Craig McMillan - The Batting Of The Innovator, Long Before The T20-era > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more
Cricket news - Craig McMillan - The batting innovator long before the T20 era
Given how much of his life he gave to the game, it was unusual to hear Richie Benaud, brilliant Australian player, captain and commentator, stumped by anything on a cricket field. "I've seen most things," he said on Channel 9's commentary. "But it's the first time I've seen this."
Craig McMillan, of New Zealand, was batting against Shane Warne in an ODI in 2002. The aspect of this scene that surprised Benaud was how McMillan was facing up to the great leg-spinner. Instead of adopting a normal side-on stance, he was standing there with both feet, and indeed his whole body, pointed straight down the wicket, bent over, bat facing square leg. Warne, you can tell, doesn't quite know what is going on either.
People don't bat like that. Nobody in their right mind would face Shane Warne like that.
But this was par for the course for McMillan. He was an innovator long before T20 drove batsmen to do crazy, remarkable things. McMillan was hitting reverse sweeps for six, as he did against Daniel Vettori in a domestic game in the late 1990s, before Kevin Pietersen had even considered it. In 2001, McMillan smashed Younis Khan for 26 runs in an over during a Test in Hamilton. It was a new world record at the time and three of the boundaries came from reverse sweeps and paddles.
"That was my character," he tells Cricbuzz. "I probably did some things that people look at and shake their head, ask what the hell is he doing. But I was always prepared to put myself out there. The things that I tried, I'd always practice at training. They weren't something on a whim where I just thought I'll try front on today and see how that goes.
"I was always prepared to be different and at times, I copped criticism because throughout that period of time, things were very traditional. If you're playing reverse sweeps or doing things differently, it could be frowned upon. I wasn't afraid to try. They didn't always come off. But I certainly was prepared to give them a go."
McMillan, now New Zealand's batting coach, was an underrated international batsman - aggressive, capable of the spectacular and particularly good against spin. He scored Test hundreds in India against Kumble and Harbhajan and in Sri Lanka against Muralitharan and averaged nearly 40 at a time when that was the mark of a top player. His white-ball record was good too. He played in two World Cup semi-finals, losing both, and we shouldn't forget the bowling either. But more on that later.
He played a lot of his international cricket under Stephen Fleming in a team which had to squeeze every inch out of their ability. To do that, they often had to think differently. The front on stance and the reverse sweeps were examples of McMillan's contribution to that philosophy. "Stephen Fleming was a young captain but an innovator, a forward thinking captain that was prepared to try things," McMillan says. "We didn't have the star players that other sides had so we had to do things a little bit differently, think outside the box to be competitive with some of those other sides."
McMillan cites the example of what he calls the "Damien Martyn field". The theory doing the rounds in the early 2000s was to bowl nowhere near Martyn's cut shot. The Australian would smash teams through the off-side for fun if they did. Better to bowl straight and try and cramp him up went the plan. Not for New Zealand. In their Test series against Australia in 2001, they deliberately bowled to his cut shot with a squadron of fielders square on the off-side.
More than any other, Australia was the team that got McMillan going. Growing up, he remembers watching a lot of Australian cricket on Channel 9, and he made his Test debut against them at the Gabba. That big brother aspect to the countries' relationship added further motivation.
"I loved that competitive edge they brought to the game," he says. "I always felt if you did well against Australia, you had really worked hard and earned it." Although his record against them was modest, he made his mark. In an interview a couple of years ago when Adam Gilchrist said McMillan was the most under-rated player he had played against.
Aggression was the defining feature of anything McMillan did on the field. He found a kindred spirit in his first New Zealand coach, Steve Rixon, who demanded opposition teams be taken on. When facing Warne and Glenn McGrath, in particular, that was the hill McMillan decided to die on. "I always felt with those two that if you didn't go after them, they were going to knock you over," he says. "It worked sometimes but it probably didn't work more times.
"Warne was such a great leg-spinner. I loved facing spin, I loved using my feet, trying to hit fours and sixes. I felt if I could do that to him early, it might give me a better chance of batting a longer period of time. McGrath was just so consistent that you almost had to do something to make him bowl shorter or fuller to take him away from his natural length which was so difficult. We tried a lot of different things against those guys."
With the ball, he loved running in and banging out a length halfway down the pitch even if he lacked the pace to really back it up. There's a great video on YouTube of him bounding in to bowl at Australia's Michael Slater. McMillan bounces Slater, but falls over with the exertion of it all only to look up and see that the batsman has gloved it behind. He scrabbles to his feet and celebrates with gusto.
It sums up McMillan's bowling perfectly. It was always wholehearted, a whirlwind of arms and legs but strangely effective. He once said he had a fast-bowler's mentality in a medium pacer's body. "I loved bowling," he says. "I would loved to have been able to bowl 140kph. I think I would have been a dangerous bowler if I could have. But I say to some of our guys now, you can still bowl a good bouncer at 120kph. It doesn't have to be 140. While I wasn't a genuine all-rounder, I was able to bowl some useful overs."
Now as a coach, he tries to get his players to play with the sort of abandon he had with bat or ball in hand. After all, it was a tightness and a timidness which caused problems in his own career between the 2003 and 2007 World Cups. He was dropped from New Zealand's ODI team for a time and only just recovered in time to make the tournament in the West Indies. His return to the squad was built on a commitment to rediscover his aggressive ways, ways that had gone AWOL. "The last 12 to 18 months were probably some of my best times," he says.
Although he has been coaching with New Zealand for five years, it was not something he originally thought of doing. Commentary was his first path and he was a natural - engaging, funny and with a fresh perspective. But then, he started coaching a few kids before making his way up to the domestic level and then eventually to the Blackcaps squad. He has loved every minute of it. Unsurprisingly, a key principle of his is that "you don't coach the x-factor out of each individual."
In Kane Williamson, the x-factor is clear. "Kane is very unique," McMillan says. "He is a great player and by the time he's finished playing for New Zealand, his numbers will stand out. I throw a lot of balls at him. He's always looking to improve and I think that's one of the great things about him. He's always looking to get better and he's never really satisfied even when there are days when he should be satisfied."
McMillan will leave his role with New Zealand at the end of the World Cup. He feels it's the right time for the batsman to have a fresh voice, and he is looking forward to doing something different and spending more time with his family. A stint on the T20 franchise circuit isn't out the question, but right now, he's not sure what's next. "I'm a bit of a cricket nuffie," he says. "I love staying involved in the game."
He will work it out. He always has.
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