When England walked out with two left-handed openers - Tom Latham and Devon Conway - there was no surprise but rather a sense of opportunity for the Three Lions. However, when Conway put his first ball away, they sensed a real danger - as he looked mentally fearless and technically flawless.
On Tuesday, when Kane Williamson announced that Devon Conway would open for New Zealand, there was a sense of excitement around the left-hander, a man who in his short career for the BlackCaps had earned his rights to the whites. With an average of - 75 and 59.12 - in ODIs and T20Is, Conway had already elevated the already strong BlackCaps side in the white-ball formats. Not just that, Conway was already involved in two match-winning innings for New Zealand, 99 against Australia in the T20Is and 126 against Bangladesh in Wellington. So there was bound to be expectations as he was set to make his debut.
"It's a really exciting opportunity for Devon. He's been involved with the team over the last year in the white-ball formats and done extremely well,” Kane Williamson said before the clash.
But Test cricket was always going to be a different ball game, especially in England, where James Anderson and Stuart Broad have been very welcoming in the past. However, his First-Class record was exceptional, having made his debut way back in 2009, for Gauteng, with an average of nearly 48 with the red-ball, scoring 7,130 runs.
His debut, though, wasn’t on the same page. Walking in at No.3, he was dismissed for a six-ball duck and in the second, couldn’t score beyond ten runs. So when he walked out to bat against the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, the expectations were naturally high, for the BlackCaps and their fans. On the other hand, the English fans expected him to dance around to the tunes of the all-time greats, in Broad and Anderson.
Even though Will Young spent his time in the country for the last two months, for Durham and Tom Blundell had spent the last two years repairing the top-order with Latham, New Zealand were ready to make the change, Conway was walking out in the middle making his debut. As the 281st Test player in the country, the expectation naturally flowed through. Some even called for a bit of jitter to be added in the same dose.
However, that’s where there was a difference between Conway and the others - he wasn’t just literally experienced, at the age of 29 but he was mentally ready to rock around the biggest stage. His first boundary, a classical drive through the off-side, meant that he wasn’t waiting for the bowlers to dictate the momentum, he was out there to show the bowlers their end.
The fact that he had rarely opened the innings made it more daring and enticing. Way before he walked out, he came out unscathed from the press conference, where he clearly stated that there was not much difference between a No.3 and an opener, both facing the new ball.
“So it's just about backing your game plan, backing the way you play, and just staying true to that as much as you can, regardless of the situation. It's just about adjusting to the surface and being positive throughout,” he uttered ahead of the first Test.
He read the conditions better than all, all of whom had already played on the surface and some even devoured the ins and outs of it. But he was there, making his debut, unlike the other dozen at the venue. Some even said that his ability to play all over the pitch would certainly leave Manchester City’s coach Pep Guardiola happy. That was Conway, mentally fearless, to play the ball game and technically flawless to tackle the words.
The sheer fact that he was facing one of the most successful bowlers at the venue, Anderson from one end with his bowling partner, Broad at the other, made his debut even more successful. He wasn’t just swaying away from the action, he was conducting the action, he was forcing things to happen, with his bat. At the other end, there was Tom Latham, the experienced partner trying to move away from the firing line.
But for Conway, it was another game, another day, where runs were on offer, like it was a Sunday buffet and the menu read, Anderson, Broad for starters, Wood and Robinson for main-course and the appetisers to follow. Ever since he moved to New Zealand, the runs never stopped, the expectations never stemmed down and the monster never stopped to grow.
Conway was fearless in the two seasons that preceded his Test debut. In the 2018/19 and 19/20 seasons of Plunket Shield, the much-anticipated southpaw had scored 1,360 runs in 13 matches at an average over 85, including a double and triple but all of it, at No.3. That also included an average of 63 against right-arm seamers. So the opening part, the Dukes ball experience and the pressure that surrounded him must come as a hard time.
“He’s batted a majority of his career at 3. He’s opened on occasions for us in Plunket Shield but in other formats, he’s shown that he’s got that versatility. He certainly has the skill to defend well, leave well and take the attack to the bowlers if required. I think if he’s given the opportunity to open the batting for New Zealand, he will certainly do a great job,” Wellington head coach Glenn Pocknall told SportsCafe earlier.
On Wednesday, it was a masterclass of all that Pocknall had acknowledged - defend, leave and attack - three of which had earned him the right to stay. At one point, after just two hours of the first ball, Conway had a control percentage of nearly 85%, which shows that he wasn’t just tapping it out, he was tapering them out, the southpaw made the tough bowling look like it was a Sunday-league game for him, with an attacking shot percentage of 30, according to Cricviz, with 13% being the next best in the country.
Conway's been so keen to attack England's seamers whenever they have gone at this stumps, attacking a huge proportion of deliveries around his off stump. Confident, aggressive stuff from the opener. #ENGvNZ pic.twitter.com/dKeM0wrPk1— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) June 2, 2021
However, once Mark Wood, with his thunderbolts, entered the pitch, the equation was different and difficult - the pace was increasingly quick and difficult - rising high. It got to Conway, it exposed him but as in his career, only momentarily. Every time his back was against the wall, he not only found a way to get out of it but also found ways to break the wall. Here, not the wall literally but the bolts that were flying over his head. He caught one of them, sweetly off his bat and smashed it at a higher pace to the boundary, which absolutely got the applause of the fans. And later on, once again smacked the ball to the boundary, which in turn, suggests that he isn’t one-dimensional, hell Conway isn’t even a human, who makes mistakes, he just absorbs everything like he was made in a laboratory.
When he raised his bat to celebrate his half-century, there was a real sense of determination and hunger in his eyes, one that said anything short of a century was a failure for him. He was the first visiting player to score a fifty on Test debut at the Lord’s since Rahul Dravid in 1996. And then, he upped it, going on to become the first-ever opener to score a century against England, in their own backyard. Interestingly, the previous high score was Bruce Mitchell, who had scored 88 in 1929.
The crowd had absolutely by then known that he was not just making his debut but cementing a legacy, one that was there to stay for a long time in New Zealand’s rich cricketing history. He brought his century with a scintillating flick, picking the length with his wrist.
“Devon looks like he's got all the skills of being an amazing player. We are very fortunate that we've had people in our squad like Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson and you see someone like Devon Conway come along and you think here's another guy who could be in that class," Gary Stead said before the squad announcement.
He wasn’t a Stephen Fleming or Ross Taylor, he wasn’t a Tom Latham and was not as classical as Kane Williamson. However, the way he went about things, he would very well join them in the list of some of the all-time greats for the BlackCaps, albeit it being only his first innings in the New Zealand whites. So when Stead said he belongs at this level, Conway was out there at the Lord’s, to prove that point. He proved it with a century, stop the press, Conway has arrived, not just in England but onto the Lord's Honour board.