London, July 13: Four years ago, England found themselves at the crossroads. Their limited-overs cricket was in a shambles, a miserable 2015 World Cup campaign coming to a juddering halt in Adelaide when Bangladesh ended their interest in the tournament with a 19-run verdict. Eoin Morgan’s men had only victories against Scotland and Afghanistan to show.
In that same tournament, co-hosts New Zealand were setting the world afire with their aggression and positivity, taking a cue from the fearlessness of their skipper. Brendon McCullum has always believed in living by the sword, and he catalyzed an exciting, entertaining brand of cricket that mesmerized the cricket world and lifted the World Cup to a glorious spectacle.
England’s timidity and diffidence was in stark contrast to New Zealand’s passion and proactiveness. Nowhere was the gulf in thinking more apparent than at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium. Tim Southee snaffled seven for 33 to send England crashing to 123. New Zealand didn’t just hunt down the target, they destroyed England. McCullum played the lead role with a brutal 25-ball 77, each of his eight fours and seven sixes driving the nail deeper into the English coffin.
Morgan was helpless, clueless, lost. As New Zealand won with a staggering 226 deliveries remaining, he felt his world collapse around him. After the hammering, he admitted that he had felt as close to 'rock-bottom as I’ve been’.
Chastened and thoroughly humiliated, Morgan decided it was time for a change in thinking, a change in approach, a change in personnel. Unless England embraced the format and played it with the energy it demanded, they would continue to flounder. Morgan opted to adopt the McCullum template to spark his team’s rejuvenation; with unquestioned backing from the England and Wales Cricket Board, he embarked on the road to redemption.
Today, Morgan finds himself at the helm of the world’s No 1 ODI side, a unit that scales 300 for fun, which strikes dread and intimidation deep into opposition ranks, which is now one win away from inscribing its name on the World Cup for the first time. It’s interesting that their opponents in Sunday’s final at Lord’s are the team from whom he drew inspiration.
England have become the new New Zealand, but the Kiwis haven’t gone the other way, clearly.
On Saturday (July 13), as Morgan led his troops in preparation for Sunday’s titanic showdown, he ran into McCullum. The two Kolkata Knight Riders men are close buddies; McCullum must have wished his mate well even if his heart might not have been in it, but then again, Baz has been the quintessential nice guy.
“Brendon is a very good friend of mine,” Morgan acknowledged as he provided a sneak peek into their conversation. “He spoke about us making the final and playing New Zealand because he had to fly home for the semifinal, but he was flying back if New Zealand made it, so he's delighted that they did and he's in good form.
“I think he has had quite a bit to do with it -- you could say about world cricket,” Morgan went on of McCullum’s integral role in England’s renaissance since the last World Cup. “We are close mates and he's taught me a lot about leadership. In 2015, the way New Zealand played, very similar to the way they are playing at the moment. They proved to everybody that you can perform at the highest level and get to the top by being yourselves and not trying to be somebody else, or a different team, or be somebody that is a bit of a novelty for everybody else, so that's quite cool.”
Williamson took pride in England using the New Zealand template to carve their niche. “If he said that, that's kind, it's great,” he said. “The last World Cup, which was perhaps seen as a negative, was a real catalyst for the changes that they have made and the force that they are and how they are playing their cricket in the white-ball format. Eoin has been a massive part in changing that.
“They deserve all of those good parts that come with that (becoming No. 1). You don't tend to just change the way you play, you also need to work with the group that you have and try and make adjustments accordingly to get the best out of the personnel They’ve certainly made some strong changes really quickly.”
Sunday will put the original against the replica. And no matter who lifts the title, Brendon McCullum will be the winner.
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who has followed the sport closely for nearly three decades, and is covering his seventh World Cup)