McCullum was talking about his role as de facto tour guide for the last two weeks. He has taken his merry band of red-ball cricketers on a few excursions, notably a jaunt to Arrowtown – a watered-down Queenstown – where they stayed at a golf course to indulge their favourite pastime. “It’s been busy – a lot of demands on me.” Despite being lauded for his social skills and positivity, he does not back his party-planning skills.
Then again, maybe he should know better. After all, we are in McCullum’s manor. Particularly. Particularly here in Hamilton which is 45 minutes from his home, just outside the town of Matamata. He moved here with his family in 2016, as much for the peace and quiet as a relocation to manage his horse-racing business, Vermair. As it happens, he will have representation in the Group 1 Herbie Dyke Stakes on Saturday – originally down as the final day of this warm-up match against a New Zealand XI – at the Te Rapa racecourse just up the road. His horse, Defibrillate, is currently third-favourite. “It might be the favourite after the boys get on it,” McCullum joked.
No whip has been cracked in his nine months as Test whisperer, and nine wins out of 10 suggest no need for a change of tack. Even Wednesday’s day-night out with the bat came and went without England testing themselves under lights – the reason for the 2pm starts was to replicate the conditions they will encounter in next Thursday’s pink-ball opener in Mount Maunganui. So what, McCullum shrugged.
“The ball’s going to swing and it’s going to be difficult under lights. Do you want to expose yourself to that? Do you not? Does it matter? We’ll find out I suppose.”
Since arriving at the end of January, there have been four days of training in Mount Maunganui, and three more available to those that want them at the start of next week. That is unless Cyclone Gabrielle comes good on her promise to hammer the North Island with as much as 300mm of rain in 24 hours from Monday morning, according to the MetService.
And yet, for all the sense of distraction, there is a calculated method to the revelry.
There have never been more options for the modern player, as evidenced by over 60 Englishmen spending their winter in various franchise competitions across the world. Beyond the promised riches comes guaranteed good times off the field. And, truth be told, less stress.
The honour of representing England in Test cricket has and will sustain for generations, but it is only since McCullum and Ben Stokes landed together at the start of last summer, almost by coincidence, that the worry and emotional toil has been reduced.
Factor in a cluttered fixture list and you can see why the management team might feel compelled to offer a little extra, be it perks or revelry or simply time to retune to Test cricket’s wavelength.
“There’s so many options these days that Test cricket you’ve got to make enjoyable, not just on the field but off the field too,” McCullum said. “Try and get those guys to know when they board the plane to head overseas, or jump into the car to head down to Lord’s, or whatever it is to join up with the team, they know they’re going to have a great time. The results will hopefully follow.
“You can’t guarantee that, but what you can do is ensure you put some money in the bank when it comes to experiences and relationships. I think for too long, I always felt when playing anyway, that everything was based around the cricket and sometimes you forgot to enjoy yourself. It’s not until the back-end of your career you go ‘aw, I can actually have a good time now’. That’s when you really enjoy it and somehow you end up becoming better as well. So that’s the theory, we’ll see how it works out, but it’s worth a crack.”
Often the beating heart of the franchises he turned out for, McCullum understands how the best of those environments can have nourishing qualities. So far, mimicking those surroundings at cricket’s most unforgiving level has been a winner.
“I think the back-end of my career was most enjoyable because of the freedom you generated, you were a bit more comfortable. You realise you can enjoy yourself a bit more, can invest some more time with your team-mates and management and you end up with more stuff in your life. The results seem to work out okay and you have more fun. Franchise cricket is not all fun, but the teams that have that sort of mentality, I think they are enjoyable experiences as well.”
You could argue harnessing that attitude has been most impactful part of McCullum’s tenure so far. He even dipped into his Kolkata Knight Riders’ contacts to sort England out with accommodation at the glitzy Ritz Carlton hotel in Abu Dhabi on their camp prior to the Pakistan series. They went onto win 3-0. Coincidence? Of course.
Questions over the long-term sustainability of England’s approach may never truly go away, especially with an Ashes to come this summer, and India away at the start of 2024. McCullum, for now, is pleased it all seems a little more natural, and anticipates further evolution.
“I don’t think we have reached the limit and I think it’s still pretty new for us how we’re playing. The majority of the time it’s authentic. I think sometimes we have to force it a little bit, so we just need to make sure that does become as consistently authentic as it possibly can.
“But I think the skill level of the guys is phenomenal. I’m not sure they’ve reached where they want to get to in their own careers yet, which is pretty exciting from our point of view. We’ve just got to keep them bound together and encouraged to try and be the best version of themselves.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo
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