other Test-playing nation, is a harder question to answer.
Not least because so many of the people who were involved along the way seem so reluctant to talk about it at any length. So the England and Wales Cricket Board, and its new managing director, Rob Key, brought in Brendon McCullum to let them in on the secret.
On Wednesday Key explained that “the biggest thing” McCullum had going for him when they decided to make him England’s new Test coach was “the fact that he’s done this with New Zealand”, adding: “He was the catalyst for the change in New Zealand Zealand cricket, and it made him someone that was just so attractive in that position.”
Whenever anyone does map out the story of New Zealand’s route to the World Test Championship, they usually start with McCullum and the meeting he held with Mike Hesson and a couple of other coaches after the team were bowled out for 45 in his first game in charge , at Cape Town in 2013.
McCullum later described it as “ground zero.” They spoke about the players they wanted to pick, the staff they wanted to hire and the way they wanted to play, which, they agreed, was radically different from how they had been going about it. So they, and the rest of the team, came up with a list of principles they wanted to live by.
You still hear Kane Williamson talking about them today. He describes them as “simple values which are important to our group and to all Kiwis, and which we want to commit to day-in day-out”. McCullum is not going to be able to do exactly that for England; he will need Ben Stokes to define the team’s identity in the same way he did for New Zealand, but you can be sure some of the traits will be pretty similar.
“Brendon’s pretty clear,” Key said. “He wants batsmen whose default position is to look to score runs, who can transfer pressure back on to the bowler when needed, but who also have the fortitude and temperament to be able to soak up pressure when that’s required, too.
“Bowlers who can look to take wickets and are prepared to change their plans to make sure they get each batsman out. And fielders who chase the ball hard to the boundary each time. And that’s it. That’s the philosophy we think will turn us into a winning Test match team.”
“The bet”, as Key calls it, is that this way of thinking is going to get more out of the same group of players who struggled in the past couple of years. Which is one reason why this first Test squad feels so familiar and so much of it (injuries and one or two famous old bowlers aside) is so similar to the one they picked in the West Indies.
“I said at the start of my first press conference that I think there are some seriously talented cricketers in this country, and we just need to unlock them and get them playing to the best of their ability,” Key said. “I’m backing Brendon and Ben to have a clear vision for the way we want to play to do that.”
Eventually, Key said, every red-ball player in England will have a clear idea of how the Test team are going to play. “We’re going to try and get that through right the way down the system so people understand what’s required.”
He compares it with what happened in white-ball cricket. “It’s not really about the 11 players, it’s about the philosophy and the way they play. It’s a little bit of what we want in Test cricket, not in terms of playing shots, but in that it’s so clear how they want to go about playing cricket and that has filtered down through our system into county cricket, so there’s a whole production line of batsmen coming through that play in that style.”
There is a lot to like in all this, even if you think Dom Sibley, or Rory Burns, might be a better bet as an opener, that Matt Parkinson should have been picked instead of Jack Leach, or that it’s asking too much of Ollie Pope to make him bat at No 3.
There’s an appealing simplicity to Key’s idea that if you start with the right coach and captain then everything else will follow. And given the men he has picked it would not be surprising if there was an uptick in the team’s results.
Beyond that, though, there has to be a caveat. There are bigger, and more complicated, problems in English cricket than can be fixed by any of this. Good as the McCullum story is, there was, unsurprisingly, a lot more to what happened in New Zealand than what was agreed in that team meeting. Like the way they overhauled their domestic pay structure, the close links between NZC and their six first-class districts, the work they did to relay their domestic pitches back at the start of the last decade.
The ECB has an opportunity to address some of its own structural issues in its ongoing reviews into red-ball cricket, racism in the game and the wider culture of the sport. In the long term, a lot more will depend on whether it can get decisions right, too.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism