When assessing the impact a cricketer has had on the game, the first port of call is always statistical analysis. The game has woven a rich tapestry of statistics for us to stare at and utilise in arguments with friends and foes on social media or, more traditionally, down the pub and in cafes.
Everyone knows Sir Don Bradman averaged 99.94. There aren’t many left standing who saw the great man in action, but seeing isn’t necessarily believing when assessing Bradman’s impact on the game. He shaped the art of batting and his legend will forever live on, seemingly untouchable by anyone else.
Fewer still remain standing who saw the great SF Barnes turn his arm, yet he would feature in almost anyone’s all-time XI on the basis of his stats and his legend. There isn’t even any decent film footage of him spinning the ball at speeds believed to have been up to 80+mph and no one has been able to repeat his technique or his feats. The stats simply support the legend and that is sufficient for us to afford Barnes his standing in history.
Great players, naturally, have great stats, which leads me to Brendon McCullum. The now retired Kiwi skipper doesn’t have great stats. His batting average from a 101 Test career stands at 38.64 in an era when an average of over 40 enters you into the discussion of good batsmen. He only scored 12 Test centuries. His average outside New Zealand was below 30. He never scored a century in Australia, England, South Africa, Sri Lanka or the West Indies.
His ODI record, too, is middling. From 270 games he averaged 30.41 with five centuries.
These are the headline numbers that historians of cricket will come across a couple of generations from now. They will, of course, be able to read about his scintillating strike rate of 63.57 in Tests and 96.37 in ODIs. But then they will look at his contemporaries. Virender Sehwag, from 104 Tests, averaged 49, hit 23 centuries and had a strike rate of 82.23. Viru’s ODI average, from 251 games, was 35.05 with 15 centuries and a strike rate of 104.33. Chris Gayle, from 103 Tests, averaged 42.18 with 15 centuries and a strike rate of 60.26. From 269 ODIs Gayle averaged 37.33 with 22 centuries and a strike rate of 85.11.
This is where analysis of McCullum needs to diverge slightly, for stats don’t tell the full story of ‘Baz’. His leadership skills, in an age of in-depth analysis, in-depth coaching and observation of the game, truly stood out. He picked New Zealand up and led them to the brink of a World Cup win. He was a master blaster like Sehwag and Gayle (the comparison to those two was deliberate for that reason) but his leadership skills far outweighed either of theirs.
Baz played with a devil-may-care attitude that he instilled throughout his side. If plucky New Zealand, seemingly eternal underdogs, were to bite the big boys then they would have to roll the dice and attack. Then attack some more. And when it finally looked like it might be time to defend, attack again.
McCullum took to leadership with a zeal that the best leaders do; it demonstrably improved his own performance. Although he assumed captaincy in something of a coup from Ross Taylor in 2013, it is to McCullum’s credit that he was able to assimilate Taylor back into the core of the New Zealand set up. It was also the right decision for McCullum to take over.
In 31 Tests as captain, McCullum averaged 45.28 with the bat, compared to 35.63 in 70 Tests as a member of the rank and file. It was also in 2013 that McCullum kept wicket for the last time. His average without the gloves (42.94) was superior to when he was keeping (34.18).
As captain, McCullum hit half of his Test centuries, six. They were, in order, 113, 224, 302, 202, 195 and 145. The 302 Vs India is the only Test treble hit by a Kiwi and the 145 is the fastest Test century of all time; Baz raised his bat to all corners of Christchurch after just 54 deliveries.
His centuries were always pivotal to New Zealand. When he hit a century, McCullum averaged 172.00 – he made them count; he hit ‘Daddy Hundreds’, as Graham Gooch liked to term them. It is his strike rate, however, that stands out. When scoring a century, it stands at 90.13. When McCullum got set, he punished you. To further emphasise this point, when McCullum passed 50, he averaged 106.62.
Again it is as captain where the numbers really take off. His list of centuries at captain averages 196.83 and the strike rate equals 107.96. When he passed 50 as skipper, he averaged 137.66 (93.32 when he was not captain). Here was a man who truly led from the front and was inspired by leadership. Four of his 12 Test centuries came in fewer than 100 deliveries and one of his double centuries, of which there were four, came in under 200 deliveries.
McCullum’s rich run of form reached its zenith in 2014, when McCullum scored 1164 runs at an average of 72.75 with four centuries; scores of 224, 302, 202 and 195. He spearheaded New Zealand’s most successful ever year in Test cricket. One man’s influence can rarely have been felt so keenly.
Now we stand at the end of an era. McCullum left one parting gift with the fastest ever Test century, but perhaps his greatest gift to New Zealand cricket has been the laying of solid foundations for future prosperity. For cricket at large, he has drawn out the blueprint for white ball cricket, sticking to his guns and attacking at every opportunity, a policy that has also crept into Test cricket on his watch. His exploits at the 2015 World Cup will live long in the memory of everyone who watched that tournament.
So, in summing up the career of Brendon McCullum, mere statistical analysis is insufficient. He was statistically average, but actually awesome. He will be sorely missed by cricket lovers the world over.
By Miles Reucroft