New Zealand: From 'overpaid prima donnas' to winners

New Zealand cricket team celebrate a wicket
New Zealand have won four and drawn two of their past six Test series
First Test: England v New Zealand
Venue: Lord's Dates: 21-25 May Start time: 11:00 BST Coverage: Ball-by-ball Test Match Special commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, Radio 4 LW, online, tablets, mobiles, BBC Sport app & BBC iPlayer Radio app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & mobile devices

Captain Brendon McCullum says New Zealand were once "overpaid prima donnas" - but feels England should fear the much-changed side they face when the two-Test series begins on Thursday.

New Zealand lost 2-0 on their last tour of England in 2013, when they were ranked eighth in the Test standings.

But the Black Caps have won four of their past six series to rise to third, two places ahead of England.

"We're a better team than 2013," said McCullum. "We've grown up a lot."

The Brendon McCullum effect
Since McCullum took over as captain, New Zealand have risen from eighth in the Test rankings and ninth in the ODI rankings to third in both formats
New Zealand reached the World Cup final for the first time in their history earlier this year. McCullum was one of five NZ players in the team of the tournament
McCullum averaged 35.63 before taking the Test captaincy, but averages 49.22 since

The dynamic right-hander believes his team are well placed to avenge their series loss two years ago.

"We've got a good squad," McCullum told BBC Radio 5 live's Pat Murphy. "We've played some really good cricket over the last 12 to 24 months - we've progressed up the rankings, which was no easy feat considering where we were 24 months ago.

"I know we'll compete and we've got a good opportunity. The core nucleus of the group has remained [from 2013], but we've learnt some lessons."

Transforming public perception

McCullum, who replaced Ross Taylor as captain under coach Mike Hesson in December 2012, says a reversal in the New Zealand team's public image has been key to their dramatic improvement.

Ross Taylor (left) and Brendon McCullum
When McCullum (right) took over the captaincy from Ross Taylor in 2012, New Zealand had lost three of their last four series

"How we were viewed two years ago was that we were overpaid, under-delivering prima donnas, and a lot of that was fair," he said.

"We hit rock bottom but that allowed us to strip everything out and plot a pathway forward.

"One of the things that we decided we had to change was the public perception of us as people, not just on the cricket field but off it as well.

"The changes we have made have endeared us to our public and let's hope that continues for a long time."

'We're told to play like kids'

McCullum feels the team's recent success has also been underpinned by a newfound aggressive, carefree approach.

"One of the things which Mike has tried to instil is to play like the kids who fell in love with the game," he said.

Mike Hesson
Mike Hesson has been in charge of New Zealand since July 2012

"The coaches empower players to make decisions for themselves, to exhibit their skills in the manner in which they grew up watching the game.

"'If in doubt, always take the aggressive option' is one of our big catch-cries. I make sure I play with a full heart and no fear, just go out there and try and take games by the scruff of the neck."

Test cricket 'still the pinnacle'

Despite having built his reputation mainly on his explosive batting performances in limited-overs cricket, McCullum insists that Test cricket remains the pre-eminent form of the game in his eyes.

"Test cricket is still the pinnacle," he said. "It's sacred, it's something that you've got to try and protect and that's where our motivation is."

McCullum, who averages 38.87 from 92 Tests, added: "It has to hold priority. It's the toughest challenge.

"You fail more times than you succeed in Test cricket, but when you do have success you know that you've had to earn it."

But McCullum also praised the impact of the Indian Premier League - and said England could benefit from having more players involved in the Twenty20 competition.

Brendon McCullum bats in the Indian Premier League
McCullum has scored 2,080 runs in his IPL career - more than twice as many as any English batsman

"It's a great experience from a cricket point of view," said McCullum, who has only recently arrived in England from his stint with Chennai Super Kings in this year's tournament.

"I think those [England] guys would get a lot from the opportunity to play in that tournament."

England 'full of good players'

But McCullum praised England - in particular his fellow skipper Alastair Cook - and said New Zealand would not take their opponents lightly, despite England's recent struggles in the West Indies.

"England are stacked full of good players," he said. "They've got an exceptional character as captain.

"I think Alastair is a wonderful player, he's gone through a pretty tough time of late, but he bounced back with a hundred not long ago and that just shows the character of the man."

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