Since its inception, the MCC’s choice of player to deliver the annual Spirit of Cricket Lecture has been flawless. Brendon McCullum, who took the podium this year, was in keeping with that tradition. Who else could it be but him?
McCullum’s retirement from international cricket last season has been widely lamented. By modern standards, he was not old and also looked in excellent form. Why would he want to quit was the question on everyone’s lips.
It is almost impossible for any outsider — even a fellow player — to rationalize such matter, especially when the person concerned is fit and doing well.
Retirement in sport, more than any other sphere of life, remains a high personal decision. There is no fixed tenure or age. There are times when it would appear that a player has stayed on beyond expiry date, there are others whose retirement would seem premature.
He was not only an entertaining batsman, but also a fine leader who not only redeemed New Zealand cricket, but perhaps also gave the sport a new direction with his bold, uncluttered approach.
This was in evidence even in his lecture: it was marked by fearlessness, it was cogent and full of punchy strokes, played off the front foot as it were. It also hit upon the biggest issue that plagues the sport, namely corruption.
How he led New Zealand cricket out of despondency to its current high stature was one of the two facets his lecture was structured around and highlighted the value of leadership in a team sport.
McCullum took over the captaincy when the team was demoralized and fragmented. His immediate task was to build bridges with senior players like Ross Taylor, whom he replaced, as well as mentor youngsters like Kane Williamson, who now leads New Zealand in all three formats.
It tells us something about McCullum’s man-management methods and persona that both Taylor and Williamson rave about him. Both attribute the success of the team to the ex-captain’s belief in himself and his players.
The best captains are those who earn the respect of their team, not those who keep fellow players on tenterhooks by a constant show of power. McCullum’s path was filled with obstacles. That he could overcome these in a short time redounds to his leadership qualities.
McCullum’s lecture provides deep insights into how he managed this turnaround given all the constraints. This would have relevance, I believe, beyond just cricket or the world of sports.
But more relevant in the context of the challenges that cricket faces was the second facet of his speech, which was to do with corruption, and how McCullum believes his allegations against former teammate Chris Cairns was handled by authority.
The issue of guilt was for courts to decide, of course, but McCullum minces no words in criticizing the namby-pamby approach of the ICC in dealing with the crisis. He reveals that when he gave his statement, the ICC’s Anti Corruption Unit officer did not even take down details on a piece of paper!The process, going by McCullum’s revelation, was almost perfunctory; as if the ICC did not believe that corruption existed, or that it didn’t matter too much. This is grave indictment of the apex body of the sport.
Shockingly, McCullum’s deposition – however poorly it was attended to by the ACU — found its way in the media through a leak, worsening the crisis as it suddenly turned the spotlight on him for casting aspersions on a Kiwi hero.
Cairns was McCullum’s cricketing hero too. He had made these statements under great psychological duress only to see his confidentiality violated and his position in the dressing room as well as New Zealand cricket made vulnerable. At one point in time, he thought of chucking up his career, but inner resolve made him hang on, win the trust of his fellow-players and countrymen. He finished as arguably the most influential New Zealand cricketer ever.
McCullum’s career is a remarkable saga, but the second facet of his lecture throws up a searching question about how the menace of corruption in cricket can be controlled if the authorities themselves seem unclear or insecure. The ICC has countered McCullum’s claims in his lecture but without conviction. True, the ACU is not an investigating agency like the police. But if whistleblowers are treated cavalierly it leaves the scope for corrective measures in tatters.