The New Zealand captain's attitude and approach have rubbed off on his team-mates, and they are now firm favourites for the title
Brendon McCullum has been a revelation for New Zealand. His no-nonsense brand of the game has captured the imagination of the cricket world.
I saw him crack that record 302 against India a while back. In 2010 I was amazed by his physical strength and resilience. On the eve of the New Zealand-Australia Test match at the Basin Reserve, I was at a centre-wicket training session with the New Zealand team, a practice called by then coach Mark Greatbatch. I was there to have a look at Daniel Vettori and spinner Jeetan Patel, and everyone, including batting coach Martin Crowe, was rugged up with sweaters and jackets against the prevailing Wellington wind, which nearly always blows up a storm.
This day it was positively chilly. Everyone was struggling to keep warm, except the bloke padded up and waiting to go in; everyone on the ground except Brendon McCullum. There he was, leaning against the net upright, his shirt rolled up high on his arm, exposing muscles that would have delighted the likes of Eddie Barlow and John Reid: tough blokes both, hard cricketers with a penchant for taking the fight to the enemy with no holds barred. On that cold, blustery day I'm sure everyone wanted to head indoors to the warmth of the dressing room, but not McCullum. Despite this being simulated match play on a centre wicket in positively Antarctic conditions, he stood with a glint in his eye like a warrior about to go to battle.
He began his career as a wicketkeeper-batsman, but it has always been his brash, crash-bang batting that has endeared him to fans. Australians don't always doff their hat to Kiwi cricketers - the Trans-Tasman rivalry has endured since Don Bradman was a boy. Perhaps it is simply big brother knowing by sheer weight of numbers they should always beat New Zealand at anything, anywhere, at any time. But what Australians do know, and don't always tell their cross-sea cousins, is that we have always admired the Kiwi spirit, and the way New Zealand always punch above their weight.
McCullum has brought great belief to New Zealand. He leads from the front, but as a captain, and we've seen it in spades this World Cup. He is like the great Australian captains such as Ian Chappell, Mark Taylor and Michael Clarke: he tries to make things happen. He works his bowlers well and is always thinking wickets. Logic demands that we seek wickets in any form of the game. Now that New Zealand have some classy quick bowlers in the form of Trent Boult and Tim Southee, it has given Daniel Vettori a new lease of life. For years opposition teams "sat" on Vettori and scored at will at the other end. Now because of Boult and Southee's other-end pressure, the veteran left-arm spinner can weave his craft more menacingly because teams will have to try and score more readily off his bowling. That will open up more opportunities for him to take wickets.
Make no mistake, New Zealand are an exciting team in all forms of the game. They can thank McCullum for his belligerence and skill, his never-say-die attitude and his strength of leadership in the main. Don't forget Kane Williamson. He's all class, and is today one of the best batsmen in world cricket. His batting to steer New Zealand home the other day revealed a batsman at the top of his craft on the world stage.
New Zealand are going to be the side to beat in this competition. The way they are playing they deserve every accolade, and I can visualise McCullum raising the World Cup aloft at the end of the proceedings.
Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor
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