Ben Jones analyses a wonderful day for the New Zealand opening batsman,
The start of the Test summer is often a gentle, gentile affair. Boxes ticked, bells rung, hum sounded. For Devon Conway, it was anything but – this was an alarm bell, heard all around the world. A star was born.
There was a good opportunity to build from. Both captains would have opted to bat, and a sunny day in North London is rarely too affronting to batsmen. But even so, according to PitchViz, no Day 1 Lord’s pitch has been easier to bat on in the last 15 years. A distinct lack of seam movement limited England to capitalising on half mistakes for the wickets of Tom Latham and Kane Williamson, and the day progressed with measured serenity. Risk never disappeared, as false shot percentage in the high teens would attest, but aside from a brief period after lunch, pressure rarely built to worrying levels. It was a day for batting, and Devon Conway was more than happy to oblige.
What was impressive, for a man on debut, was how Conway balanced the need to be responsive and reactive to the unique challenges posed today, with a belief and trust in his own way of playing. This morning, England were extremely full and particularly straight – 30% of their deliveries to Conway were in line with the stumps, and 21% of them would have hit them – and the opener played appropriately. 20% of his runs in the first session came in the straight V, meeting those pitched up balls with aggression and driving back down the ground.
But as the afternoon wore on, and England’s attack changed their approach, Conway changed his own method of scoring. After lunch, the ball was swinging much more, and England were hitting a good length more frequently, with only 4% of their deliveries ‘hitting’ the stumps. Their short ball percentage rose from 12%, to 29%, and Conway responded by scoring squarer – only 8% of his runs in the afternoon session came in that straight V.
Some might have pointed to Conway’s quieter afternoon session (he scored at just 2.4rpo, after flying along at 2.4rpo in the morning) as evidence he was adjusting his white ball instincts to the Test game, but this wasn’t really the case. He actually attacked more in the afternoon (28% attacking strokes v 24%), and was still intent on asserting himself on the match – he just wasn’t quite as good at it for an hour or so, while the ball was swinging around. His false shot percentage illustrated that struggle, rising from 14% in the morning to 21% in the afternoon.
However, it’s that sort of impudence, that refusal to be limited by the intensity of the occasion, which you don’t want to see diminished as a player makes their debut. Conway has the organised swagger of someone arriving at a night out with only a toothbrush in their top pocket; confidence mixed with the expectation of success. Continuing to attack, to try and put away some good balls along with the bad, is a method that’s worked for him. A first-class average of 48 deserves respect, but so does the willingness to back your attack.
Conway’s effectiveness – illustrated most clearly by the 136 in the scorebook – wasn’t only shown by the numbers next to his name, but also the way he disrupted England’s typical strategies. He forced Stuart Broad to come over the wicket to him. In the last three home summers, only 6% of Broad’s bowling to left-handers has come from that angle. He almost fell into the trap of Robinson going round to try and get him at leg slip, but the fact England were even trying such a ‘funky’ tactic was an admission that Conway was in control.
In some ways, Conway was not succeeding with a classical Test approach, most notably in his reluctance to leave the ball. In the morning session, Conway left just 15% of the balls that were bowled to him; the average for the first session of a Test in England is 30%. He was significantly more attacking than every other NZ batsman, going after 28% of his deliveries on a day where every other NZ batsman averaged 10%.
Yet equally, the base from which he was building was a solid, red ball defence. Only 16% of the deliveries which Conway defended brought an edge or a miss – the lowest percentage for any New Zealand batsman. For all the swagger, the defence was golden.
Tom Blundell has struggled in recent series, averaging just 26.60 since the start of 2020. His case to remain in the side was based more on sentiment and consistency of selection, than any great weight of runs. What’s more, New Zealand weren’t gambling on a kid. It would be disingenuous to paint Conway as a green newbie, a carefree youngster. He’s 29 years old, a veteran of 109 first-class matches, and has grown into a relatively dominant T20 batsman in the last few years on the global circuit. From a small selection, he averages 59 in T20Is, and 75 in ODIs. Replacing one with the other wasn’t a radical move.
And yet, much has been made, in the build-up to this series, of how the next month is New Zealand’s pinnacle. The last few years have been about building a side to peak for the World Test Championship, and it’s something they’ve done expertly.
However, team-building is about striking the balance between preparation, and instinct. Kevin Pietersen – another South African born batsman, who made his name in white ball cricket after migrating to a new country – played that role in the build-up to the 2005 Ashes. (Indeed, the shot which brought up Conway’s hundred had a fair bit of Flamingo in it, with a dash of Kiwi, for good measure). Michael Vaughan’s side were a settled unit with an established group of players all moving towards that iconic series, with a clear goal in mind not unlike Williamson’s side looking towards that WTC final. The sentimental, emotional decision would have been to keep Graham Thorpe in the side for the Ashes, rewarding and recognising a generation of excellence. Yet the hard-nosed, winning-decision was to introduce Pietersen, the genius in waiting. It was a decision which arguably won England the series.
In reality, the better comparison may come from the other side of the urn. Australia opted against including Michael Hussey in that 2005 series, their left-handed FC gun with immense pedigree, and they paid the price. NZ haven’t made the same mistake.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.