Richard Mann delivers his verdict on Brendon McCullum's appointment as England's Test head coach, fearing more dark days ahead for Ben Stokes and his team.
Bold. Brave. Exciting, in some ways. But overall, very uninspiring. A mistake, in fact. Those were my initial thoughts upon hearing the news that former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum had been appointed head coach of the England Test team.
Uninspiring might seem like an odd description of a man who had quite the opposite effect as a player. McCullum was an inspirational captain, dragging New Zealand from close to the bottom rung of the game and leading them to the World Cup final in 2015, as well as setting the Kiwis on the path to becoming World Test champions last summer. A limited-overs pioneer with the bat and an apparently very decent man, there is much to admire about McCullum.
The problem is, I just don’t think this will work.
Perhaps it is folly to draw conclusions on the credentials of a Test coach on the back of what we’ve witnessed in the Indian Premier League, but as auditions go, McCullum’s handling of Kolkata Knight Riders this season has been a demonstration in how not to manage a squad that really should have been pitching for the title, not missing out on the play-offs. In truth, it has been a shambles.
KKR were excellent in the second half of IPL 2021, putting together a string of fearless displays that had McCullum’s imprint all over them, but that team had Eoin Morgan calling the shots on the field, and as England know only too well, Morgan’s ability to turn water into wine has allowed plenty of coaches to ride on the coattails of his genius.
But when Morgan wasn’t retained by the franchise for the 2022 campaign – purely because of his lack of output with the bat – McCullum was on his own. The decisions he has taken since have not paid off and his approach has been found wanting, along with the captaincy of marquee signing Shreyas Iyer who has looked bereft of ideas without the same guidance he enjoyed from Ricky Ponting at Delhi Capitals.
McCullum has constantly tinkered with KKR’s starting XI, calling for his players to be brave and play with freedom, only to then drop them after a couple of poor performances. Tim Southee started the season brilliantly with the ball, but was then replaced by Pat Cummins once he arrived in India, before the latter was axed as Southee returned. Now, with their campaign in tatters, the pair have finally been selected together.
Venkatesh Iyer, hero of KKR's charge to the final in 2021, started this year in his customary opening position, was then shunted down to number six, before McCullum dropped him altogether. Once again, with their title hopes gone, Iyer is back in the side and scoring runs at the top of the order. Muddled thinking doesn’t even begin to cut it and one can only assume that Key hasn't been watching.
The concern is that this is the very thing England have looked to move away from since Duncan Fletcher transformed English cricket. Perhaps players have on occasion enjoyed too much rope, but the ‘one game too many’ philosophy has helped many an illustrious career along the way – Ian Bell and Sir Alastair Cook just two relatively recent examples – and at a time when England’s Test players are woefully short of confidence, stability and support is a must. A steady hand on the wheel is no bad thing.
It is understood that Ponting was top of Rob Key’s list for the head coach job, but it comes as no surprise that the Australian had little interest in making sacrifices to what appears a very comfortable living mixing coaching, TV commitments and family life.
In fairness, Key – only recently appointed as managing director of the England Cricket team – has somewhat had his hands tied with his two first major decisions.
He described Ben Stokes as the ‘obvious choice’ when the all-rounder was unveiled as Joe Root’s replacement as captain and he is correct in that view – there really were no other viable options, however many potential drawbacks there are to Stokes’ appointment. And Ponting – clearly a high-class coach and terrific batting analyst – rebuffed England’s advances before the dating app had even been uploaded.
But there were other options.
Key could have gone with Gary Kirsten, a hugely-successful coach who led India to World Cup glory in 2011 having also dramatically improved the fortunes of the Test team, particularly away from home. Many observers still credit Kirsten and the role he played back then in helping India grow into the dominant force it has become today, and his unwavering support for the development of youngsters such as Virat Kohli ensures his legacy still lives on in India.
Will McCullum have the same foresight and level of patience?
Kirsten is understood to have interviewed for the England job again, just as he did in 2019, but it appears the South African made little impression on Key, despite boasting such strong credentials and a proven track record.
Simon Katich and Graham Ford were others apparently in the running, or why not Mark Robinson? A trophy magnet with Sussex and Warwickshire in county cricket and responsible for guiding the England women’s team to a World Cup win in 2017, Robinson’s CV in red-ball cricket – albeit not in a role as big as this – is an impressive one, and he would have been less of a gamble than McCullum.
It seems that none of the names above could offer the sex appeal that McCullum can and what everyone does agree on is that English cricket needs a boost right now. It needs some enthusiasm and some hope. McCullum will provide that.
But McCullum’s likely directive to his players will be to play on instinct, without fear, and to always take the positive option. It was just what Key called for in last winter’s Ashes. But England went down that road with the batting when Joe Root first became Test captain, the Yorkshireman heartened by how Eoin Morgan and Trevor Bayliss were transforming England’s white-ball fortunes in that period.
It seems Morgan has played a role in McCullum’s appointment, and were it limited-overs cricket that we were discussing here, the decision would be easier to understand. But when Jason Roy was found out in Test cricket in the Ashes series of 2019, England accepted that gung-ho cricket and all-out-attack just wasn’t the right formula for Test match batting – not at home where the ball consistently swings and seams. It’s hard to fathom why they would now choose to go back.
The hope is that McCullum’s arrival will bring a feel-good factor to English cricket again and encourage the players to at least start enjoying their work. That could initially bring about better performances on the field, though long-term success in Test cricket will require more than just fun and bravado.
While the Test format has evolved, many of the old principles remain. Batting long and making big first innings runs is still the best way to take control of Test matches, while developing a balanced and varied attack to take 20 wickets across a variety of conditions is the path to victory. At the moment, England have neither.
When the aforementioned Bayliss was appointed as England’s head coach in 2015, it was because he was at that time the best limited-overs coach in the world, with a wealth of experience garnered from franchise cricket. England were buying the best, and it worked.
Hand on heart, do England fans really believe that Brendon McCullum is the best Test coach in the world? Or even the best available? It seems Key has made his decision less on hard evidence and qualifications, more on a hunch and the value of Morgan’s opinion.
I can’t help but feel awfully short-changed right now. I do hope I’m proven wrong, but this has disaster written all over it.