Brendon McCullum: I’ll keep playing as long as I can

“It’s phenomenal to experience different cultures and different ethnicities and you get opportunities to meet some great people along the way as well, so it’s been good fun,” says Brendon McCullum in a chat with Sportstar.

Brendon McCullum... as free-flowing in his thoughts as he is at the crease.   -  Vivek Bendre

He is breathtaking when in full flow with the bat. And when he sits across you at the pool side of the picturesque resort on the outskirts of Rajkot — the home of Gujarat Lions this IPL — and opens up on himself and his views on the game, one realises that Brendon McCullum is as free-flowing in his thoughts as he is at the crease.

Excerpts:

Question: It’s been 15 months in your new avatar as a freelance T20 cricketer. So far so good?

Answer: Been good. Last year was my first out of international cricket; I was battling a back injury. I had an operation on that. Since then, it’s been good to be able to play with freedom without being injured. I have really enjoyed it, it’s given me an opportunity to play in six different tournaments around the world. It’s phenomenal to experience different cultures and different ethnicities and you get opportunities to meet some great people along the way as well, so it’s been good fun.

What sort of challenges does a freelance cricketer face?

Takes a little while to get your head around the fact that you don’t play for the national team. When you are with the national team, you kind of... everything is done for you. Whereas with these teams, you are very much on your own, because you are in different environments the whole time. You have got to make sure you are very well organised in terms of leading into a tournament, making sure you have got enough training work once you arrive at the tournament. I prefer to arrive a few days earlier to try and get used to the conditions because I don’t tend to do too much of training back home. Whereas, when you are with the international team, you are constantly training and on the way. But that’s good. I have really enjoyed it because you are effectively given an opportunity to run your own race. It’s up to you what you want to play and what you don’t want to play. I am just really enjoying it. I am also captaining a couple of teams I am involved with — Brisbane Heat and the Lahore Qalandars — and that’s been a good experience as well because you sort of pass on some of the things that you have learnt captaining your national team to different guys as well. And it’s also a good learning opportunity as well because, being from a different background, what we did as a New Zealand team may not necessarily work with those guys. I am really enjoying that. I’m having an absolute ball. You play in these six-week tournaments. Everything is celebrated as well. I think sometimes with the national team, you can really get a bit sombre with the ups and downs. With these tournaments, with the glitz and glamour involved, you hardly have time to think about anything negative.

Are you playing your last IPL?

I am probably as fit as I have been for a number of years; enjoying the competition, enjoying the thrill of playing in these tournaments. Being able to play with guys from different cultures. I’ll keep doing it as long as I can. Then after that, probably I have got a bit to offer in terms of a coaching point of view for these T20 tournaments. That’s something that I look at down the line as well. But in the meantime, I am enjoying the playing; still being competitive and the music is still in your ears.

What makes people like you fall for T20 coaching? There are so many of them specialising in T20 coaching across the globe.

Because it’s such a unique game. Because it’s such a current game as well, modern game. The guys who have played a lot of T20 cricket have quite a different mentality to any other form of the game. I think for you to be a successful T20 coach, you either got to have a lot of experience of T20 cricket or you should be a very, very good people-person and understand how to motivate people. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have played competitive cricket, you need to be a very good communicator. The T20 success lends itself to a lot of success and a lot of failure in a short span of time, so you have to be able to constantly push the envelope even from a skill-set point of view. You gonna have to go out there and operate at a very high run-rate and then think about wickets as well, so the mindset is quite important for that. That’s where if you have played a lot of T20 cricket, it can help. Or if you understand people well, that helps as well. That’s certainly I am interested in, down the line. I had my first taste as batting mentor this year for Lahore. I enjoyed that. I feel it’s just a good opportunity to help people.

Has the game, especially T20, become data-driven?

