Cricket: Confident McCullum looks to bowl first

By Andrew Alderson in London

The contrast between the two captains leading into the England-New Zealand test series could not have been more marked.

Brendon McCullum exuded the confidence of a man leading a team on the up, having emerged from a drawn three-test series where New Zealand were acknowledged as 'moral victors'.

Alastair Cook looked like the weight of Lord's members' pavilion was bearing down on him as he contemplates leading England onto the home of cricket for the first time in a test.

The psychological comparison was intriguing.

McCullum middled questions from a packed amphitheatre of media at Lord's museum as if this captaincy lark is a doddle.

Information rolled freely. Yes, Neil Wagner will play and they're considering four pace bowlers at the expense of Bruce Martin; yes, bowling first seems the best option at this stage; yes, he and Ross Taylor have had a candid chat to iron out any transitional hangovers; yes, they're trying to address the side's recent slow starts to test series.

New Zealand last won the first test of a series against a top-eight side in November 2009 against Pakistan in Dunedin.

McCullum now has to transport this front foot approach into the test. He admitted the process of translating the grandeur of Lord's into sufficient motivation to win a second test in 16 attempts is demanding.

"That's a tricky one and something we spoke about before the last warm-up game.

"It's a matter of acknowledging Lord's is like no other ground in terms of the peripheral elements; the lunches, the functions, the training facilities and media [interest]. We need to embrace that, yet know that come 11 o'clock [UK time] that we focus on the task at hand. Ultimately it's another game of cricket, albeit with a special twist."

McCullum made it clear a number of decisions ahead of the match will be dictated by the forecast which indicates some rain over the next five days. Martin might miss out if time is of the essence.

"He's definitely a chance and the wicket does look quite dry, but the overhead conditions are something we've got to be aware of. If the game gets shortened, how does that impact on a spinner's ability to impose himself on the game."
McCullum also endorsed Taylor's commitment.

"Ross has been outstanding since we arrived in the UK. We're a far better team when he is in the form we know he's capable of.

"We had a really good discussion when we first arrived. We've played cricket for a long time together and shared some great moments. We know both of us are integral members of this team and we'll continue to share those moments. We look forward to making some meaningful contributions."

In contrast Cook shuffled about the microphone-laden front table, looking like he'd settle for being beamed up Star Trek-style. It's a reflection of the scrutiny the England captaincy role entails, especially when you consider he oversaw his side's first test series triumph in India for 28 years in December. The truism 'you're only as good as your last performance' rang loud. England expects unrelenting excellence from its cricket team as they prepare to defend the Ashes urn this summer.

Information was less forthcoming and references to the unrelenting pressure of his role were ample. "We've been looking at these reasons [for a sub-standard test performance in New Zealand] behind closed doors and they'll obviously stay there", "A lot's expected of us... we all know the pressure on anyone who's played international cricket for England" and "the scrutiny, you're always under scrutiny".

The conference teetered on presenting a few home truths when Cook was asked: "What annoys you?" He countered with a "do you want me to be honest?" which met with a ripple of nervous laughter. He eventually played it safe with a reference to "when you expect high standards and they aren't met".

Fortunately the exchange lurched into welcome light relief when Cook showed self-deprecating humour about a habit of forgetting his blazer when walking out for the toss. The garment failed to make the suitcase on recent tours to New Zealand and India. This time he "thinks" he has it in his possession at the team hotel "but if it's not, at least I can drive home and get it."

Still, Cook has a team which, at least on paper and weather permitting, should deliver at least one win this series. If New Zealand is to prevent that, McCullum's leadership will almost certainly be a defining factor in making it so.

- NZ Herald

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