Brendon McCullum looks on
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The hand of Baz

Over the last three years everything New Zealand's captain has touched has turned to gold

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan  |  

On March 28, 1973, at lunch on the final day of the third Test, in Port-of-Spain, Ian Chappell lay on a dressing-room bench with a cap over his face. West Indies needed 66 more for victory and Alvin Kallicharran, one of the five wickets standing, was on 91.

"I was pretty angry," Chappell wrote in Hitting Out, co-authored with former team-mate Ashley Mallett. " … I reckoned it was time to have a direct talk with the team. It was not my way to give a lecture or anything like that, but the blokes were starting to whinge out there. I got up and told the bowlers that our policy had always been to bowl line and length, no matter what." Cursing their luck, he had said, would do them no good.

Terse talk complete and ready to leave the dressing room, he "tugged at the peak of his cap and said: 'Be a good one to win'".

First ball after lunch Kallicharran flashed at one outside off. Rod Marsh accepted the snick and cried, "We've got 'em, we've got 'em!" The next four wickets tumbled for 15. Australia clinched the Test by 44 runs and went on to a famous series win. As Malcolm Knox noted in The Keepers, photographs of Marsh celebrating Kallicharran's wicket would come to represent "the symbol of Australian effervescence". And the captain's pep talk would join other tales in the vast compendium of Chappell lore.

It is unclear to what extent Chappell's talk - and his attacking fields - influenced the eventual result. Mallett says that the short speech refocused the players; others may brush it aside as a charming anecdote that had little to do with Australia's bowlers going out and getting the remaining five wickets. Among team-mates and historians, though, there is general agreement that Chappell's leadership was integral to: a) the extent to which his players drove themselves, b) the attacking brand of cricket the team strove for, and c) his reading of the opposition and the intelligent hunches that came off. "His men would do anything for him," said Richie Benaud, "because it was not just a matter of them believing in him, they knew he believed in them."

Benaud may as well have been talking about Brendon McCullum, the most celebrated of all current captains and, according to the Guardian's Mike Selvey, "far and away the most creative, proactive, galvanic leader of a cricket team in the world today". It has been a remarkable rise, especially when one considers how New Zealand were flattened by South Africa in McCullum's first series as captain.

All the while McCullum has dutifully performed his tasks as principal custodian of the spirit of the game, chief rejuvenator of ODIs, advocate general of attacking fields, and high priest of explosive batsmanship

Over the last three years, his image has been transformed. The perception of a tattooed, money-hungry brat who plotted to oust Ross Taylor has given way to one of a messiah leading New Zealand to a new dawn. The results speak for themselves. He has overseen seven undefeated Test series in a row; smashed a triple-hundred, two double-hundreds and a 195; drawn series in challenging conditions in England and the UAE; and inspired New Zealand to their first World Cup final (all the while dutifully performing his tasks as principal custodian of the spirit of the game, chief rejuvenator of ODIs, advocate general of attacking fields, and high priest of explosive batsmanship).

In our cover story this month, Dylan Cleaver traces McCullum's journey from his early days in the blue-collar suburbs of south Dunedin and puts his achievements in context. He untangles the complexity around McCullum's public image and chats with the man himself about the critical junctures in the last three years and the reasons why he wanted his side to play with a certain style and purpose. What emerges is a portrait of a leader who has moulded a team that is tough to beat but one that is not tough to embrace.

Elsewhere in this issue, we profile another captain who has roused his team to defy expectations. Bangladesh are enjoying their most memorable year, thanks in no small measure to their talismanic leader, Mashrafe Mortaza. He may be the oldest member of the side but he happily toggles between threatening fast bowler, sabre-rattling warrior, sane avuncular presence and prankster - in the span of a few minutes. Mashrafe's debut arrived a year after Bangladesh entered the Test arena, and over the past decade and a half, cricketer and team have endured similar frustrations: lack of consistency, occasional brilliance followed by lengthy lean periods, and the inability to repeatedly rise to the occasion. Mashrafe's third stint as captain, though, has transformed the man and his side, and heralded a set of match-winners capable of upstaging strong teams match after match.

The mood in Bangladesh has been heady but at no point has Mashrafe been carried away. "I haven't done anything big," he tells ESPNcricinfo's Mohammad Isam. "But I give it my all in the field."

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA