I (Martin) write this blog a day after England have beaten Australia in the first game of the 2015 Ashes competition. A few months ago, the sentence “England have beaten Australia in the first game of the 2015 Ashes competition,” although (almost) grammatically correct would have been considered fantastical by pundit, player, and prognosticator of any persuasion. England were bounced unceremoniously out of the World Cup by Bangladesh and were unconvincing against the West Indies in tying the Test series 1–1. Australia would eat England for breakfast.
Then to England came New Zealand, under the devil-may-care leadership of Brendon McCullum, to play a tw0-match Test series and five ODIs. And everything changed. England began to play an aggressive, forward-thinking brand of cricket: their players took risks and stopped fearing failure; they didn’t retreat into their shells under pressure but counterpunched; most importantly, they seemed to learn to enjoy cricket again. The result of their efforts was a deservedly tied Test series and a thrilling 3–2 ODI victory for England. Most significantly, England fans fell in love with their team again, and the country discovered that cricket could be fun, watchable, and exciting.
There are many reasons for this success: no doubt, the purging of the toxic atmosphere surrounding Kevin Pietersen from the dressing room helped; the maturation of young bloods like Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, and others—reared on T20 cricket—gave much-needed impetus to the side; the bringing on of a new coach, assistant coach, and manager drew a line under the failures of the previous 18 months. But the role of New Zealand, and particularly their ebullient captain, should not be ignored.
McCullum is the kind of no-holds-barred, swashbuckling character that cricket, let alone England, needs. Just as the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt in the White House completely changed the character of the presidency after forty years of mediocrities as the head of state, McCullum has decided that the best way to lead his men against opponents with more financial resources and a bigger pool of personnel to draw upon than his own team, is to charge ahead and consequences be damned. He’s not interested in percentage cricket or in laying siege to an opponent until they wave the flag of surrender. McCullum seems to be utterly uninterested in stats, mind games, and vilifying the opposition. Remarkably, his aggression is purely tactical: unconventional fields, scoring rapidly, trying to take wickets with every ball. More often than not—judging by the success New Zealand have had since he became captain—this approach pays off; sometimes it doesn’t. But, even in defeat, McCullum and the Kiwis have won fans and plaudits for simply making cricket enjoyable again—and showing that you can actually be successful in the modern game without being obnoxious jerks or rigid, joyless tight-asses. So, bully for you, Brendon: everyone who loves cricket owes you a pint.