Cricket: McCullum's absence helping NZ side to grow

By Ben Horne

It raised some eyebrows in cricket circles that one of the world's most powerful hitters would decide to retire on the eve of the one major international tournament where smacking the ball over the fence is just about everything.

But Brendon McCullum's last service to New Zealand cricket was to humbly walk away before the start of this World T20 in India.

Of course there would have been a place for him up there opening the batting, but as much as the players lifted for their former skipper, they appear to have been inspired to an even greater level now he's gone.

Knowing there will be no more McCullum blast-off innings to prop them up, the Black Caps have dug deep in every department of the game and in their own quiet way, dominated the pool stage.

There is still plenty of work to be done, but even qualifying for this semifinal blockbuster against England in Delhi early tomorrow (NZT) has been a triumph of sorts for new captain Kane Williamson.

Many worried how he'd cope being thrown into the deep end for a big event " on the most foreign of soil " with no McCullum there alongside.

But in his own unfussy kind of way, Williamson has stood tall.

There is a slightly different feeling about this Black Caps side to the one that rode a wave of emotion on its way to last year's 50-over World Cup final at the MCG.

Obviously being so far away from home makes its own significant difference to the atmosphere, but there is something about Williamson's understated style and personality that seems to have brought the best out in his teammates.

McCullum, when in charge, was clearly the boss.

New Zealand, although still underdogs, suddenly weren't flying under the radar quite so much as they used to with a captain who was garnering so much attention for his status as the iconic face for the spirit of cricket.

Under Williamson, the Black Caps have retained the values instilled by McCullum, but without the spotlight to go with it.

McCullum's influence has been immense, but this tournament has shown that New Zealand needed a fresh start. All credit to him for realising it too, given the obvious temptation of reaching for one last shot at World Cup glory, after coming so agonisingly close at the MCG last year.

McCullum might have smashed the fastest test century of all time in his final match, but long before that performance it would become clear the 34-year-old had already mentally retired. Going on for another month wouldn't have been healthy for himself or the team.

McCullum's farewell tour of New Zealand took some time to finish, and perhaps burdened the team a little bit in their bid to dethrone Australia.

Williamson has taken subtle command of a team eager for a new voice and a new challenge. Tactically he has been brilliant. While other teams - including the hosts and the Australians - struggled to read conditions, Williamson has pulled the right rein every time.

New Zealand don't have the star power to match their finals' rivals England, India and the West Indies.

But just ask Australia and South Africa how far star power gets you if the team isn't moving as one.

Williamson is difficult to pick from the rest of the crowd and this new style might yet take New Zealand all the way.

Ben Horne is chief cricket writer for the Sydney Daily Telegraph

- Daily Telegraph UK

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