In Brendon McCullum’s MCC-Spirit of Cricket lecture, delivered at Lord’s in June 2016, the former New Zealand captain outlined the path he had taken his side on over the course of his three-year leadership reign.
From the nadir of being bowled out by South Africa for 45 in January 2013, to being runners-up in the 2015 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup, McCullum spoke of the fearlessness that had been cultivated within his Black Caps team, but most importantly the respectful manner in which his side were to play the game.
“We worked out what would work for us, based on the traits of being Kiwis,” said McCullum. “To try to be humble and hardworking and to enjoy what we were doing. It is vital that you understand that we were never trying to be 'nice guys'.
“We were just trying to be authentic in how we acted, played the game and carried ourselves. For us, sledging in an abusive manner just didn't fit with who we believed we had to be. It wasn't authentic to being a New Zealander.”
While McCullum’s men fell at the final hurdle in the 2015 tournament, to put it in rather clichéd terms, they won the hearts of those wishing to believe in the game of cricket being one of more than bat and ball, one of true spirit.
How it must please for McCullum to watch now, as under the tutelage of his successor Kane Williamson, the Black Caps have continued to honour his mantra, and even take it further than they did under 'Baz'.
The ICC Spirit of Cricket Award 2018 goes to Kane Williamson, for continuing to be a shining role model of how our game should be played, his behaviour setting an outstanding example on and off the field 🙌— ICC (@ICC) January 22, 2019
➡️ https://t.co/DjxiXotQSq#SpiritofCricket #ICCAwards 🏆 pic.twitter.com/sB5VpweYhI
The past year was a brilliant one for Williamson’s men in the longest format, beginning with a series win at home against England in March. But for all the on-field brilliance of the Black Caps – they bowled England out for 58 in the first Test in Auckland – what struck clearly to any observer was the conduct of their performance.
A man who himself knows a thing or two about leadership, England's former Ashes-winning skipper Michael Vaughan, went on to say what was on the minds of many. "I look at New Zealand and think 'That's the way to play cricket'," Vaughan told BBC 5 Live Sport. "I've been in teams that have gone over the edge in terms of things we've done and said. New Zealand – they're the benchmark for how cricket should be played."
New Zealand's excellence at home was then followed by a sterling display of willpower in the UAE in November, defeating Pakistan 2-1 in their adopted home.
The sheer enormity of their series victory was accentuated by the fact that the visitors headed into the deciding third Test after a crushing innings defeat in Dubai, the every wily Yasir Shah running through the Black Caps’ batting line-up.
Lesser men would have appeared more downcast in their post-match review. Williamson on the other hand, praised the resolve of his batsmen in their second-innings dig, and applauded the mastery of Yasir, hailing him as an "exceptional bowler."
Nevertheless, while holding the opposition in the utmost regard, Williamson's men were unwilling to roll over and wave goodbye to their dreams of a first series win in Asia for 10 years. Abu Dhabi witnessed an immense show of resolve, with the captain leading from the front. If a first-innings 89 left the skipper with a tinge of disappointment in failing to reach three figures, it was cast away with a masterful 139 in his second effort.
It represented a peak for a side who continue to grow from strength to strength in the red-ball arena, with youthful talent thriving under the tutelage of Williamson. Henry Nicholls and Tom Latham both finished with 658 Test runs each over the calendar year, five centuries between them. Williamson’s year saw him finish with an immense average of 59.18, but more than his own returns, how he has guided those in his charge has brought the Black Caps even greater reward.
And yet, it can be easy to be bogged down with cricket’s obsession over statistical achievements, averages, player and team rankings overshadowing the manner in which the game is played. Beyond the numbers, to watch the grace in which Williamson has led his men is an unquantifiable pleasure.
Even amidst the fierce debate that rages on regarding who hold the mantle of the world's best batsman – one Williamson is consistently a part of – he talks of his fellow competitors in the most gracious of terms.
Speaking to India Today in April last year, he heaped praise on India's Virat Kohli, hailing him as the batsman "leading the way in all formats". To talk generously of others is what one is bound to expect from a man who reportedly donated his match fees to the victims of the Peshawar terrorist attacks in 2014.
Congratulations to the ICC Test Team of the Year 2018!— ICC (@ICC) January 22, 2019
🇳🇿 Kane Williamson
🇮🇳 @imVkohli (c)
➡️ https://t.co/ju3tzAxwc8 pic.twitter.com/0H28spZUmm
When concluding his lecture in 2016, McCullum made sure to mention the qualities of his following act.
“The team now has a magnificent player and leader in Kane Williamson,” said McCullum. "He will rightly stamp his own leadership style on the environment but I am certain he will always play the game with the strong influence of being a New Zealander – humble and hardworking.”
Almost three years on, and it is clear that Williamson, recipient of the ICC Spirit of Cricket award, has made his mark – a brilliant cricketer and an even better man.