No ho-hum, this McCullum!

With Brendon McCullum instilling belief and providing vision, New Zealand has displayed greater character and consistency in recent times, writes S. Dinakar.

It was a long time ago. The year was 2002 and the venue the beautiful tourist resort of Queenstown with its mountains, lakes and streams.

There Brendon McCullum was at the beginning of his journey in international cricket, seated on the heavy roller and surveying the scene on the picturesque ground adjacent to the airport.

That was the first occasion yours truly struck a conversation with him. An aircraft landed and took off even as we spoke. He came across as an affable South Islander and someone with a deep insight into the game. What impressed me was his confidence and that aggressive streak which lent his cricket the cutting edge.

Reminded of those days now, McCullum laughs and says, “Those were interesting times, weren’t they?”

He added considerable value to the side as a marauding batsman and skilful wicket-keeper with lightning reflexes. And along the way, this natural, galloping on his skills, has evolved.

The seasons gone by though have left scars on his body. McCullum does not ’keep anymore but can still dismiss attacks ruthlessly as the Indians found out the hard way at the Eden Park in Auckland.

Now the 32-year-old Dunedin-born McCullum is a leader of men. He has backed his cricketers, united them as a team and struck a promising partnership with an equally attack-minded coach, Mike Hesson.

If New Zealand is playing a vibrant brand of cricket these days, much of the credit should go to McCullum’s man-management skills and his positive mind-set.

“He has been just great as a skipper. He believes in leading from the front, leading by example,” says young batsman Kane Williamson who has blossomed under McCullum’s captaincy.

With McCullum instilling belief and providing vision, New Zealand has displayed greater character and consistency. When the occasion demanded, people have put their hands up.

Under the circumstances, it hardly came as a surprise when the Kiwis, ranked seventh in Tests, ambushed the second-ranked India by 40 runs in a thrilling Test in Auckland.

In the ODIs, New Zealand, ranked eighth then, handed out a 4-0 pounding to India, which subsequently lost its No. 1 spot.

It boiled down to planning and execution. McCullum and Hesson had different strategies for different Indian players. As a bunch New Zealand is not intimidated by reputations, and is now setting the pace rather than waiting for things to unfold.

McCullum has put his weight behind talent and we have seen the likes of Corey Anderson emerge. He has also encouraged the hard-working tribe, resulting in cricketers such as the industrious Neil Wagner being given a long run. And they have responded to their skipper.

Along with Hesson, McCullum has also put together a potent pace attack of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Wagner.

McCullum’s line of thinking, predictably, is to go for wickets with attacking fields and he has shuffled his bowlers smartly. His pacemen sent down short-pitched deliveries to unsettle the Indian batsmen and swung it from a fuller length to find the edges. McCullum took over in difficult times after tensions between the then skipper Ross Taylor and Hesson in 2012, led to the exit of the former.

The subsequent tours of South Africa and England were demanding; there were serious batting collapses in the Tests. In the ODIs, though, New Zealand scored rare away series victories in South Africa and England.

Came the home series against the West Indies this season and McCullum’s frustrating 10-Test winless streak ended in Wellington.

McCullum is on a roll now. His last three Tests have fetched him victories and he is closing in on 5,000 Test runs.

New Zealand is a combative side but the Indians have let themselves down. For most part, India’s cricket has lacked inspiration away from home.

India is still ranked No. 2 in Tests. But then, its position close to the top does not tell the full story. The Indian team has now lost 10 matches in 11 successive overseas Tests with a lone draw in the first Test against South Africa in December. This is a shocking record which does the team little credit.

And India’s disappointing displays in Tests away from home over the last three seasons take the gloss away from its standing as an economic superpower in world cricket. There’s an obvious mismatch here.

India did manage a bowler-inspired comeback in the Auckland Test, but the side’s terrible displays with bat and ball in the first innings eventually cost it the match.

This struggling Indian side has lost 4-0 in England, 4-0 in Australia, 1-0 in South Africa and now gone down in the first Test in New Zealand.

The period also encompasses a generational shift. Seniors such as maestro Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V. V. S. Laxman have retired. And Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have lost their places owing to lack of form.

Young batsmen Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, and the others around them, have taken over the mantle. But they have had to confront major technical and mental issues.

While it can be argued that the younger bunch needs to be given time to settle down, it is equally critical for India to end this horror run outside home.

In the bowling department, paceman Mohammed Shami has been an exciting discovery, but the attack has appeared threatening only in phases. Consistency has been lacking.

And there are times when skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni appears confused. Some of his decisions in New Zealand have been baffling.

India needs to haul itself out of the hole; and quickly too.