Sport is perhaps the simplest of things. Yet, it can be the most difficult sphere of life. Where else does one find such tumult as functional practice. Here, only change is constant and those who adapt, stay long enough. Identities and ideologies are hard to build; even harder to sustain.
Look at Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL for example. Between 2008 and 2010, they oscillated between the experience of Ganguly and the youth of McCullum with little success. In 2011, they changed completely to look at unheralded format specialists who could add a bit to various plates. In 2018, they pivoted towards a calm finisher to lead. Perhaps a borrowed model from the franchise based out of the region of their then chosen leader. That changed too, and now they have an Englishman from Ireland at the helm.
Summoning the luck of the Irish? Perhaps, the cut is deeper. During KKR’s oscillation phase, the worst hit was a Kiwi. Sourav Ganguly had two underwhelming seasons. But, by this time, he had already retired from international cricket. There was little left for him to achieve and even lesser to forfeit.
McCullum, a strong identity and inspiration
But the Kiwi had a massive reputation which was taking a harsh pounding. This is, after all, the man who set the IPL up for a grandstand vigil. A Hollywood knock to start cricket’s Bollywood heavy league. Brendon McCullum’s 158* was a harbinger of how the game would evolve – energetic, fast and forward-looking. But here he was, in 2009, looking tired, jaded and spent. Worst of all, he was captain. The tournament’s game-changer was leading a side that finished bottom and played cricket as polar opposite as possible to the leader’s identity.
It is perhaps enough to change ideologies of the sternest of characters. Teams are supposed to embody the beliefs of the leader. But when it all starts going south, the lines obliterate themselves. What is me and what are we lapse into one. It leaves individuals searching for their identity. The clarity, after resounding failure, fades as fear takes over. It has happened to the best of them across sport – Jose Mourinho today and Arsene Wenger before.
This is perhaps why sport also breeds the strongest people. Where else does one deal with publicised success and failure so often and in such short intervals. It is like being thrown into the ocean without a life jacket – sink or swim.
McCullum seems to be from the swimming breed. His captaincy record is evidence of that. A dream to stay true to his ideology and build a team true to that identity. Look at his team’s run in the 2015 World Cup. McCullum’s New Zealand reached the final without dropping a game. And it indeed was McCullum’s New Zealand. They were playing fearless cricket – a team that would not die wondering. They were like heavyweight boxers in their absolute pomp. No dull moment – punch and get punched; strongest stands. The game against Australia in the group stage was an evidence of that very ideology. 151 all out played 152-9 in 23.1 overs as the Blackcaps stood tall.
However, when you live by the sword, you die by it. It is equally rewarding as it is painful. The same New Zealand got bundled out in the final against Australia. Their captain – perhaps so intensely coalesced with his ideology – forgot to watch the ball on the day of the final. And in that very moment, with his stumps shattered, New Zealand lost the game. It was gone. The dream was over barely minutes into living it. One he had worked his entire life for.
“I got back into the dressing room, sat down and just laughed. All my life I had dreamt of that moment. As a child, I played it out against mates day after day, and as a man I practised for it with an almost eerie certainty that one day it would come,” McCullum later told ESPNCricinfo.
“I mean, the World Cup final, against Australia, at the MCG on a hot and sunny day and I was captain of my country. I was more ready for this than anyone outside my closest circle of friends and family could begin to understand. I reckon I was pitch-perfect for anything Starcy might throw at me. And you know why I laughed back in the dressing room? Because I forgot the only single thing that really matters. I forgot to watch the ball.”
Morgan, the inspired and victorious
As McCullum saw the funny side of what must have been excruciatingly painful for the little kid inside his heart who had visualised this moment for a lifetime, someone else saw the value in it. That someone was present in the Trans-Tasman countries in 2015, watching his team fall by the wayside in the group stages. That someone is the current KKR captain, Eoin Morgan.
Post England’s debacle, Morgan was given charge and he drew inspiration from the team that finished second in 2015 to go one better in 2019.
“If you look at his (McCullum’s) body language at any stage of any game, it’s extremely positive. He’s always on the front foot and leading from the front regardless of the scoreboard or the situation of the game,” Morgan had told BBC Sport.
“I like to pick his brain. As a pure leader, he’s exceptional. New Zealand cricket had embodied playing fun cricket under McCullum. Playing against them, we were a little bit jealous. We were humiliated. There are two games which stand out for me in that World Cup which confirmed we were underprepared and so far off the mark — the first one was against New Zealand. We were bowled out for 123 and New Zealand knocked them off in 12.2 overs.”
McCullum did not win anything with his identity, but he left a legacy that would inspire his compatriots to channelize for their success. It is one thing to be modeled once you are gone, but to be impersonated in your very time is irrefutable honour.
Together at KKR
And that man is the coach of the franchise led by the one he inspired. It is the circle of life really. McCullum and Morgan returning to a franchise they have previously played for. This time, to imprint their style – one which deals in knockouts but makes the trade a fun exercise.
KKR, thus, have a shot at firmly establishing an identity by imitating a template that has borne success and in a manner that is exciting to watch and be a part of. So, in IPL 2021, do KKR finally go back to how it all started in Bangalore? Morgan, McCullum and their army of knights can potentially light up the pandemic-induced grim of the night sky. Bring smile to people’s faces and fun to their uncertain evenings. In the process, leave behind a legacy that will be remembered in the times to come.
Win or lose, Kolkata is a good place to leave behind a legacy. It is a city that remembers and adores – takes you in, embraces you and even long after you are gone, it will never let your stardom go. It is, after all, the land of McCullum’s partner in oscillation – Sourav Ganguly. The man whose leadership legacy is the cornerstone of cricket in India today. Had he not promoted a brand of fearless cricket played by young India back in the day, the nation may never have won the 2007 World T20 and the IPL may never have been conceptualized.
And so, sometimes, it is perhaps what you leave behind that is more important than what you take with you. Winning is great. Leaving a legacy is greater still.