England vs New Zealand: Inspired Brendon McCullum turns tide for Kiwis

Black Caps meet England for first Test at Lord's on Thursday

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The Independent Online

In Duncan Fletcher’s first Test in charge in 1999, England found themselves two wickets down for four runs against a rampant South African side in Johannesburg. In new-era terms it wasn’t so much underwhelming as a complete disaster. Compared to the start endured by the captain-coach pairing of Brendon McCullum and Mike Hesson, though, it was nothing short of a triumph.

That duo will join forces again at Lord’s this week, confirmed as one of the most successful double acts in the history of New Zealand cricket. After being bowled out for only 45 in the opening Test of their series against South Africa in Cape Town in January 2013, though, they were viewed by a sneering New Zealand public with something approaching disdain.

It took the home side 19.2 overs to scythe through the Black Caps’ line-up as they were skittled for their lowest-ever total on overseas soil. Kane Williamson was the top scorer – with 13.

At the same time, England were winning their first series against India in the subcontinent since 1984-85 and looked on track to regain their place at the head of the global Test rankings.

New Zealand’s demise was blamed squarely on the ousting of Ross Taylor as Test captain, while Hesson was lampooned as a coach with no top-level experience. McCullum, like Kevin Pietersen during his brief time in charge of the England side, was seen as a fancy dan who had been promoted to a position way beyond his capabilities.

Just under two-and-a-half years on, Williamson is the linchpin of the New Zealand batting line-up, McCullum is seen as the most innovative captain of modern times and a man whose partnership with the much-maligned Hesson is now credited with one of the more remarkable transformations of this or any other era.

And England? Well, let’s just say that the memories of riding high on the top of the ICC rankings are as distant as Pietersen’s Test debut a decade ago. The parallels between the situation facing New Zealand following a tumultuous and none-too-democratic transfer of power from Taylor to McCullum and the one that England now have to tackle are clear to see.

The problem is that, in this Ashes summer, England, unlike the Kiwis in the winter of 2013, appear incapable of making the right call.

Dion Nash was a member of the New Zealand side that inflicted a humiliating 2-1 series defeat on Nasser Hussain’s England back in the summer of 1999 – a loss which led to England, albeit briefly, being confirmed as the worst Test side in world cricket.

Now the owner of a skincare company in Auckland, Nash credits McCullum as the driving force behind New Zealand’s changing complexion.

“He was always a charismatic guy,” says Nash. “But in that era, Stephen Fleming was seen as being the model captain – everyone assumed that he was the kind of guy who would be successful.

“He was really the silent type – and Brendon wasn’t like that at all, he was punky, and it took him a while to prove that he had that leadership side to his character.”

McCullum’s innovative approach during a sensational World Cup campaign earlier this year singled him out as a leader of rare promise, but his success as skipper spreads far beyond the one-day arena. Since that collapse in Cape Town – and subsequent 2-0 series defeat by South Africa – McCullum has been transformed from a one-day dasher to one of the most successful, exciting captains and batsmen in Tests.

He averages over 38 in the five-day game and boasts five centuries in 22 Tests as captain. That is an impressive enough tally, but when you think that two of those hundreds were doubles and one was a triple, it becomes remarkable. McCullum’s batting has been utterly transformed since he assumed the captaincy.

He is also a man in a hurry. His 202 against Pakistan in Sharjah in February 2014 came off just 188 balls, while his 195 in the Boxing Day Test against Sri Lanka in Christchurch took just 134. After he and Hesson waited 10 matches for their first Test win – a run which included three draws and two defeats against England – the Kiwis have lost two of their past 12 and are now on a three-match winning streak.

“It’s not all down to Brendon,” says Nash. “You look at this New Zealand side and there are leaders everywhere. That’s how you win Test matches.

“You’ve got Ross Taylor, Kane Williamson is the young leader in the middle order and there are two exceptional bowlers to lead the attack in Tim Southee and Trent Boult. What McCullum and Hesson have done is to create a winning culture.

“I watched England at the World Cup and there was something missing. There are some good players, but as a unit they’re not firing. New Zealand are showing that when you get that culture right and have key people standing up within the team then things can turn around quickly.”

For England, that transformation can’t come quickly enough.