Too many words written already, on McCullum – fully accept that. But I want to get to a different argument, something trickier, something that maybe dovetails with broader questions re- the power-shift towards *positive cricket*, which I appreciate and applaud but do not regard as sacrosanct.
Given the shockingly exciting (and therefore unhelpfully diverting nature) of the New Zealander’s assault, it’s not easy to know where to start. But the minor strands of this here pseudo-hypothesis are, I think, relevant beyond this single boomtastic event; they may, for example, resonate with the debate over England’s direction.
Cricket is unique partly because of the multi-layered levels of intelligence, of challenge, it presents or demands. These extraordinary elements may not be conducive to bold reduction.
The wondrous carnage at Christchurch (in his final Test) is obviously a catalyst for both hyperbole and cud-chewing. However despite being
a) a huge fan of BMac and
b) (whisper this one) kinda culturally down on the Aussies,
my enjoyment of all that was what Guardian-readers amongst us might call conflicted. I watched highlights and this may have been instrumental to the mix of emotions but nevertheless I did experience the full range of oohs and ahhs – some registering vintage, unsullied joy and some a difficult-to-nail-down concern. Because parts of the extravaganza seemed (almost jarringly?) a bit ‘village’… and some baseballesque.
Ok, about eighty-three qualifications necessary immediately. I know what that sounds like – like I’m channelling your Uncle Herbert. Like I don’t get the sheer brilliant courage and the sheer brilliant instinctual majesty thing. Like I just don’t get McCullum – his essence. I do.
I get that this was merely the logical, glorious climax of a lung-burstingly full-hearted climb towards some mountain amongst the gods; from which McCullum could then base-jump, vindicated and inviolable, down and back into the arms of his loving family. And that post that signature moment, in a brief interview with someone calling him mate, Ar Baz would wander off into happy obscurity, complete – sanctified.
Except it’s not that simple. McCullum isn’t over, there’s more hired swordsmanship to come – notably in England, in a few months. This is a Retirement From Tests Moment like no other (so far) but it is not a retirement.
(I’m still trying to work out if that means anything but something makes me wish this was over now, unquestionably and emphatically. Maybe I simply don’t want it unpicked by subsequent events? Maybe the McCullum Statement works best in the abstract, because it may be prone to subversion by intelligent contradiction? Or cruel, early catches at fly slip?)
The innings itself was a clear statement of belief – in the power and legitimacy of see ball hit ball get-your-retaliation-in-first counterattacking sport, as well as in the greatness of individual talent. Yet it inevitably fluked its way along as well as sashayed; it was wild and wildly fortunate. Does this in any way diminish it? Certainly not. It was made possible by an invincible faith and fearlessness; that’s why it happened and why we loved it. But the flawlessness, the purity of this effort is/was made vulnerable by chance(s.) The fella coulda got out; it was barmy-risky – all that.
McCullum has said he doesn’t know what’s going to happen – how he’s going to play – ‘til he gets out to the middle. Plainly this is a half-truth. We forgive, however, a man who’s earned the right to burnish the sparkle around his aura with a little bravado, so this notion that instinct is absolute (and that he merely trusts himself in the moment) can stand as a kind of psychological icon. Not only will we tolerate it but we can roar our approval as he carves a way through the pomp and old-fartism that is Received Wisdom on Batting in Tests.
Except it’s not that simple. Yes this skipper and leader of men plays magnificently off-the-cuff but also, surely, with raw pre-determination? He decides (of course) to charge, having made some arguably rather visceral calculation re the odds/what feels right/what might transform this thing? McCullum (say it quietly) is a thinker as well as a merchant of blam.
What is special around him is the quality of the gamble. BMac revolts and inspires and re-invents the possible, even against the Aussies, even when the spotlight is set to 3rd degree burn level. It’s absolutely wonderful that he himself sears with an often undeniably inspiring energy, that he scorches a path through stuff. This is what identifies him as a Great and it’s maybe what makes sport great too – the magical, revelatory force that talent and belief unleashed in tandem can offer. So… how come the sense of another impending ‘but?’
Fact is, I’m not quite sure. Can wholeheartedly (that word again) support McCullum the superman-human, the doer of brave, cathartic, generous, sporty things. Love that he has led his tiddly nation to a very warm, disproportionately high-profile place in our hearts and that people all over are touched by something about New Zealand’s approach. In the age of cynicism… this is big.
So big as to be beyond critique, or just big?
Am I right in thinking this bloke, the human figure who fights and leads and inspires like this is maybe beyond critique? He’s one of very few genuine world stars and he’s connected with us more profoundly (if still abstractly?) than any other world star so… let’s stay with that. And then argue that the process of ‘positive cricket’ – the philosophy he apparently embodies – is a marvel we can tweak. Cavalier can be dumb as well as mighty and entertaining.
The mild, almost unsayable negative is that talk of aggression and fearlessness can be worryingly close to pret-ty dumb maschismo – and mighty seductive to blokey blokes who chest-pump around in, or coach cricket teams, at any level. To be blunt, this ain’t always gonna work, this T20 thrashathon model for Test cricket. It’s too simple, too reliant on individual genius; it’s based on wonderful longshots (sometimes literally) and not everyone can or will carry it off. Mostly, McCullum has. Hence I love the fella too.
Brendon McCullum swings a three pound bat. In his 140-odd off 70-something balls – the fastest ever Test century – he swung it both beautifully and malevolently, like a drunken knight. Perhaps in those occasional ungainly swipes he simply got caught in his own fury, over-cooking the defiance against not just the peerless Australians but maybe also the earthquakes that again rumbled against his homeland during the week? (He must after all, recognise his own status as champion against all-comers?) Or perhaps the bowling was just tastier than he gave it credit for?
When Brendon connects, things fly. Our spirits have, the ball has. Though he has not gone, we should hoist him shoulder high; he’s special, we needed him, he enriched us all.
Whenever games get dull, or challenges remain unmet, or situations bleak, let’s remember him, eh?