Farewell, Baz: Brendon McCullum was the Da Vinci of New Zealand's renaissance

“That moment when you turn off your WiFi at night, and the next morning, the world has shifted. #ThanksBaz”

This was only one of the multitude of tweets bouncing off the virtual walls of social media on the 22nd of December last year. The subcontinent had woken up to the news that Brendon McCullum had announced his impending retirement.

Hedonistic voices inside our head lamented that we would not see him lead the Black Caps to another no-longer-surprising march to the final of the World T20. He had chosen to bow out at his adopted home, in front of his family and friends, and who wouldn’t want that.

But we will miss Baz.

Farewell, Baz: Brendon McCullum was the Da Vinci of New Zealands renaissance

File photo of Brendon McCullum. AFP

It got me thinking though. Why the moniker ‘Baz’? Google didn’t provide a quick answer, and neither did Twitter or Quora. It piqued my interest. Cricket is inundated with so many strange nicknames. From ‘Tiger’ to ‘Jinx’, from ‘Diamond’ to ‘Pigeon’, and ‘Paaji’ to ‘Bhajji’. I myself was referred to exclusively by my nickname all through my career, by teammates, oppositions and officials alike. So I know all nicknames have some background to them, some obvious, some less so. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out ‘Baz’.

So I decided to stop trying. I decided to write my own reasons for ‘Baz’. And as I did, I realised I was writing him a tribute at the same time. I realised that if I looked hard enough, and gave my imagination some room, Baz appeared in everything that Brendon McCullum did.

So here goes: Baz as he appeared to me:

Baziness as usual:
All things considered, Brendon McCullum would be the most influential player in cricket over the past few years – Ayaz Memon

Rarely has cricket seen a player who has worn so many hats for so long with such aplomb. McCullum has been around long enough that memories of his early years as a wicketkeeper are starting to get fuzzy. Clearer are his many innings as a batter, explosive and astounding. But sharp as Valyrian steel are our impressions of McCullum the captain, leading his merry band of Black Caps past that semi-final barrier where they have stumbled so often and into the final of the World Cup last year. Few players have gone through their careers without being weighed down by the roles they play. Even Sachin Tendulkar could not reconcile his batting genius with the spider web that is captaincy. But McCullum seems to have said ‘Yes please’ to every challenge and gone about his business, whatever its demands. And he’s done that with no major breaks in his career, despite being a wicketkeeper for most of it. He has set a record that is unlikely to be broken in the near future, of playing 100 consecutive tests since debut.

Razzmatazz Baz:
He'd played bullish, ballsy innings before for New Zealand, but this was something else – Jamie Alter

Even before he gave the IPL a dream start with a blistering unbeaten 158, McCullum was an invaluable addition to any T20 side, be it nation or franchise. McCullum’s power and skill with the bat, agility with the gloves and brilliance in the field always ensured he was high priority on buyers' lists and in opposition team meetings. But it was the way he carried over his attacking game into the one day and Test arena that caught the eyes, especially in the early stages of his career. He was a race car with only one speed; whether the race was 25 laps or a hundred, it mattered little. And he was a primary contributor to the dominance of the batters we see in both formats.

Baz Lightyear:
.. flying from short cover and mid-wicket with arm flung out behind him to pull down balls that had already passed his body... – George Binoy

The first time I saw McCullum live, was at the last IPL. Suffice to say, he blew me away. It wasn’t his batting that captivated me, it was his fielding. He was making incredible speed across the turf, reeling in balls that were destined for the boundary ropes. Rotate the ‘Z’ in Baz and you get lightning. McCullum was like lightning wearing spikes. It was as if his hamstrings ran on hydraulics, and his core was magnetised tight. Here was a man who had spent years as a gifted wicketkeeper, and who gave that up due to a history of back trouble. To think that had it not been for the bothersome back, we would not have seen McCullum’s ridiculous athleticism on the field. And to maintain that intensity, with gloves or without, over an unbroken run of a 100 Test matches is nothing short of miraculous.

Bazinga moments:
There is something special going on within our game at present and it is summed up in one word: McCullum – Sir Richard Hadlee in the Wisden India Almanck 2016

File photo of Brendon McCullum. Getty Images

File photo of Brendon McCullum. Getty Images

Sheldon Cooper uses out the word ‘bazinga’ in The Big Bang Theory when he successfully pulls a fast one over his friends. Captain McCullum has had his fair share of aggressive, heterodox ‘bazinga’ moments, most notably during the 2015 World Cup. For instance, bowling Trent Boult to bowl 10 consecutive overs (Boult took 4-44), and starting a game against England with four slips for Southee (7-33). He seemed to live by the old but ignored adage, that taking wickets was the best way of lowering the run rate. His captaincy has gone beyond inspirational, to the level of aspirational. He is a bowler’s captain in a batter’s game. But it was not always so. In his first Test as captain, New Zealand were pulverised, dismissed for just 45. But by hitting rock bottom, they found a launch pad for their renaissance. And McCullum was its Da Vinci.

