Behind KKR’s IPL final run, a touch of Brendon McCullum

There’s a little Hillary in Brendon McCullum. And there was a lot of McCullum in KKR’s run to the final.

Seventh in the points table with two wins from seven matches, Kolkata Knight Riders had a mountain to climb when the Indian Premier League (IPL) resumed last month. Luckily for the franchise, there’s a Kiwi in the backroom who loves evoking compatriot mountaineer Edmund Hillary.

“New Zealanders identify with strong silent types. Perhaps our greatest hero is Sir Edmund Hilary, the first person to climb Mt Everest,” Brendon McCullum had said in his MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture. “He had a chiselled jaw, he never spoke boastfully about his remarkable achievements.”

Almost all of that applies to the former New Zealand captain and current head coach of KKR.

“It’s unheard of what (McCullum) has actually done here. He has given everybody a fresh lease of life. He’s freshened up the place. Everybody’s happy, everybody’s smiling, and he should take a lot of credit,” team mentor David Hussey told reporters ahead of Friday’s IPL final. “I know he won’t because he’s a very humble man, but he should take a lot of credit for what he has been able to accomplish in this part of the IPL.”

There’s a little Hillary in Brendon McCullum. And there was a lot of McCullum in KKR’s run to the final.

Amidst the deluge of IPL-related social media posts, a KKR video sticks out. It’s a team meeting, but the monitors are off and a whiteboard with vague clippings remains unfocused in the background. Instead, McCullum invites Sunil Narine and fielding coach James Foster to the pool table for a quick game. He calls the action, equating 8-ball to T20 cricket. The giggles and chatter first give way to tense silence and then to applause, as Narine holds off Foster despite ‘conceding several wickets’.

“In a slightly creative way, what I am trying to get across here is that this might be a game but there’s games which go on with games out on the field. If we start well, great. That doesn’t mean we’re still in the game… If we start badly, doesn’t mean that we’ve lost the game just because we lost the break… We rely on those guys who are out on the field with us to help us, with that cohesion, camaraderie,” says McCullum. “If you dissect what I just said onto a cricket field, then we’ll be pretty good.”

It’s quintessential McCullum. No pen or clipboards. No rhetoric or rah-rah speeches. Just like the Kiwi team meetings with him as captain.

“We grabbed beer from the fridge and talked. We didn’t ‘white-board’ it, we just spoke from our hearts; about who we were as a team and how we were perceived by the public,” McCullum said in his speech at Lord’s. “It was agreed that we were seen as arrogant, emotional, distant, up-ourselves and uninterested in our followers.”

McCullum added the blue collar to the Black Cap.

“For us as New Zealand cricketers, we wanted to remove a lot of the analysis; we wanted to be ‘blue collar’ in how we went about things, not aloof and superior. We reduced the various theories that had dominated so much of what we did; we planned less, had fewer team meetings and we tried to be the very best we could be. We wanted to be a team that people could be proud of; and if in doubt we wanted to play the game aggressively, not fear failure.”

McCullum has maintained that the environment for incoming New Zealand youngsters during the captaincy shuffle between Ross Taylor and him was poor: “There was a very traditional hierarchy, where senior players ruled the roost.”

He took over a team that had Taylor as the solitary world-class performer. Under his (and coach Mike Hesson’s) watch, the likes of Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Martin Guptill, Tom Latham and Kane Williamson blossomed. A side where a youngster could be drafted in and perform straightaway.

Current New Zealand captain Williamson spoke of the cultural shift after McCullum’s retirement in 2016.

“Players who have contact with him tend to exceed their own expectations because he has the ability to draw the best out of them,” Williamson said. “He earns respect because he leads by example and demonstrates absolute loyalty. That gives you extra confidence, that he believes in you. He truly cares about people.”

