Being Brendon McCullum: Everybody loves Baz, but is he really anybody's favourite cricketer?

BMac. Baz. Mr. New Zealand. It's tough to argue that every cricket fan likes Brendon McCullum, but is he really anybody’s favourite cricketer?

Now stay with me here for a minute.

If you are shaken awake in the middle of the night, and asked to name your favorite cricketer, very few people, except for maybe New Zealanders and Hobbits, will take his name.

In fact, for a large part of his career, McCullum was probably not even the favorite in New Zealand, certainly not when he took over captaincy from Ross Taylor. But in the four years since, the blistering batsman has become one of global cricket’s favourite leadership story - all it took is changing the face of New Zealand cricket.

Being Brendon McCullum: Everybody loves Baz, but is he really anybodys favourite cricketer?

Brendon McCullum walks away after his last international innings. AFP

And as he hangs up his international boots, this is what Baz will be best remembered for – the captain who changed his team, more than a great cricketer that fans adored. McCullum’s legacy will not be his performances, but his impact.

So why it is that while McCullum was one of the most popular guys to have worn the Black Cap, he was hardly considered a global cricket icon?

Cult status

Everybody likes Baz – how could you not like the dashing, tattooed player who bats like a painter armed with a bludgeon instead of a brush, the inspirational leader who brings out the best in his team and leads by example, the agile athlete who gives his everything in front and behind the stumps, the enthusiastic entertainer who can turn the most boring match with his blitzkrieg batting and fielding.

That McCullum was one of nicest guys to play cricket, a fitting leader of the team that made a habit of taking home the 'Spirit of Cricket' Awards, is quite evident. Who else would 'feel embarrassed' to break his ‘idol Viv Ricahrds’s record’ of the fastest-ever Test century or after scoring the country's first triple century because he is "not anywhere near the calibre of players" like Martin Crowe and Stephen Fleming?

But, McCullum’s popularity also had a lot to do with New Zealand’s ‘always the bridesmaid, (the nicest ones) but never the bride’ scenario. He is, after all, the one who changed that by building a unit that came closest to actually winning a major trophy in 2015, both as captain and batsmen.

Yet, nobody claims that he rates among the pantheon of contemporary greats, not even when narrowed to fellow wicketkeeper-batsmen. Nobody places him on the same pedestal as AB de Villiers, nobody takes his name along with Kumar Sangakarra and he has certainly never had the record and following that Adam Gilchrist or Mahendra Singh Dhoni enjoy.

This again may have had a lot to do with the team he played for. Apart from their natives and Middle Earth fans maybe, whose favorite team is New Zealand? They may have pocketed several Spirit of Cricket Awards, but the lack of trophies and historic performances haven’t gained them a huge global following. The Black caps don’t have the same charisma as South Africa or the raw grit of Sri Lanka or even the aura of India and definitely not the winning record of their Tasman neighbours Australia. (But then neither did South Africa, but look at their fan following.)

However a major factor was the dearth of matches New Zealand plays. Anyone who has followed cricket in the last decade would have noticed their under exposure, aptly reflected in the ICC rankings. Hell, a sign of this is the fact that even in a cricket crazy country like India, he came into the public eye only after his slam bang start to the IPL in 2008.

Consider this fun fact: McCullum made his Test debut in March 2004 and had played 101 consecutive tests in the 12 years since then. Former England captain Andrew Strauss made his debut in May 2004, retired eight years later in 2012 and played 100 Tests in the period.

McCullum himself pointed out this discrepancy. "We don't play a huge amount of cricket, which will hopefully change in the next little while for the team," he said in an interview with ESPNCricinfo ahead of his final series.

Under the circumstances, it comes as little surprise that Baz had a cult following instead of universal popularity.

Statistical anomaly

McCullum was the first captain to lead New Zealand to a World Cup final. Getty Images

McCullum was the first captain to lead New Zealand to a World Cup final. Getty Images

Then there is the other major factor why he didn’t capture the imagination of cricket fans for a long time – Brendon Mcullum is a statistical anomaly.

For a long time, McCullum’s career graph did not reflect his batting prowess. “I'll never go down as a great player but I played a role in the team, made some contributions," is how McCullum sees himself.

It is, in all honesty, hard to call a batsman with a Test average of 38 (30.41 in ODIs) a legend. For all his fastest milestone records, Brendon McCullum has only five centuries in a 14-year, 260-match long ODI career. Hard to believe that when even South Africa’s rookie 23-year-old Quinton de Kock has 10 ODI centuries in 57 matches.