Baz off:
To be fair [to my critics] I probably gave them reasons to [not like me] – Brendon McCullum

McCullum’s Test average of 38.07 means that he will never be considered an all time great by those who deal purely in statistics. A hagiographic lens is hard to put aside when a player calls time on his or her career, but it must. That his average is under 40, despite the monster scores he amassed in 2014, clearly points to his inconsistency. Yet even acknowledging McCullum’s failures, his image is untarnished. For he is once again portrayed as lightning, that which strikes the ground infrequently but when it does, it does so to a devastating effect. I remember that charged up feeling a game gets after the bowling side creates a period of sustained pressure. It was the feeling that something is about to happen, that something’s gotta give. With McCullum you got that feeling from ball one.

They did lose but emerged the most popular team of the tournament. - Harsha Bhogle

Cricket has had a few nice guys here and there. But a team making a concerted and honest effort to play nice, and winning quite a few games in the process, against today’s backdrop of abuse, name calling and puerility? Blasphemous! Surely these men, who smile gleefully in victory ruefully in defeat, are an aberration. Surely in the era of players pissing on field and punching off it, these guys are the impostors and the misfits. Surely they are too nice for cricket. Surely if more players showed the same respect for the game that they show, cricket will be worse off.

McCullum’s Black Caps are changing many a perceptions in cricket. And herein lay his greatest contribution to cricket. New Zealand may not have grabbed any silverware yet but this team and this attitude has been written into cricket lore with more ink than any World Cup winner ever has. Ten, perhaps 20 years from now, players who think that being nice means losing will be told about the Black Caps under McCullum, with the same hallowed tones that we now talk about the greatness of West Indies teams gone by.

Baz to the basics:
We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing – George Bernard Shaw

Energy. Enthusiasm. Fun. These are assumed to be exclusively virtues of the young and fresh, not of those who have spent years in cut throat professional sport. Yet these are the virtues that New Zealand have brought back to the fore through the brand of cricket that they have concertedly played over the last two years or so. And ironically, it was a tragic death that, in part, led to this rediscovery of life in sport. Days after the death of Phillip Hughes shocked the world, McCullum blasted 202 against Pakistan, in process setting the national record for the fastest test century. New Zealand won the Test by an innings and 80 runs. McCullum later said that they were all still hurting, so they had to “play without feeling”. “What we learnt was that when you play without any of the pressures and expectations we normally put on ourselves, your skills can be properly expressed." And so from then on that’s what they did. They strived to play cricket like a game, not a pro sport. They tried to put hearts and minds of children in the bodies and intellects of adult elite athletes. They tried imbibing the flavours of the beginners, the debutants, into the wine of experience. And they did, and amazingly, continue to do so remarkably consistently. The result is New Zealand’s best ever team across all three formats. This in my opinion, combined with the respect for the game and opposition, is McCullum’s greatest legacy.

Great cricketers are like banyan trees, for those who relax under their comfortable shade generally get used to it. Once the tree is gone and those relaxing under it are exposed to the direct view of the sun, it takes some time to readjust.” – Majid Khan

Much has been said about Baz, but how the Black Caps do without him will say the most. If they continue to enjoy the success that they have in the last 18 months or so, it will say more about him, not less. For he has left New Zealand’s immediate future in a secure place; with a core of talented players with some years in the tank, a world class batter at the helm, and the attention of a rugby mad country. Kane Wiliiamson could not have asked for a better base to begin his second life as captain.

After I had written most of this, a fellow writer on Twitter pointed out to me that Brendon McCullum’s middle name is Barrie. That’s where ‘Baz’ came from. For all the heroic posturing and hyperbole I tried to give his nickname, turns out it had the simplest of origins. And it is fitting though, for he is a simple man. A man who is far removed from the dreadlocked, flashy young wicketkeeper he once was. A man who is wise enough to not be blinded by the view at the zenith, and recognise the right moment to bow out. A man who has put his family over his fans, and even his compatriots, by choosing to play his last international game at his adopted home.

Baz, for all the metaphors of lightning and lightspeed, is a simple name for a simple man.

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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2016 13:58:01 IST

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