England’s first Test tour of Pakistan in 17 years is also a first assignment abroad for the McCullum-Ben Stokes revolution that took the home summer by storm. Six victories in seven Tests jump-started interest in the longest format in England, earning plenty of admirers along the way.
Now, with the team in unfamiliar conditions – only James Anderson has toured Pakistan previously – McCullum has urged a similar approach, and is willing to take defeat in his stride provided the intent remains. He even posited that Stokes, as captain, will do his utmost to ensure none of the three Tests, the first starting on Thursday in Rawalpindi, will end in a draw.
“To win away from home is the greatest accomplishment you can achieve as a Test player and as a Test side,” McCullum said in England’s first press conference since arriving into the country on Sunday morning.
“We understand the size of the challenge in front of us. But that’s great – that’s why you want to play the game. You don’t want easy challenges, you want to take on the best in their own conditions and you want to try and test where you’re at as a side. I’m really excited. I don’t know if we’re going to win the series. I can almost guarantee when the skipper comes in here in 48 hours time he’ll say there’ll be no draws in the series.
“We’ll certainly be pushing for results because we see it as our obligation to try and ensure that people walk away entertained. And if we get beat, Pakistan, we know, will have played well. I expect us to play well and if we get outplayed, that’s okay too. Looking forward to the opportunity, looking forward to the challenge and looking forward to the hospitality. And hopefully in a few weeks time everyone will say this has been an amazing series.”
Helping that push towards replicating the summer’s work will be the crowds. Rawalpindi, Multan and Karachi are all set to be sellouts, adding to the theatre of the occasion. It won’t be wholly one-sided with a touring party of England supporters, including the Barmy Army, expected in the stands. McCullum anticipates that will fuel their work over the next month.
“The boys have already said they’re pretty excited about playing in front of a full house here, it’s going to be a good atmosphere, so they’re really excited,” he said. “That’s what we want from red-ball cricket all around the world, stadiums packed out and fans getting behind their local team.
“To have that on the road is the greatest compliment… we’re lucky that the crowd here is sold out and that’s kind of what we want. The skipper wants them to be rockstars and to be a rockstar you’ve got to play in front of the big houses. We’ve got that opportunity to do that.”
The pitch was uncovered throughout, with players from both sides taking the opportunity to cast their eye over the surface, including McCullum.
“It looks good but I’d expect it to change over the next couple of days, see how things scrub up. I think one of the things we’ve talked about is adapt to whatever we’re given and not be too stuck in our preconceived thoughts. Just play what’s in front of us and be prepared to adapt accordingly.”
Adapting is the name of the game in these parts, especially so if England are to push the scoring along. Two of the last four Tests at this venue have ended in draws, the last of which – Australia’s visit here in March 2022 – saw the scoring rate hover at around 3-an-over, with both sets of top-order batters in the runs. No one, throughout both batting line-ups, was able to really impose themselves on the opposition bowlers.
Asked whether England’s manner would carry over from the summer, McCullum said he is willing to see how it goes, though did concede some adjustments will be made.
“We’ll find out I suppose,” he said. “One of the things we try and do is respect the conditions but at the same time if we are given the opportunity to try and play aggressive and attacking cricket, we’ll try and take that option. It’s authentic to the line-up that we have. The guys who are in our squad, that’s how they play their cricket and that’s what gives them the most amount of freedom and the best opportunity to perform at the highest level.
“Look, we know it may not necessarily be as prominent, the aggressive cricket that we’ve seen in the past, but there will be opportunities to try and play positive. And when that does arise, I expect our guys to try and take that on.”
McCullum also warned not to put too much on the absence of Shaheen Shah Afridi for Pakistan, after the fast bowler was ruled out with a knee injury.
“That’s obviously a big loss. I know him pretty well, I played many years in the PSL with Shaheen as well. He’s a wonderful bowler and he’s turned into a fine leader for Pakistani cricket. He’s a big loss, no doubt. But one thing when you play against Pakistan, you look at their team sheet and you see talent, and you see some that might not be developed talent but it’s talent. You need to respect that and you need to find a way to be able to be well-researched and well-planned about what’s going to come at you, but also try and find out a way to put that talent under pressure and see how it responds.
“It’s a very good Pakistan squad, it’s well-rounded, it’s got some experience and some youth, with both batting and bowling, and they’ll be a tough challenge. We know we’ll have to play well if we’re going to be successful.”
McCullum’s previous experience of Pakistan is limited to five ODIs from 2003 in which he scored just 16 runs, at a pretty un-McCullum strike rate of 35.55. He could see the funny side, 19 years on, when asked about how what he made of the country during his playing days: “Thanks for bringing that up – I think I scored 12 runs here in my entire career. I haven’t performed well here myself but luckily I don’t need to pick up a bat.”
Nevertheless, he appreciates the importance of bringing an England Test team to this part of the world, particularly after the T20 side toured in September and October. And above all, hopes those in the stands and watching at home will get the kind of entertainment that will go some way to making up for the absence.
“This is obviously a great place to tour and it’s been starved of international cricket for a long period of time. We understand how passionate people are here in Pakistan about this form of cricket and we understand the obligation that we have as an England side and we are looking forward to coming over here and playing an entertaining style of cricket which hopefully ends up in results, whether that’s in our favour or in Pakistan’s favour.
“Hopefully, everyone that does dial into this series, not just in Pakistan but around the world, sees that international cricket is back in Pakistan and we’ve got a product that’s worth watching.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo