London Evening Standard
Brendon McCullum leads New Zealand out for their 100th Test against England today with more at stake than justifying the view from many experts that they are favourites to win the series.
The tourists have only won eight of the previous 99 meetings and have not won here since 1999.
The skipper says his team do not feel weighed down by the burden of history and they are ready to challenge the traditional view of his country among cricket chiefs here.
“History does not figure,” says the 33-year-old on the eve of the two-Test Investec series. “That has no bearing on it. We have to earn the right to win, the right to ask the questions and we are doing that.”
Among the questions they are asking are why they are playing only two Tests here with the majority of the summer reserved for the Ashes.
“It will be nice to have a full series in England,” he says. “It would also be nice to play a Boxing Day Test at home against England.”
That honour is currently reserved for the Ashes Down Under, when England face the old enemy in Melbourne, but McCullum is clearly in the mood to highlight the issue.
He does so from a strong position, with New Zealand knight Sir Richard Hadlee — and former England captain Bob Willis on these pages yesterday — tipping the Black Caps to win the series.
Those predictions are testimony to the transformation brought about by McCullum since he took over the leadership just over two years ago.
In the six Test series since 2013, New Zealand are undefeated and have won four. They arrived at Lord’s third in the Test rankings (England are fifth) and reached the World Cup final (England failed even to get out of their group).
After the turmoil endured by England in recent weeks, which culminated in Peter Moores being axed and Paul Farbrace being installed as caretaker coach by new ECB director of cricket Andrew Strauss, McCullum agrees that there is no better time to face the hosts.
“Yes, this is a good time to play England,” he says. “We will go in confident but we will not be disrespectful of England. They are going to put up a great challenge.”
Fully aware of Kevin Pietersen’s unsuccessful campaign to regain his place in the side, McCullum refuses to follow Australian captain Michael Clarke down the mindgames route. The Aussie was quick to say Pietersen’s absence will affect England but McCullum says: “We are trying to concentrate on what we do. There are always such challenges. I am not in their dressing room and I can’t comment.”
For him, the challenge in England is the conditions. “They are different and this includes the ball,” he says. “The Kookaburra ball we play with swings, but the ball here [Duke] swings differently. It swings later.”
Despite the turmoil, he has lost no respect for English cricket and particularly the new-ball pairing of Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson.
The last time New Zealand were at Lord’s they were bowled out on a Saturday afternoon by Broad for just 68. “Stuart Broad is very effective,” said McCullum. “Jimmy Anderson has been such a fine bowler for a decade. They are never easy to play.”
McCullum only arrived in England on Monday from India, where he was playing in the IPL along with New Zealand team-mates Tim Southee, Kane Williamson, Corey Anderson and Trent Boult. However, reflecting the modern thinking that a Test series does not require a long preparation time, he says: “I have been playing white-ball cricket in India. Red ball cricket is different. But hopefully we will make the change. The big thing is the mental adjustment.”
And that mental adjustment will be easy to make because, for McCullum, it is Test cricket that matters. “I like white ball cricket but Test cricket is the pinnacle,” he says.
New Zealand hope his style of proactive captaincy will shine through. Hadlee contrasts the captaincy of Alastair Cook and McCullum as “apples and pears”. Cook, he says, is defensive, while McCullum is an aggressor.
McCullum took time to make his mark in Test matches. It was only in 2009, five years after his debut, that he made a hundred against a heavyweight country — India — but he has since gone on to become the first Kiwi to score 300 in a Test innings.
He is clearly proud of the way he has changed New Zealand’s traditional approach. Gone are defensive batting and dibbly-dobbly medium pacers. Instead we have attacking batting, led by McCullum, and some fearsome fast bowling.
“I want us to play attacking cricket and you have to make some proactive decisions. You have to lead from the front, but you need good people to do it, people who have the talent. Then you need to give them the freedom to express themselves.
“We have a group of rational thinkers and we have worked out this new style of cricket for New Zealand. There have been some new challenges but we have adapted strategically. We have worked out how we can change.
“We have been going in the right direction in the last three years. We have talented players, we have senior players and we all interact very well with each other. Players like Ross Taylor [from whom McCullum took over] have responded well.”
Prominent among that talent are the two opening bowlers, Boult and Southee, and the skipper says: “I would not change them for anything in the world. They provide me great choices as captain.”
The options are increased as Southee is a right-arm swing bowler, Boult left arm, but they are not the only names English cricket should be concerned about. “There are also other cricketing options,” he says, before naming another quickie, not much known in England but who could soon prove a handful. “Matt Henry. He is a wicket taker.”
To cap it all, there is the batting of Williamson. Sir Richard says he is New Zealand’s best-ever batsman, greater even than the legendary Bert Sutcliffe. McCullum will not go quite that far, saying: “It is hard to say. Sutcliffe was before my time. There was Martin Crowe. But Kane is a better batsmen than me.”
High praise from a man whose explosive batting could be one of the deciding factors over the next 10 days of cricket.