HAfter rolling the dice on an untested cricket manager in Rob Key, the England and Wales Cricket Board played on. Ben Stokes may only have had one top-class game as captain, but he is a hugely popular and highly regarded player, and has already shown encouraging confidence in his leadership and decision-making.
I think he can be a great leader for this England Test team, but my instinct was that he would benefit from having an experienced coach by his side, someone who could make sure the weight of his work does not become too much of a burden and impact. its services. Instead, the dice were rolled once more.
Brendon McCullum knows the ropes having been a captain himself and I hope he takes on some of that workload, even though he has never coached a top-class team. But his appointment is another risk and while there’s plenty of excitement about the potential of the test team’s new leadership, there are also some obvious criticisms.
Andrew Strauss said McCullum “put him off” in his interview and he’s not a man prone to making big statements, so I have no doubt the New Zealander was impressive. But there will be plenty of coaches there, well-qualified people with experience in different teams and formats, wondering how someone with such a slim CV got the role, especially given some of the people with whom he was apparently in competition.
Sometimes, as we may also have seen with Key’s nomination, a decision is made not to focus on the credentials of a potential nomination, and it often helps to be friends with the right people. McCullum just didn’t do much training which is extraordinary as he was given an absolutely massive position in world cricket.
At a time when the English game seems so much in play, the test team has been handed over to people with huge potential but no experience. Strauss said it was positive that McCullum, Stokes and Key shared a vision of how they like to play cricket. This can prove to be a huge strength, but it’s also true that some successful organizations deliberately select leadership teams with different personalities within them, to try to ensure they cover all the bases. We all hope these decisions turn out to be inspired, but that remains to be seen.
Regardless of McCullum’s coaching experience, he has a reputation for taking a limited group of players and making the most of them, laying out a game plan, getting buy-in from those who surround and produce results. I remember the first time I met him, on my last international tour in 2002. We played a game in Queenstown and the wicket was so green you couldn’t tell it from the rest of the square. It was a low-scoring affair and he came out at 20 and played like he was a T20, putting up a few brief but eye-catching innings.
He became a prolific hitter and, over time, an excellent leader, culminating in the 2015 World Cup where he was credited – along with some highly skilled bowlers, which a captain always needs – with introducing a different way of think of one-day cricket, which can be a formula. Eoin Morgan then took over England’s white ball team and basically ripped the template off them, with incredible success. As a result, most people would associate McCullum with the white ball reset and here he oversees the longer format.
How will his approach to the short game – hang out, have fun, take the positive option – translate to Test cricket? I’ve never worked with a coach who doesn’t want to have fun, but when it’s the third day of a game in Kolkata it’s 34C and you’ve been on the pitch for four sessions the game doesn’t is not so much fun as pure hard work.
There are different styles of test cricket: it can be attritional or fast, it comes and goes, you have to be focused but relaxed, the ball can swing and it can spin. Technique is important, as is method. You can be an inspiration, you can be a great guy, create fantastic shots and plans, but a coach must also work patiently to improve players’ technique and focus.
It won’t be new for McCullum, whose New Zealand side had quality hitters ready to beat the clock to shine the ball which allowed him to get down in order and play with freedom. And he will know, like everyone else, how badly England need players with good technique who can strike at the top of the order and work hard.
The decision to move Joe Root up one spot from No. 3 opens up another space there. It always seemed that when Joe progressed it was with some reluctance and McCullum will want his best players to be in their best positions and in their best shape. But if he could have moved to three, it would have really helped the team due to their lack of top-notch reliable hitters. Stokes’ move to six is more encouraging: he should play to his strengths and allow him to release the handbrake, be the dominant player who can take a game by the scruff of the neck.
Key, McCullum and Stokes find themselves with England at a low level and the only way is surely to go up. Fans have realistic expectations but will want to see young players build on their experience and learn from their mistakes, with Zak Crawley showing a little more consistency, Ollie Pope seeming less anxious, a core of a successful team coming together. If they can provide that, better results should follow – and that’s where the fun will begin.