Australia v New Zealand Tests
From brash to beloved, McCullum to bow out in style
New Zealand skipper to exit international cricket on home soil after growing as a person and a player in his time as a Black Cap
At the first of what looms as a few formal farewells over coming months, Brendon McCullum revealed there was "something romantic" about making his final international outing in front of New Zealand fans in his adopted home town of Christchurch.
Where, quite fittingly at the start of a new autumn, he will be cheered – and most likely chaired – from Hagley Oval by teammates who have built a world-class outfit from his ethos.
By Black Caps fans whose passion for cricket has been rekindled by his deeds and manner.
And by sports lovers worldwide who recognise not only his remarkable capacity to change the course of a contest in the blink of an innings, but even more so the spirit in which he’s invariably done it.
But it has not been ever thus.
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Indeed, at the time McCullum inherited his country’s Test captaincy less than three years ago in the midst of a public relations storm that might make FIFA blush, there was a not insignificant element of New Zealand’s cricket public quietly willing him to fail.
For the then 31-year-old had stirred mixed emotions among crowds and commentators during his career to that point.
There was no questioning his innate talent, first noticed by coaches at his far-from-exclusive King’s High School in knockabout South Dunedin where the diminutive wicketkeeper who could also bat a bit grew up.
Having reached first-class ranks at the same age most are graduating from secondary school, McCullum played the game the way he believed it should be.
Which in his own words was best described as "brash".
WATCH: 'Nice guy' tag bestowed on us: McCullum
Filling the shoes of combative NZ ‘keeper Adam Parore who was a key figure in the comparative success enjoyed and respect earned by the Black Caps under the leadership of Stephen Fleming, McCullum’s glovework was polished but his batting was polarising.
Most voluble among his critics were those who claimed he made merry against lesser opponents (his two centuries in his first 42 Tests came against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) but made little impact against heavyweight opponents.
He averaged around 22 in Tests against Australia and South Africa during that first half of his time as a Test player who renounced the wicketkeeping role in 2010 due to a dodgy back and creaking knees.
Even the career-altering 158 he thumped from 73 balls when playing alongside one of his heroes – Ricky Ponting – in the very first Indian Premier League fixture in 2008 only served to reinforce the view some held of McCullum in New Zealand.
That he was more flashy than formidable.
A title that former Australia captain and McCullum contemporary Michael Clarke would certainly sympathise with, having been similarly portrayed at one stage as unsuitable for captaincy due to his metrosexual manner, garish tattoos and aura of style above substance.
There was also a feeling among many in New Zealand that McCullum’s brashness was not restricted to his batting, but that his fondness for a night out set a bad example for younger teammates at best, and was a destabilising dressing room influence at times.
The fact that he was stripped of his role as vice-captain in the wake of the removal of Andy Moles as NZ coach in 2009 – a decision framed in the time-honoured ‘he had lost the players’ vernacular – led to whispers that McCullum had been agitating behind the scenes.
When Daniel Vettori stood down as Fleming’s captaincy successor following the 2011 World Cup, the decision to appoint the sublimely talented and widely respected Ross Taylor as the Black Caps’ new leader seem to have put paid to any leadership aspirations McCullum might have harboured.
But the quick exit of another coach (ex-India supremo John Wright) and the appointment of Mike Hesson – a one-time teammate and coach of McCullum at Otago and who had not played at international level – also brought about a change of on-field leadership.
With the untidy removal of Taylor in favour of McCullum, and the former’s subsequent boycott of the reshaped team’s next Test assignment in South Africa, McCullum was destined to take on the job amid significant scrutiny as well as suggestions of a South Island coach-captain coup.
So when, in his first Test match as skipper and leading a team minus its most accomplished batsman (Taylor), McCullum opted to bat first on a green, seaming pitch at Cape Town and saw his troops knocked over for 45 by Steyn, Philander and Morkel, it looked like a tenure done before it had begun.
WATCH: The moment New Zealand turned their fortunes around
To the contrary, that calamity provided the foundation for the resurrection and elevation of McCullum as a player of resolve and a leader of substance that will be rightly celebrated when he plays his final Tests against Australia in Wellington and Christchurch next February.