McCullum’s Test batting flourished very late in his career as well. In fact, one of his biggest records, the 54-ball ton, came in his final Test. It was only in 2014 when McCullum finally justified his talent with numbers. In that year, two years before his seemingly premature retirement, he became the first New Zealander to amass 1000 Test runs in a calendar year, a record studded by the country's first test triple century (an uncharacteristic long-drawn innings that saved the match vs India), followed that with two double centuries. To enhance that, he led New Zealand to unprecedented success with five test wins in a year, more than the team had ever previously achieved.

But while he piled on the runs and records in Tests, McCullum also became one of the best T20 batsmen around. The batsman with his country’s only triple ton is also the first batsmen to score two T20I tons. (Another fun fact: did you know McCullum is the only cricketer to score a triple century, take a wicket and perform a stumping in Test cricket?)

McCullum is often seen as a symbol of New Zealand cricket, especially in the post Daniel Vettori era, instead of being an individual great. And he revels in that role.

"The evolution of New Zealand's performances and the team's chemistry is something McCullum will look back with a sense of pride. "Even after a loss it’s a special place to be," he said of the camaraderie in the New Zealand dressing room.

Ross Taylor's ouster in controversial circumstances made McCullum one of most unpopular guys in the country at the time, a fact made worse by the team getting bowled out for 45 on his captaincy debut. The furore caused during his ascent to captaincy would put lesser players off their game, but it had quite the opposite effect. From that to leading his team to the final of a World Cup, is proof enough of McCullum's legacy of impact.

Appearances matter?

Cricket aside, there was another reason that McCullum was not initially seen as a member of the clean-cut team of Stephen Fleming and Daniel Vettori. To put it straight, on first glance, the heavily-tattooed McCullum appears to be like a Kevin Pietersen or Chris Gayle - a bludgeoning bat on field, beer-guzzling, potential brash brat off it. His initial inconsistency did not help this perception. But a closer inspection of his batting style and captaincy reveals that he is more of a de Villiers (who, incidentally, called McCullum the Roger Federer of cricket) than maverick Pietersen or Gayle.

McCullum was one of the first modern cricket players to outwardly flaunt body art, says New Zealand Herald. And the body art often came with some value judgments.

But even this body art depicted his passion for the game and his team. His famous tattoo features the Roman numerals CXXVI (126) for his One Day International cap number, XLII (42) for his limited overs shirt number, and CCXXIV (224) for his test cricket cap number. It also features the birth-dates of his children. "The numbers represent something very special to me because I have always wanted to play cricket for my country," he has said.

Given these are some of the reasons for why McCullum wasn't anyone's favourite, what is the impact he has had on the game as he bids farewell?

McCullum played his final international match in typical Baz style - a record-breaking fastest Test ton in the first innings that gave his team a respectable score, a cautious 25 runs that ended with an athletic catch, with his last scoring shot being a six.

Wham-bam, here-goes-a-record, and then six-and-out.

New Zealand may have lost the series, but Brendon McCullum should be a proud man as he walked away from the field for the last time in his well-worn Black Cap. He had created a winning unit and leaves behind a fighting one. He passes on the baton to Kane Williamson, the one who scored a defiant 97 which took the match to Day 5, a 25-year-old chap leading an enthusiastic team, with a belief that they can beat the best in the world. In fact, Williamson’s tribute to his departing captain on ESPNCricinfo is probably the best indication of Baz’s impact on the game. Here’s an excerpt:

He's a guy who can leave the game saying he played it his way, that he enjoyed it. In fact, that was infectious among the group. He showed why playing for your mates and a common cause can bring more enjoyment out of what we do. He taught us to be humble and understand that there's more to life than a win or a loss. He brought back the old-school mentality where, if you happened to win, you invite the opposition into the sheds for a beer, or if you lost, make an effort to go to the opposition dressing room and do the same.

Brendon McCullum the batsman’s records will be broken eventually, Brendon McCullum, the Kiwi cricketer may or may not be replaced in the team, but Brendon McCullum, the captain and his impact on New Zealand will last.

So, back to the question we started with, McCullum's name might not be the answer to 'Who's your favourite cricketer'’ but  maybe if the question is, 'Did McCullum entertain you' the answer will a resounding yes.

Baz will be remembered for a very long time, for his legacy if not as a legend.

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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2016 10:24:12 IST

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