Ummm... some guys like a lot of stats, some guys don’t like any stats. You can use stats any which way you want. You can look at match-ups differently. Occasionally, there will be a glaring match-up that will make you a certain player against a team because of that reason. But most of the times, your focus just has to be on your own team and making sure you have a well-oiled machine that has everyone out there at his best and trying to give his best for the team. If you can do that, then you have got to give yourself the best chance of success. Doesn’t guarantee you, especially in this format where you know one player can just take the game away but you have got to be competitive. If you can achieve that, then you walk away from every game, proud of yourselves.

How much has your life changed since April 18, 2008?

Huge. Ten years ago, I was 25 years of age. Very much trying to cut my teeth on the international circuit. Even though I had been around for five years, I never really had a splash as such. I promised a little bit but never actually delivered anything. I guess that was the first breakout innings where people actually sort of stood up and took notice. Ever since then, it has been amazing. It’s been phenomenal. My profile in India has been really strong.

How did you cope with the fame that followed the innings?

To be honest, it took me a couple of years to get over that. Just the level of expectation, just to turn up and perform like that every time. That was once or twice of a kind of innings in a lifetime, especially when you consider the timing of it as well. It has been phenomenal. I love coming to India. It is completely different to New Zealand. The passion with which people follow the game and how they love you. You would love to attend to every single one — people want autographs, photos — that’s not possible as well. But I have got my family here for 10 years as well. They have had a pretty good time as well.

Did your Kiwi background help you manage the aftermath better?

Umm... a little bit. My career very much evolved quickly at the end. The last three or four years of my career was when I kind of worked it out a little bit. And that was where I certainly performed my best. Even after that IPL innings, I was still very inconsistent. I think that’s just the nature of someone who was still growing up in a competitive environment. I still managed to be able to play and to perform to a level but it was only the last three or four years that I felt as if I made an impact on the game and I guess the captaincy helped as well.

How did you work it out?

I kind of let go a little bit. To be honest, I was at a stage where kids are growing and life is developing and the sort of a thing that the game could be taken away from you any stage, so you just kind of let it go. It doesn’t become about your drive for cricket. You obviously want to perform at your best but the game shouldn’t define you as a person. That’s the beauty of growing up in this sort of environment. Those last couple of years, I certainly performed well because I let it go and just tried to enjoy the game, enjoy the guys I was playing with. Experience those times. Not take it too seriously, even though it’s a serious business. It’s just a game and that’s why we got into it in the first place and I was just trying to recapture that.

How has the IPL evolved over the last 10 years?

It’s been incredible. The first year or two was very much a really glitzy, glamorous crossover of Bollywood and cricket. And then, it’s become a very, very serious business now. It would be interesting to see what happens from here on. End of the 10 years, what happens next year in terms of retaining the players, the teams coming back and where the competition goes. If you look back, it’s been a phenomenal tournament and what it’s done is it’s opened the eyes of every other country around the world, which is why you see a lot of these leagues around the world. One thing we should embrace the fact that it’s potentially creating a global game not just for representing a country but representing a franchise around the world as well. It’s pretty cool. The crowds still keep coming in, so everyone must still love it.

Brendon McCullum with Kane Williamson. "He understands the dynamics of pulling a team toghether and gelling the unit together as well," says McCullum of Williamson.   -  AFP

 

How would you sum up the four IPL set-ups you have been involved with?

Kolkata and Chennai were great experiences. I had five years in Kolkata, they gave me my first opportunity. They were fantastic. Excellent owners. A real giltzy, glamorous owners as well. I still have a lot of friends over there. I am still involved with them through TKR (Trinbago Knight Riders of the Caribbean Premier League), which is great. That’s a great relationship which is now decade-long.

Chennai was an incredible couple of years. The way they cared for every single person, not just the playing squad but the support staff — whether (it was) the bag man or M. S. Dhoni it didn’t matter. They are all part of the CSK family. And we were obviously a very good cricket team as well.

Kochi Tuskers was frustrating. We were in and out for just a year. We had the makings of a good cricket team but it just never worked.

