For two months in 2018, Matt Henry was the best seamer in England.
Heck, it could be argued that he was the best seamer in the world. In millennial slang, Henry woke up on the day of commencement of the County Championships and chose violence. Representing Kent in the second division, Henry took a mind-boggling 75 wickets in 11 matches, at an average of 15.48 and strike rate of 30.6, finishing atop the wicket-takers chart. He was not just unplayable, he was U-N-P-L-A-Y-A-B-L-E. The right-armer, who was no more than a New Zealand reserve, spit fire for Kent and helped the club secure promotion to the first division, with the southeastern county racking up more wins than any other team in the competition.
After Henry sent England skipper Joe Root back to the pavilion with an absolute pearler post lunch today, those in the commentary box who’d not watched the New Zealander’s 2018 campaign scratched their heads wondering how the right-armer managed to put up such ridiculous numbers.
Kent legend and former English cricketer Rob Key, who’d kept a close eye on that season, summed it up rather well: “He (Henry) did what Stevens did but at 15 kilmoters an hour quicker.” In other words, Henry not just attacked the stumps, swung and seamed the ball both ways, but did so at pace. A cocktail of the aforementioned weapons can skittle the very best international batsmen out, so you could understand how and why Henry put up the numbers he did.
The tragedy, though, lay in the fact that Henry, post his outrageous 2018 campaign with Kent, did not play a Test for the next 15 months. And when he finally played one, it was as a fifth-seamer behind Boult, Southee, Wagner and de Grandhomme in a low-stakes clash versus Bangladesh, post which he again went back to being the perennial water-boy.
There were reasons why Henry was always a backup, and never a regular, in the New Zealand Test side. For one, he simply did not hit the ground running in the longest format like he did in ODI cricket. When Henry made his Test debut at Lord’s in 2015, he was already a star in 50-over cricket, having claimed a staggering 23 wickets in his first 9 games. Yet his Test career never took off. He did take six wickets in his first ever appearance in the whites, but his next six appearances yielded just 11 wickets in 12 innings at 69 a piece. The underwhelming returns automatically relegated him to being a mere reserve.
Henry also, apart from not yielding the desired returns, battled with injuries and saw himself compete with three of New Zealand’s greatest - Southee, Wagner and Boult - for a place in the first XI. Unsurprisingly he ended up on the losing side, and while still managing to be an integral part of the ODI set-up, saw himself be reduced to a water-boy in the longest format.
And so when news broke out at the toss that Henry, in fact, would be spearheading the New Zealand attack at Edgbaston alongside Boult, there was a sigh of relief amongst English fans, and a cry of despair among the neutrals. Both for the same reason, of course. Deep down both parties knew that Henry simply was not going to trouble England the same way as Southee did at Lord’s. After all, prior to the start of Day 1, his bowling average of 51.54 was the worst among all New Zealand pacers in history to have taken a minimum of 25 wickets.
And the way both Sibley and Burns negated the first session with ease seemed to confirm all suspicions. England, for the first time in a decade, batted through a whole session without losing a wicket, and while there was the odd play-and-miss, the first session at Edgbaston turned out to be a cakewalk for the openers. Henry found just 0.77° degrees of swing, way lower than the visitors’ overall average of 1.6°, and posed no real threat with his gentle 130-something floaters. At 67/0 at lunch, Sibley and Burns headed back to the pavilion hoping to put the ‘second-string’ New Zealand attack - which also, mind you, did not boast Kyle Jamieson and instead had Ajaz Patel - to the sword.
What they were not prepared for, though, was the Matt Henry of Kent to turn up. And as soon as the second session began, England’s worst nightmare became reality: the Kiwi Henry got possessed by the spirit of the Kent Henry.
The numbers won’t depict the importance of Henry’s burst immediately post lunch. 24 runs was what he leaked in the 6-over spell and it was, say, not as extravagant as the spell bowled by his partner, Boult, in the post-tea session. It was not an exhibition of swing bowling, nor was it a frenzy-inducing, pace-overflowing juicy passage that aroused the viewer. What it was, though, was mastery from the hand of a man who silently was keen to prove to the world that he has always been better than what his numbers suggest. And by the time he’d delivered the final ball of the spell, a rather awry bumper that Burns had evaded, Henry had successfully earned the respect of everyone who was watching.
His modus operandi was simple: to land the ball in the corridor of uncertainty and test the patience of the batsmen. It was a ploy that, due to the absence of swing, did not work in the first session. However, the degree of swing increasing by 0.60° between sessions meant that Henry’s ploy of marauding the fifth stump line went from innocuous to lethal. On just the sixth ball of his spell, Henry managed to do something none of Southee, Jamieson and Wagner were able to do across 207 balls at Lord’s: breach the defence of the ever-so-resilient Dom Sibley.
Yet Sibley’s wicket was just a prelude for what was about to come, as precisely 12 balls later, the right-armer ensured Joe Root, for the first time in two years, perished at home conditions without facing 25 balls. Beaten, beaten, beaten, beaten, OUT read Root’s innings summary and, within the snap of a finger, Henry had become the first pacer since Pat Cummins to conquer the England skipper in the embryonic stages of his innings.
Henry is not as good as Cummins and he knows that. If he was, he’d have probably run through the English middle-order, and not gone wicketless post Root’s dismissal. Yet he’s always also known that he was, and is, not as bad as his Test numbers suggest. And in that short burst post lunch, he showed precisely why.
Will Henry play the World Test Championship final? Most definitely not. Will he continue being New Zealand’s perennial water-boy? Most definitely yes. But at least, after today, he is bound to make English fans anxious, for they, too, would have realized that there was a reason why he was the best bowler in their country for an entire season.