Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
Brendon McCullum, Former Kiwi keeper-batter and England's Test team coach
Image: Marty Melville / AFP
Brendon McCullum hates the word ‘Bazball’—a coinage describing the English Test team’s bold, aggressive batting that has now made its way into the dictionary. But there’s not much of a chance he’ll get to evade it, given the statistics it has already generated. Before McCullum took charge, England had won only one of their last 17 Tests. Under McCullum and new captain Ben Stokes, who assumed charge in June 2022, the team has won 11 of 13. Forbes India caught up with McCullum on the sidelines of the RCB Innovation Lab x Leaders Meet: India, a global sports conclave recently organised by IPL franchise RCB and sports event and media organisation Leaders In Sport in Bengaluru, where the former Kiwi batter broke down his novel approach to the sport. Edited excerpts:
Q. Of late, England has had a not-so-happy experience with the short format of the game. They exited early from the World Cup, lost the ODI series to West Indies. While you are the coach of the Test team, hypothetically speaking, if you coached the ODI team too, what would you change based on the current performance? First, we need to acknowledge how good they've been over a long period of time. I think this is the greatest white ball dynasty that England's ever had. And all good things must come to an end at some stage, right? Sometimes when you play in a major event and you play in slightly foreign conditions, you can overthink things a little bit and maybe that may have been the case. But I think whatever’s happened, England's been a standout white ball side. Seeing all the players around English cricket, I know talent is not a problem. There will be a new wave which comes through at some stage and that's natural progression in any sport. I'm sure they'll be doing it on the basis of where their last white-ball set up left them, which was with a couple of titles under their belt.
Q. Before this ODI World Cup started, there was a lot of conversation about whether this is going to be the last relevant ODI World Cup. Do you think so? ODI cricket's the one form of the game which is now under the most amount of pressure.
I'm a massive fan of having as many products that you can take to the market as possible. If we look at T 20 cricket, the youth of today are all over T20 cricket—they love it, they can see an opportunity and they can see a pathway to earn significant money playing in the biggest stadiums under the brightest lights that can change their lives. And that's fantastic. With the development of the IPL, we've seen how much money that's brought into the global game as well. T20 cricket ticks a lot of boxes.
ODI cricket, a different, slightly slower-paced game but played over an entire day as well—that can hit the market commercially too. We need to provide relevance around ODI cricket. Meaningless bilateral series needs adjusting, world cups are still fabulous. And then test cricket has a completely different demographic, and hopefully the way that we're trying to play the game is almost trying to bring T20 cricket and Test cricket a little closer together. But I quite like it that you can cover from young kids to older people across various products that we have in the game.
Q. You said you don't like the word ‘Bazball’, so I am going to rephrase that to England's bold approach to Test batting… Thank you…(laughs)
Q. When you came to England with this approach, what were the challenges you faced in introducing this new approach? Because shifting cultures is probably the most difficult thing and can’t be done in a day. First, to effect change, you need a thirst for change, right?
Before I took over the England Test side, there was one win from 17 Tests. So there was a thirst for change not just among the organisation but among the players. And there was probably a lack of confidence amongst the group at that stage as well.
Keep in mind that when I was appointed, Ben Stokes had just been appointed as captain. Now, him and myself are such kindred spirits. We're very similar in our beliefs about the game and about success and failure and where that sits in our lives. So we've got a very charismatic leader who connects the dots and who the guys will follow.
It's a matter of how do we give these guys confidence, how do we make them feel bulletproof when they walk out to play. Because then you get the talent to come out. And that's just the language that you talk, it's the environment that you create. It's the simplicity of message, it's trying to dumb down things a little bit and strip away a lot of the noise which sits around international sport. Media, whilst it has its play and it's super important because it provides profile, can become a distraction if you allow it to be. So try and quieten that noise down a little bit. Social media: How do you control that to a level where you can still go out there and play and not be thinking about what people may be saying about you on social media. It's all geared around quietening the noise so that you can be focussed in the moment and allow your talent to deal with whatever is coming.
And then it's a matter of having an environment where we have good talent. So it's not rocket science. I try and bring positivity every single day and a level of consistency in the language that I talk every single day because I want to see these guys can be as good as what they possibly can.
Q. You adopted a novel approach that was risky as well. As a leader of a national team did you face the fear of failure while adopting this approach? How should leaders deal with the risk of failure? It's always an interesting question. Different people have different levels of ability to handle that. I guess, for me, one thing I always try and go back to is the thought that doubt kills more dreams than failure. I genuinely believe that even if you fail, you'll learn something from it. So you progress, you get better. It's okay to fail, for me it’s not okay to not have a go at something, it’s not okay to leave your talent unflourished because you're scared to do something. I like to try and get the most out of people because you see them grow, you see them, left as individuals, they smile more, they walk taller, they seem happier. And that's because you're bringing talent out of people.
The key from a leadership point of view is that when failure does arise, I’d still be there to pick them up, I’d still be there to encourage them to have a go next time and to always protect the baseline of where you sit as a team or an organisation, and allow the players to be the ones who push the ceiling. But you always be the baseline so that it never falls too far as an organisation.
Q. Talking about pushing the ceiling, in 2008, you started off IPL with a flier of an innings of 158. It, kind of, set the tone for the tournament, which has grown exponentially ever since. Sixteen years later, there's a proliferation of franchise leagues around the world. Do you see international cricket being consumed by franchise leagues? It's got a definite chance of happening. I don't know where the game's going to be in 20-30 years’ time. And I don't know what the right option is—is it international cricket or is it franchise cricket. Can they coexist? I hope so, because I think there's the national pride element, in world cups in particular where it really does shine through. But, then again, guys are becoming more aligned to franchise as well. So I don't really know where it sits and that's okay. Let’s just enjoy what we've got now and we'll see where the game goes. In the end, the market will tell us, that people will vote with their feet and eyeballs and there will be a time where it allows us to know where the game's gotten to.
Q. These days, we hear a lot of discussion about the “spirit of cricket”. The World Cup added an edge to the discussions when Bangladesh’s Shakib Al Hasan got Sri Lanka’s Angelo Mathews timed-out. Your thoughts? First is to admit your own failings. Early on in my career, when I probably couldn't see the wood from the trees in terms of what the game was, I was just focussed on winning at all costs. I made mistakes which I regret and I put my hand up and say that I made those mistakes. With the benefit of time, I was afforded opportunities to hopefully put some of those mistakes right. To me, the spirit of cricket is vitally important. It's hard to quantify, but I think it's vitally important. In the end, it’s just like do what you think morally is right. And it's hard to judge people who take other decisions, and I'm certainly not hypocritical enough to judge those. But all I say is I was a lot more comfortable with the person I was at the end than the person I was at the start.