How to be a man: Lessons from Brendon McCullum

Originally published June 15, 2016 at The Roar


At the moment I’m writing an academic paper on notions of masculinity in Australian cricket. I’m not going to speak about that here, although I do encourage you to read Roar contributor Geoff Lemon’s work in The Cricket Monthly.

What it means is that I am very much in the mode of thinking about what it means to be a man, and how that plays out on the sports field.

This morning I came across the Colin Cowdry Spirit of Cricket speech given by Brendon McCullum to the MCC.

I, of course, knew McCullum as the wicketkeeper-cum-big-hitting-batsman-cum-Kiwi-captain. I knew he was a class player. But over the last few years, I’ve come to realise he is a man of class.

This was evident during last year’s ICC ODI World Cup. He was gracious in defeat, proud of his team and what they’d achieved; he looked like he’d just spent a day doing something he loved, not like someone had shit in his cereal. He could have easily spoken of “home ground advantage” and how the ledger was 1-1 for the series. Instead, he joked with the media and spoke of the friendships and memories forged during the tournament.

This class came out again at the WACA Test in November 2015, when McCullum got the whole team to form a guard of honour to welcome Mitch Johnson to the crease for the last time. A fitting show of respect for a worthy foe. The Australians just sneered at the ‘altar boy’ attitude.

But it wasn’t always so.

In his speech, he apologised for winning a game in a most unsporting manner; throwing the bails of Muttiah Muralitharan’s wickets as he stepped out of his crease to congratulate Kumar Sangakkara on his century.

He speaks of coming into a team of arrogance and win at all costs. He tells of being bowled out for 45 in 19 overs in South Africa, and that being the turning point. Around a beer with coaches and management, they spoke about wanting to be respected, and came up with how you get respect.

You give it.

He expresses the joy of the game returning to him when he started respecting the opposition. He allowed his team to take risks and to be the best they can be, not to win at all costs.

He recalls another turning point; the Test against Pakistan following the death of Phil Hughes. No one wanted to play. He echoed the advice given to him by team psychologist Gilbert Enoka: “All your preparation, all you have ever thought about in cricket, just throw it out the window for this one game.”

The result was liberating.

In the first Test, they’d suffered their biggest loss against Pakistan ever. In that third Test, they put together the largest ever score by a New Zealand team. In a game where “the result didn’t matter”, the team found the freedom to be their best.

McCullum ended sledging in New Zealand. Sure, there’s still some banter on the field, as there should be, but the ‘abusive’ sledge is gone. Kiwis should be “humble and hardworking”; and it allowed them to be free, to love the game. The reward was arguably the best New Zealand side in generations, probably ever.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning McCullum’s role in the Chris Cairns match-fixing saga.

One has to remember that Cairns was McCullum’s hero. He was the player who took him under his wing when he got his Black Cap. To have testified against him, when he was under no legal obligation to do so, for the virtue of honesty, and the virtue of the game, speaks to the man’s integrity.

Fair play. Respect for your opponent. Love of the game. Integrity. Honesty. Even without holding the record for the fastest century of all time, these qualities make Brendon McCallum a real man and someone worthy of admiration and emulation.

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