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The skipper ensured New Zealand would be giving England a sizeable challenge with a rollicking 74 off 38 balls, then oversaw a committed, penetrative bowling display as New Zealand squared the twenty/20 series at Seddon Park.
The decider is at Wellington's Westpac Stadium on Friday night.
Having carried his team to 192 for six, McCullum then found his seamers, Mitchell McClenaghan and Ian Butler, bang on the job.
With his third and fourth deliveries, left-armer McClenaghan removed Alex Hales with a beauty, then the dangerous Luke Wright.
Butler, back after a two-year absence, took a wicket with his third ball, added a second, and walked away with the terrific figures of two for nine off his four overs.
England was way behind the comparative rate from early on and, at 47 for five in 10.1 overs, there was no way back. The visting side was eventually dismissed for 137.
There was a late flourish in vain from in-form wicketkeeper Jos Buttler, 54 off 30 balls, featuring scoop shots and rockets blasted back down the ground, before James Franklin cleaned up the tail.
The bowlers were backed up by urgent fielding. A dropped catch by Hamish Rutherford at deep square leg and McCullum's missing a stumping off brother Nathan were the only blemishes.
For McCullum it was a night he should savour.
New Zealand won its one-day international series in South Africa 2-1, after being squashed in the two tests, but was well beaten at Eden Park in the international series opener last Saturday and needed this to shake off nagging fears of a grim few weeks to come.
New Zealand's innings, its second-highest on Seddon Park after the 202 for five against Zimbabwe a year ago, was built on an opening stand of 75 in 8.2 overs between Martin Guptill and Rutherford.
The Otago lefthander's timing was not quite right - a top-edged six off Stuart Broad could have gone anywhere, including over the wicketkeeper's head for six, which it did.
Still 58 runs off 38 balls in his first two innings for his country bodes well.
Guptill looked good before slapping spinner James Tredwell to deep square leg and thereafter the innings was down to McCullum.
He had just a single off his first seven balls, then got going with a booming six into the crowd at long on and was away.
Blockbusting drives and ferocious pull shots kept him sailing along, and five of the innings' 10 sixes were his.
He did not get much support - Ross Taylor holed out just inside the midwicket boundary for the second consecutive innings - but McCullum's first T20 half-century in 10 innings was timely.
New Zealand seemed to have lost its way when it managed just 36 in a five-over spell from the 13th over but McCullum's pyrotechnics, to match the flame-throwers at one end of the ground, meant 38 came off the final two overs. Auckland coach Paul Strang (42) will step aside at the end of this season.
The former Zimbabwe legspinner has been in charge for the past four seasons, during which Auckland has twice contested the Champions League as New Zealand's T20 champion, and also collected a national one-day title.
He was offered the chance to roll his contract over for one more year but Strang's decision is based around a belief it is time for a change and the desire to look at new opportunities.