This franchise (Gujarat Lions), we have got a very good mix of cricketers. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Can you elaborate on the IPL’s impact specifically on New Zealand cricket?

It’s really important for New Zealand cricket because the money that the New Zealand cricketers earn is not much for international sportsmen. What IPL did at the outset was that it was the first major tournament that allowed guys to be able to afford to bring your families away, to be able to take them around the world, just take a little pressure off while you try and live your dream. Now you know that IPL isn’t just the only big payday out there. There are a lot of other tournaments out there where people can make big money, so that’s opened up a few options, too. But for New Zealand cricket, I believe it’s important that we allow our guys to go away and earn some money. Otherwise, they will end up finishing their careers far too early — in their 20s — and try and become freelance cricketers when we still want them to play Test cricket for their country.

Financial side sorted, but how frustrating is it for someone like Kane Williamson to lead the national side and not have enough game-time in the IPL?

That’s just how it is. That’s the way it is in these tournaments as well. As horses for courses, you have got to pick the right team. Doesn’t always mean your best players should be playing. You’ve got to work out your best players with respect to your best combinations. Kane, he understands that, he is the captain and a leader. He understands the dynamics of pulling a team together and gelling the unit together as well. Those guys (New Zealanders) who are still here are still getting to experience a lot. You are training on these wickets, you are experiencing the culture. You are living in India for six-seven weeks; that can only enhance your development as a cricketers and as a person. You have to understand that. Some guys struggle to be sitting on the sidelines because they are used to be big stars in their country. If they don’t get a game and they have to sit on the sidelines for six-seven weeks, some guys can get increasingly frustrated throughout their time.

Cricket seems to have become lopsided in favour of batsmen. Will restricting bat sizes restore the balance?

I don’t know. It depends. If you can lift a three-pound bat against 150kmph bowling, you should be allowed to do that. I think what we are seeing now is guys who are bigger, stronger and fitter. That’s just a natural progression in all sports, so I don’t know what the answer is. But I think people pay their money to watch the ball sail out of the park as well. But at the same time, you don’t want to get it too easy as well. I am sure they will come up with the right answers.

Bigger outfields, possibly...

I don’t want bigger boundaries, no (laughs). I want smaller boundaries. My sixes just about go over the rope, whereas a big guy like Gayle hits it about 40 rows back. I think they’ll work it out. Maybe with a smaller bat-size. But we don’t want to be in a situation as well where you just can’t hit a six.

Has the advent of T20 made specialist wicketkeepers a thing of the past?

Yeah, I think so. Wicketkeepers have to bat. Adam Gichrist, he killed it for all of us, I think.

But people don’t realise that the likes of Gilchrist, Boucher or McCullum were outstanding wicketkeepers to begin with...

I was okay, those other guys were excellent. To me, you’ve got to contribute more and more. You can no longer be a specialist bowler as well. You can’t just be an outstanding batsman; you have got be good in the field. As a bowler, you have got to be able to handle the bat. As a ’keeper, you have got to be able to bat. In my opinion, you need multi-skilled people in your set-up. Otherwise, you sort of tend to slip it up. It’s quite obvious that as a fielding unit if you are right up there, then it can have an impact on the result.

Brendon McCullum with his family during the presentation after his final Test match.   -  Getty Images

 

How challenging is it going to be to manage the three formats?

I think the biggest danger is, whilst everyone says Test cricket is a priority — I was a Test cricketer and I am very, very proud of what I was able to achieve in my career and that I got the opportunity to play Test cricket — some 5,000 people turned up to watch Australia play Sri Lanka in a Test match and 85,000 turned up to watch Melbourne Stars play Melbourne Renegades the next day. People, they walk with their eye-balls and they walk with their feet. T20 cricket, I think, will increasingly captivate people around the world. What we are seeing is some global brands are owning teams across the world in various leagues and my thought is what we will see is you will have cricketers contracted to one of those brands all through the year. You will play for varying teams under their banner and then you will be released occasionally for your country, if that’s what they want. I think the way the game’s going, it’s very much like football. And yes, I think it’s exciting and that’s just the way it is. We all love Test cricket, but three hours versus five days, that’s a big difference.