"We couldn’t get too much worse after that to be fair," McCullum said of that disastrous first day of captaincy in a one-on-one interview with cricket.com.au during the Black Caps’ recent tour of Australia.
"It wasn’t our finest moment but what it did do was it allowed us to strip things back and during that time we just had to be pretty honest and pretty brutal with ourselves.
"And I think the perception of us and the perception that we had of ourselves was quite different.
"We had to try and re-align those a little bit more, and we had to be a bit honest with ourselves as well.
"We weren’t purposeful in our time that we had as cricketers and we needed to make some changes, and that’s what we’ve tried to do over the last little while and I think now we’ve got a group of guys that I would happily introduce to anyone in the world.
"They are great ambassadors for this team and our country, and they play for the right reasons.
"They play with a smile on their face, they are very humble, they are very respectful and to add to that they are bloody good cricketers."
The re-evaluation that took place in the wake of that humbling loss was given sharper context the following year when McCullum’s by-now-unified men were involved in a Test series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates.
The second day of the final Test in Sharjah was abandoned in the wake of news from Australia that Phiilip Hughes – who McCullum had opened the batting alongside in a one-off appearance for New South Wales in a domestic T20 final in 2009 – had died after being struck while batting.
A number of the Black Caps, most notably star batsman and new skipper-in-waiting Kane Williamson who had befriended Hughes at an Under-19 World Cup, were deeply distressed by the tragedy and doubted they could continue the Test match.
But from that dark time rose the other pillar of McCullum’s leadership legacy, the need to place the importance and impact of cricket squarely against the backdrop of far more significant life events.
"Cricket seemed so insignificant and inconsequential at the time," McCullum recalled of a Test match that ultimately resumed and which New Zealand won by an innings on the back of their skipper’s 202 and Williamson’s 192.
"So what we saw was a group of guys who really banded together and tried to help one another out and I guess just focus on getting people through the game rather than worry about the result or the outcome of it.
"Bizarrely, the way that we went about playing with I guess less care of the result or the outcome led us to probably one of our most famous Test wins overseas, and from that moment there’s been elements that we’ve tried to capture.
"And try to understand that there’s a game that we play, and that it’s not life or death at times.
"So go out there and try and have a good time, don’t worry if you get out and try and enjoy just being around a group of mates representing your country on the international stage."
WATCH: Smith passes on best wishes to McCullum
And it is that simplistic, almost archaic humanity that he has returned to a professional sport where competitiveness can at times override common decency that stands as perhaps his most enduring - certainly most endearing - contribution as an international cricketer.
It’s why the Black Caps’ surge to this year’s World Cup Final under McCullum’s inventive, intuitive captaincy won the hearts of many, even those from the nations they conquered along the way.
It’s why New Zealand’s Test and ODI campaigns against England that preceded this year’s Ashes series were considered among the most compelling in cricket’s home land for many a summer and rendered the Australians’ arrival in its midst as something of an anti-climax.
It’s why McCullum’s announcement today that he will bow out of international cricket at the end of the Black Caps’ home summer brought with it a wave of well-wishing and goodwill that would have seemed unlikely in New Zealand three years ago.
And it’s why those who value the ideals of sportsmanship, humility and smile-at-all-costs entertainment that McCullum has instilled in his team can look forward to the philosophy that Williamson will bring to the role when he is (as expected) handed the job.
Because like so many of those who aired concern and criticism when McCullum came to the captaincy, Williamson has embraced the ethos and the perspective that his predecessor has come to represent.
"Baz (McCullum) is a brilliant leader," Williamson told cricket.com.au during NZ’s recent tour.
"He's exciting and aggressive in his captaincy, but ultimately he's a real carer of people.
"He's very conscious about the players that he leads. Not only that, but also the staff.
"He's really big on giving.
"Although he's got a lot to focus on with his captaincy and his own cricket, he's very good at not holding on to that, not letting that consume him and constantly giving to the players around him to get the best out of them and that's one of his best traits.
"There will be a lot of nice words said when Brendon decides to stop."
And they will continue to be spoken long after his final day as a New Zealand cricketer at Hagley Oval next autumn.