McCullum: ‘When you are exposed, you know you have to get better’

England

Brendon McCullum admits India exposed flaws in England, forcing them to play “timid” cricket, and says refinement and some tough conversations will be on the agenda in the aftermath of their 4-1 defeat.

The fact that this was the first series loss of McCullum’s reign did not lead the head coach to sugarcoat his assessment of how matters played out following England’s opening win in Hyderabad. Strong positions relinquished in the next three Tests culminated in the fifth at Dharamsala, where India stomped to an innings victory inside three days.

England’s overall record with McCullum at the helm and Ben Stokes as captain now reads 14 wins out of 23, with eight defeats. Seven of those defeats have come in 13 matches since the start of 2023. Though losing to India was nothing to be ashamed of, given they are unbeaten in series since the start of 2013, McCullum conceded lessons needed to be learned to refine the overall approach, along with specific aspects to address once the dust has settled.

“Sometimes, you can get away with things,” McCullum said. “But when you’re exposed the way we have been in the back end of this series in particular, it does require some pretty deep thinking and some adjustment to make sure we’re staying true to what we believe in.

“If anything, we got more timid as the series went on, and that was because of the pressure that was applied to us by the Indian line-up, not just with the ball. With the bat, they put us under a tremendous amount of pressure, too.

“There are some things where you can get a little bit of luck on your side and you paper over a couple of the cracks. When you are exposed in the way we have been here, you know that you have to get better in some areas. The next couple of months will be us working out that and making sure when we come to the summer we are a more refined version of what we are at the minute.”

Of frustration for McCullum were the missed chances over the last seven weeks. The third Test in Rajkot, when India were 33 for 3 on day one and ended up with 445 before England lost 8 for 95, having been 224 for 2 in their first innings, is one “at the forefront” of his mind. Allowing India to recover from 177 for 7 on day two of the fourth in Ranchi is another, as the hosts narrowed what should have been a vast first-innings lead, eventually chasing down 192 to seal the series.

“We were placed under a lot of pressure in those games, and we had our opportunities when we were in front of the game and we weren’t able to close it out. Whether that affected our approach a little bit and put some doubt in our minds that wasn’t there early in the series, I’m not really sure why at this point in time.

“They probably outplayed us at the style of cricket that we want to play and made us start to retreat a little bit. So that’s something that we will have to change.”

The notion the England set-up is too cushy was dismissed out of hand by McCullum, along with the suggestion that a relaxed team environment lent itself to a lack of ruthlessness both here and in last summer’s drawn Ashes. He stopped short of divulging whether tough conversations were had on this trip, insisting “they should remain private”, but insisted both he and Stokes have no truck for players coasting given the support and encouragement afforded to them.

“We didn’t get where we’ve got to in life and in our careers without having some sort of hard edge,” he said. “For us, we judge the input, the enthusiasm, the energy and always giving to the team, and the want to develop as a player. Not to be content with being the player you are now.

“Occasionally, as we all have in our lives, someone might have to give you a little nudge and say, ‘Do you think you’ve got it right here?’ In your own way, you might then recalibrate and put your energy into gear, but that’s just natural. That’s part of running a cricket team. It’s just like running a family. It’s no different.”

McCullum was also reluctant to reveal the “couple of areas” that require his immediate focus but stated they will be a priority when he and Stokes reconvene after a break. The squad will fly home on Tuesday, with McCullum heading back to New Zealand before he begins “plotting” to rebuild the team from this setback. The next assignment is a three-Test home series against West Indies, which begins at Lord’s on July 10.

One area is certain to be around personnel, particularly with the emergence of Lancashire left-arm spinner Tom Hartley and Somerset offspinner Shoaib Bashir. The pair were the only two uncapped members of the touring party but finished as the leading wicket-takers, with 22 and 17 dismissals, respectively. Hartley’s tally, supplemented by 185 runs, had him second on the wicket-taking charts, four behind R Ashwin.

“The skipper and I have total conviction in our methods and we won’t backing away from that. We’ll be trying to refine that absolutely, but we won’t be backing down from the way we think this environment should run”

Brendon McCullum

Jack Leach, who left the tour with an injured left knee after just one appearance, has been Stokes’ No. 1 spinner. But the emergence of Hartley and Bashir means Leach now faces competition for his spot.

“Jack will understand that himself,” McCullum said. “He will be proud of it, because he is a guy that invests in the team. Whilst he is desperate to be the number one spinner for England, he is also connected to try to help these other guys. He was the first person that rung Bash after he got selected and he was fantastic working along Tommy Hartley, along with Rehan Ahmed.

“It’s a good place to be when you’ve got depth and different types of options. We’ve got to embrace that and there will be some challenging selections throughout the summer. That’s a good place to be. Rather than scrambling to find someone, we’ve got plenty of depth, so just need to make sure we get it right.”

Another situation to negotiate is the wicketkeeper role, after Ben Foakes donned the gloves for the duration in India, having been usurped the previous summer by Jonny Bairstow. While Foakes was close to immaculate behind the stumps, taking 12 catches and effecting four stumpings, both he (205 runs at an average of 20.5) and Bairstow (238 at 23.8) underperformed as part of a misfiring middle order.

While Bairstow, who brought up 100 caps in the fifth Test, could reprise the role he performed last summer, now may be the time to move on from the Yorkshireman and blood a new option, whether that is Ollie Robinson (Durham), Jamie Smith (Surrey) or James Rew (Somerset).

“We’ve got time to be able to work out what we want moving forward,” answered McCullum when asked if Bairstow, Foakes or a new challenger will take the gloves this summer. “I don’t really need to go into that anymore.

“I think Foakes has kept brilliantly here, and obviously Jonny had a decent series with the bat in the Ashes as well, so there are good options and we’ve just got to make sure we make the decision that we feel gives us the most amount of – I guess – weaponry to be able to ensure that we are able to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world and we’ll make that decision in time.”

On the bowling front, McCullum singled out fast bowler Gus Atkinson, an unused member of the squad, for a debut this summer – “He’s got something that we need to take a good look at” – and Matthew Potts, who took 23 wickets in McCullum’s first six Tests and impressed for the Lions out in India with 20 dismissals at 16.95.

McCullum has also challenged those outside the group to catch the attention of the selectors with big domestic performances, as he looks to broaden the net. As things stand, the only batter to have been dropped since McCullum took charge is Alex Lees.

“It’s certainly not closed at all it’s just that at this stage these are the guys we believe are the best cricketers to win a series. You give them time for that plan to play out. If it doesn’t play out, of course, if someone is banging down the door you look at that. Certainly nothing is closed to anyone it’s just that you have to bang the door down.”

As the first two years of McCullum’s tenure come to a close, the focus now is on the next phase of this project, which culminates in a home series against India, followed by the Ashes in Australia in 2025-26. Series against West Indies, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and New Zealand await this year for a group of players who have been backed to the hilt so far. And while changes are coming, McCullum wants to retain a lot of what has made England an engaging and watchable side after the previous lows of just one win in 17 before he came on the scene.

“It would be foolish of us to throw away the good work we’ve done in search of something else over the next little while. The skipper and I have total conviction in our methods and we won’t backing away from that. We’ll be trying to refine that absolutely, but we won’t be backing down from the way we think this environment should run. We’ve just got to make sure we are getting the best out of people.

“We didn’t get what we came for [in India]. But I think so much good is going to come out of this series; I really do. It’s given us an opportunity to take a step back and look at areas we need to improve and have the conviction in ourselves to ensure that we make those changes and drive the team forward.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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