At KKR this season, at least in the latter half, the team set-up and culture weren’t too dissimilar. The most expensive overseas pick Pat Cummins didn’t fly in. T20 thoroughbred Andre Russell wasn’t available for the last seven games. Woefully out-of-form Eoin Morgan played as a specialist captain. And there were no Purple or Orange Cap contenders.

Instead, it was a bunch of cricketers pushing each other. Prasidh Krishna and Shivam Mavi are part of the frequently-bragged-about Indian pace pool. Varun Chakravarthy has long surpassed Sunil Narine to be KKR’s premier spinner. The batting nucleus too is decidedly Indian. The reinvigorated Nitish Rana and Rahul Tripathi. The re-emboldened Shubman Gill. And of course, Venkatesh Iyer.

McCullum invariably equates breakthrough stars to New Zealanders. Gill is a Williamson-in-making. Iyer reminds him of Ben Stokes.

In fact — minus the height discrepancy — his description of “the catalyst” Iyer could very well be a description of a young Brendon McCullum.

“The ‘Venkatesh Iyer Game Plan’ is aggressive intent. He is a big presence, a tall man, and plays the game with a kind of a cavalier streak. It is so important to hold on to that because he might be challenged to change his methods,” McCullum told reporters after Friday’s loss. “He might not be the most consistent with his flamboyance, but I hope he remains the Venkatesh Iyer we have seen so far.”

But can McCullum do what he did with the other Knight Riders, in the Atlantic? After he was appointed head coach, the Trinbago Knight Riders went undefeated to win the Caribbean Premier League last year.

The transformation at KKR, since his arrival last year, has been spectacular, but slow. The McCullum brand of fearless cricket didn’t appear immediately.

“The first phase of the tournament, we were still trying to implement Baz’s mantra of trying to play positive, aggressive cricket and a brand of cricket that our fans really enjoy watching and also the players enjoy playing,” Morgan said before the final. “In the first phase, it didn’t quite happen. But throughout this whole second phase, people have turned up with a different motivation and drive to play that aggressive brand of cricket.”

McCullum himself conceded that “throughout the season we were being paralysed a little bit by fear. I wasn’t able to free the guys up enough to understand that and that’s sort of a challenge for me.”

Also, the McCullum brand of cricket is mercurial.

More often than not, KKR had to snatch victories. Take the last three matches for instance. They fumbled against Royal Challengers Bangalore before Shakib Al Hasan’s brave boundary. They lost six wickets for seven runs against Delhi Capitals before Tripathi’s penultimate-ball six. In the final, they reined Chennai back and got off to a flier before losing three wickets in six balls.

New Zealand’s first Test innings with McCullum as captain was 45 all out. That morning in Cape Town, McCullum saw “no tablecloth on the Table Mountain” and put his batsmen in. In the first over of the 2015 World Cup final, Australia had one hand on the World Cup trophy after McCullum was cleaned up trying to attack the new ball.

“I was able to add an element of aggression and confidence, but I was never going to add that level of consistency. Under Kane’s captaincy, they’ve been able to have that,” McCullum said after New Zealand’s World Test Championship win in June.

But unlike a national side, turnarounds and consistency are tough to deliver in franchise cricket. The mega auction shuffle and the addition of two new teams loom. Year after year, franchises return largely to an equal footing, without baggage-defined legacies.

But in many ways, McCullum already has a lasting legacy with KKR, and the IPL. He kick-started the league when questions remained on how the venture would shape up. Early on, he was told by megastar-owner Shah Rukh Khan that “you’ll always be very involved with KKR”, a notion that pulled him back when offered the head coach role.

“When we left India (in May), I think everyone understood me as a coach on how I want our team to play,” McCullum said before the resumption last month. “I am unapologetic about that as well because my job is to try and build something at KKR that is going to last far longer than I am going to last for the franchise.”

Kolkata Knight Riders is a house that former captain Gautam Gambhir built, with two titles and multiple play-off runs. But McCullum laid the foundation in 2008. and he is back to add storeys.

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