Cricket: Every day an opportunity for McCullum

All the attention has been on Ross Taylor losing the Black Caps captaincy - but what about the man who has inherited the job? Michael Brown, of APNZ, explores the background of Otago's Brendon McCullum.

In a cold, dark villa typical of many in South Dunedin, a young Brendon McCullum picks up his phone.

He shuffles into the kitchen to find some privacy and his voice lowers. It's Sir Richard Hadlee and he's not happy. McCullum has just been picked for the New Zealand cricket team as a 20-year-old and Hadlee has discovered his new wicketkeeper-batsman was at training with the Southern rugby side the previous evening.

It was not, Hadlee implored, acceptable and was not to happen again or he would be overlooked for a New Zealand cricket contract.

''Yeah, he was a bit grumpy,'' McCullum told the Otago Daily Times at the time, ''but I managed to calm him down a bit''.

McCullum could well have donned a black jersey as opposed to a black cap and was a freakishly talented sportsman during his days at King's High School.

In his sixth form year he was selected ahead of Dan Carter as first five-eighth for the South Island secondary schools side. On another occasion, he played for the school's First XI football side at 1pm in an interschool against archrival Otago Boys' High School and then led the First XV at 3pm to its first win away from home in 24 years. McCullum, of course, scored a brilliant solo try.

Last week, he was named the 28th captain of the New Zealand cricket side. It didn't come about in the way he might have hoped, as coach Mike Hesson ousted Ross Taylor, and McCullum considered all options when asked to take over in all three formats. He decided to accept ''for the good of the team''.

Those who know him well say he will do a good job and he will be ''aggressive'' and ''instinctive''. Others are less convinced, believing his personality is not suited to being New Zealand captain.

There are few more divisive figures in New Zealand cricket. He's often perceived as brash, perhaps even cocky, and his outward appearances might contribute to that.

McCullum has Roman numerals stencilled on his right shoulder and biceps that reference, among other things, his playing number (42) and the birthdates of his children.

It's a public display of the importance of family and one of the strong themes that emerge when talking to people who know him well.

He comes from one of the most prominent sporting families in Dunedin. Father Stu played first-class cricket for Otago, uncle Grant was a wicketkeeper who found his way to the Otago side blocked by Warren Lees, and brother Nathan is a team-mate at both domestic and national level.

The young McCullum was a dressing-room rat; a kid who spent time in the dressing room at Culling Park as his father played club cricket for Albion. Brendon and Nathan were omnipresent and even played as substitute fielders for Albion's premier team when 8 and 9 respectively when several players were sitting university exams. Their arms, according to former Albion president Warwick Larkins, were better even then than most senior members of the side.

His son, Riley, is said to have also taken on those traits as he immerses himself in his father's world.

''He's great with kids,'' former Otago and New Zealand team-mate Craig Cumming says.

''My kids have had a little to do with Brendon and they don't look at Brendon as McCullum the superstar or cricketer. They actually look at him as a friend who plays cricket for New Zealand and they do that because of the way he treats them. It's a nice trait, a special trait. These are the things people don't see and don't understand. Off the park he is a very generous, courteous and honest bloke.''

It's a view shared by his King's High School 1st XI coach, John Cushen, who played for Otago in the 1980s. McCullum has often made time to talk to Cushen, even after a test win, when teams traditionally celebrate among themselves.

''That's not an arrogant, stuck up, hip-hopper,'' Cushen says.

''I have just found him to be respectful and respectful of the people I'm around. He's not cocky or arrogant.''

McCullum even followed Cushen's orders when, as a fourth former, he was instructed not to chase 18 runs off the last over in an inter-school against Southland Boys' High, when King's were nine down.

''In those days you never lost and I sent out instructions that we were not going for the win,'' Cushen says.

''He said, 'I can do this'. I told him again, 'we're not going for this'. He didn't go for it ... but he probably wasn't overly happy about it.''

King's played an important role in McCullum's life - although his teachers say he went to play sport rather than learn - and still does. The McCullum brothers set up a cricket academy at the school and in 2002 Brendon returned to his alma mater to present the school with his first New Zealand shirt.

It was something he felt inspired to do after seeing, as a student, Carl Hayman do the same thing when he made the All Blacks.

McCullum's first taste of international cricket was far from appetising. After devouring provincial and age-group bowlers - he played at a junior world cup and made his first-class debut for Otago while still at high school - he struggled at the highest level and confronted criticism for the first time in his career.

He posted single-figure scores in 14 of his first 20 one-day international innings and it gave critics who questioned his selection at such a young age, of which there were many, plenty of fodder. The selectors perservered and McCullum never doubted he would succeed.

''He was very much full of confidence but, when he was younger, it was probably too much confidence,'' Cumming says.

''Over time he's certainly grown up.

''I just love his confidence. The world was there to be taken and that was the way he saw it. He saw every day as an opportunity to do something special. It was an outlook a few of us playing the game probably wished we had, too. It wasn't always successful and has brought about his downfall, and still does every now and then. Cricket is an awful game because you fail so regularly compared to your successes. Even the greats do it. To have that attitude is fantastic.''

Notably, he didn't drop his bundle when he missed out last year on the captaincy to Taylor in another messy public process. He wasn't happy but he didn't undermine Taylor and stepped up to lead the side last summer when Taylor was absent against both Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Away from the cricket pitch, McCullum follows horse racing and enjoys a quiet beer with friends. He hasn't led a totally clean lifestyle in an era when players are often expected to be pillars of purity but he doesn't live to excesses.

It's said McCullum would always smoke a team fitness test regardless of what the previous evening entailed, which caused some alarm among team management. McCullum is a naturally gifted athlete and cricket staff worried that younger and more impressionable team-mates might think they, too, could follow his methods.

Former New Zealand batsman Craig McMillan is now close friends with McCullum and the pair's children also play cricket together in Christchurch. McMillan said they have some fairly ''heated discussions'' about the state of New Zealand cricket and the team and it's an abrasive relationship that stretches back to the first time they met.

It was when McCullum was about 19 and starting to make waves. Both McCullum and McMillan shared the same sponsor and McCullum broke a bat. The sponsor wanted McMillan, who was playing a first-class game at the Lincoln Oval, to give McCullum one of his.

''He came in to look at my bat and proceeded to tell me all that was good and bad about it,'' McMillan says.

''Straight away there was that brash 19-year-old. It made me laugh. It made me think, 'who is this kid?' ''I remember the first net session we had when he made the New Zealand team. A few of us thought we would try to test him out. We had heard a bit about him so proceeded to bowl short and give him a real workout. He took everything on. Everything we could dish out, he took on the chin. Straight away I thought, 'there's something about this kid and he's going to be a pretty good player'.''

As a player, he probably hasn't yet achieved as much as his talent suggested, but there is a sense of hope he will also become a pretty good captain.''