Ahead of what promises to be a historic month for New Zealand cricket, SportsCafe caught up with Wellington head coach Glenn Pocknall to talk about Devon Conway, the Mr. Invincible of world cricket who seemingly can do no wrong.
Aslan Karatsev is an enigma that has left Tennis fans across the globe stumped. Two years ago, the Russian was ranked outside the world’s Top 300, could barely make ends meet and was destined to wane away with time. For fans, at the start of the calendar year 2021, Karatsev was nothing more than ‘another mediocre Russian journeyman’. Fast forward to May 2021, the same journeyman is the 26th ranked player in the world, 7th in the ‘Race to Turin’ and the joint eighth favourite to lift the 2021 French Open title.
“How can a 27-year-old who has been an absolute nobody in the first decade of his career dominate the circuit like THIS?” is the one question that’s been raised not just by fans, but also by journalists, experts and many greats of the game.
Interestingly, though, he is not the only one of his kind. Some 13,000 kilometres away from where the Russian resides, there is a wizard that plies his trade with the willow who has pretty much endured the same meteoric rise as Karatsev. Four years ago, Devon Conway, after failing to breakthrough in the South African setup, moved to New Zealand in the hope of making it as a professional cricketer. By then he was 25 and was agonizingly close to making peace with the fact that his career might never take off. But his stupendously rapid rise, after shifting base, has left heads scratching.
After four years of tearing the domestic circuit apart like no one has ever done before, Conway was awarded a central contract by New Zealand even before he made his international debut. Now 17 matches old in international cricket, Conway has won a Man of the Series award, is officially the fourth best T20I batter in the world and his Test debut - which is imminent - is being described by many as the most anticipated maiden appearance in New Zealand’s Test history.
In fact, Conway’s national coach, Gary Stead, has described him as a player in the same calibre as Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor and all of this despite the 29-year-old having only spent a total of 7 months in the international circuit.
Undoubtedly such success cannot be achieved without talent, but how did Conway go from a middling journeyman in South Africa to a world-beater in New Zealand in the span of a few months? According to his Wellington coach Glenn Pocknall, it’s Conway’s mental fortitude that has elevated him to a level that he’s become one of the best cricketers not just in his country, but in the entire world.
“A lot of batsmen are quality and they look good, but what separates him is his ability to cope with the demands of cricket at any level,” Pocknall tells SportsCafe.
“And when I talk about the ability to cope, I’m talking about the mental and emotional demands. There are highs and lows, and he’s been through those in his career. And the key part with him is that he’s been able to deal with that and move on.
“Setbacks are inevitable in cricket but it’s how you deal with them that ultimately will help define you as a player. I think that’s a huge part of his success. It’s not necessarily something you can coach - you either have that character and resilience or you don’t. He’s certainly shown that he has that resilience as a player.”
This resilience Pocknall talks about was evident in the knock that catapulted Conway into the limelight, the 99* vs Australia. At 19/3 in 4 overs, the Kiwis looked destined to be crushed by their Trans-Tasman rivals, but a ludicrously mature and skilful knock from the southpaw not just took Kiwis to victory, but also made sure the world knew exactly who ‘Conway’ was. But while the assault against the Aussies made the world take notice of Conway, the southpaw had caught the eye of Pocknall in just his second-ever game for Wellington.
Batting on a Basin Reserve wicket that, contrary to how New Zealand pitches generally behave, got tougher to bat on as the game progressed, Conway, in the 2017/18 Plunket Shield season, struck his maiden first-class ton for Wellington in just his second appearance for the side. Playing as the designated wicket-keeper in the absence of Tom Blundell, Conway, in the second innings, batting at No.5, struck a mind-bogglingly gritty 103* that bailed his side out of trouble and helped them salvage a draw.
That the knock was played by someone playing their second ever game for the club was astonishing, but what made Conway’s knock even more remarkable was that it came against a strong Central Districts attack that boasted of Adam Milne and Blair Tickner, both of whom were in a mood to kill. Pocknall, who then was working as the high-performance coach of the Wellington side, says that the superhuman grit and resilience Conway showed in that knock made it evident that Wellington had a special player in their hands.
“He’d been in and around for a while - he came in, made his debut and did well - but he got a really good hundred against Central Districts at the Basin Reserve. It was a hundred that was a really fighting hundred. It didn’t look pretty but they threw everything at him. It was a very good attack that comprised Adam Milne and Blair Tickner. Two international bowlers throwing everything at him and he just grafted and showed that resilience. That innings showed his mentality and his resilience as a player.”
The Basin Reserve masterclass came at No.5, but, soon after, Conway moved two positions up to No.3, where he transformed into a different beast altogether. Across the 2018/19 and 19/20 Plunket Shield seasons, Conway, at No.3, amassed a jaw-dropping 1,360 runs in 13 matches at an average over 85, a period that also saw him score a double and a triple ton. However, the presence of skipper Kane Williamson means that the southpaw will not have the luxury of batting in his favoured position for the Kiwis.
At present, there are only two potential places where Conway can slot into the Test side - the opening slot which is occupied by Blundell and the No.5 slot which is occupied by Henry Nicholls - and all talks from the New Zealand camp hint towards the southpaw being utilized as an opener. Negating a brand new Dukes ball against James Anderson and Stuart Broad in June is right up there as the toughest task in world cricket, but Pocknall is confident that, if given an opportunity, Conway will certainly succeed as an opener, thanks to his versatility.
“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.”
Even the greatest of batters have small chinks in their armours - which they skillfully conceal - but Conway has been impregnable since moving to New Zealand. The southpaw cannonaded bowlers in the domestic circuit until he became eligible to play for New Zealand, post which he displayed the same level of dominance in international cricket, where none of Australia, Bangladesh, West Indies or Pakistan had any answers.
Conway’s technique will, obviously, be challenged more against a red Dukes ball in Test cricket, but where exactly should the bowlers bowl to trouble him? Pocknall does not know that, but he has a piece of very important advice for all bowlers: don’t drop the ball short.
“His biggest strength would be playing square off the back-foot. He can play 360* but we play at the Basin Reserve, the bounciest and the fastest wicket in New Zealand. I’ve seen him get so many runs here by bowlers bowling too short to him and giving him too much width. If I were an opposition fast bowler, I’d be trying to keep it away from those areas because he really makes you pay when the ball is short,” the Wellington coach says.
Conway’s absurdly good record for Wellington in the Plunket Shield suggests that red-ball cricket might be his strongest format, but, looking at his white-ball exploits, there is equally a case to be made that it's limited-overs cricket which is his forte. But not just the fans, Conway’s all-format excellence has left even his coach bemused. Pocknall believes that it is ‘impossible’ to pick one particular format as Conway’s strongest.
“It is very hard to pick one. I said a couple of years ago that 50-over cricket was his strongest format because it bridges both Test match cricket and T20 but I’m just not sure anymore. He’s performed so well in all formats, so it’s impossible to pick a single format as his best.”