Do you fear more for Tests or ODIs?

I think they are definitely still operable. We have just got to make sure we protect them. If you look at the comparisons of pay structure, for instance, around the world, you have got Kane Williamson who is among the top five batters in all three formats at the moment and he would be earning a 10th of what some guys are earning and a 20th of what some are, comparatively, and he is an equal cricketer. I think if the ICC is serious about protecting Test and One-Day cricket, they need to find a way to balance that nature. Otherwise, those players will end up moving away from representing their country and those formats and hitting on the T20 circuit. Like I said, it’s an interesting twist of sorts, anyway. I enjoyed playing both formats. If I have 50 dollars in my pocket to watch a game of cricket, well, it depends. First day of a Test match, or the last day or a T20 game. What would my kids want to watch? Maybe one-day cricket. Everyone’s different. The good thing is that we have three formats in the market, so everyone can decide which one they want to go and watch.

Would Olympic participation help?

Aah... Yeah maybe... I don’t know. I haven’t actually thought about that. But I guess winning that gold medal could... but it’s different, isn’t it? The mindset of those real athletes who go to the Olympics is very, very different than to say a cricket team. Cricket, there’s so much luck involved as well; you can be in the best form of your life but you can still nick your first ball and get out. With those athletes, they will be looking to try and take a 10th of a second off, which could be the difference between making it to the final and losing in the heat. So, a bit different.

Corruption a threat in modern-day cricket?

Yeah, definitely. 100 per cent. It’s one of the biggest threats. That and doping are two of the biggest threats to sport and you have to find a way to eradicate it. It’s easier said than done, but...

You were one of the few cricketers who took a stand against it...

Yeah, that worked out well (laughs sarcastically). Naah, I think it’s vitally important. The education these days is excellent. That’s developed, let me say, over the last decade or so. The thing is as players, we have to protect the game. We need to knock it ourselves if it doesn’t go on. But we have got to try and make sure we try and eradicate it as much as possible. I believe the ICC is trying to do that. Education is one of the biggest things that they have improved, that’s excellent. But there’s definitely a danger here.

"After my playing days are over, probably I have got a bit to offer in terms of a coaching point of view for these T20 tournaments. That’s something that I look at down the line as well," says McCullum.   -  AFP

 

Do you have a take on the proposed changes in the ICC’s governance model?

Not really. I don’t understand enough of who sits where and what the issues are relating to or fighting for. As long as the motivation for everyone is for the game to succeed rather than an individual’s success, if you hold that at the forefront, then you’re going to give yourself a good chance.

How was it growing up in a cricketing family?

It was pretty cool. My old man obviously played first-class cricket and my brother and I would go down and watch him play — we didn’t actually watch much, we played on the sidelines ourselves, very similar to what my boy does now — that was really cool. When I was struggling, when I was thinking about finishing playing cricket when I was in my early 30s, it just wasn’t fun. That’s what it was meant to be, when I started playing cricket, it was so much fun. It didn’t matter if you got out, it didn’t matter if you didn’t bowl well or anything. Just sitting around in your dad’s change room, see everyone laughing around and joking, no one would care about who had done well. It was just playing for the right reasons. And for the first probably 10 years of my career, I sort of lost that. I was so motivated by trying to be successful that I actually lost innocence of just playing the game. Once I got that back, aah, I just had so much fun of the last four-five years. I was very lucky that I got to experience that when I was a child because of my old man. Certainly helped.

Did he ever push you to go one step beyond of what he could achieve?

He had motivated me because I wanted to be a cricketer. I wanted to a sportsman, I played all sports but cricket was the one I wanted to be. I was never pushed into doing anything by anyone. My parents’ support was vital, when we were growing up. We had the motivation to play sport and the support to take part in all those sports. I would say sport pushed me because I wanted to be part of it.