Luke Ronchi hops across the ditch
Four years ago, Luke Ronchi was Australia's No. 2 wicketkeeper. He was so impressive during his debut limited-overs series in the West Indies in 2008 that the position as Brad Haddin's backup seemed his for the long-term. But he played only one more international match and was overtaken by Graham Manou, Tim Paine and Matthew Wade. His international career appeared to be finished. Now, he can sense another opportunity. By January, he could be playing for New Zealand.
First things first, though. For now, Ronchi is in South Africa for the Champions League Twenty20, enjoying his final engagement with his old team-mates as the Perth Scorchers aim to earn the state's first silverware for nearly a decade. Leaving his colleagues and giving up the chance to break Western Australia's Sheffield Shield drought was a difficult decision for Ronchi, but the opportunities across the Tasman Sea were too inviting.
Ronchi was born in Dannevirke, a little town of nearly 5500 people, set in a farming region between Wellington and Napier. For such a small place, Dannevirke has produced more than its fair share of international cricketers: Ewen Chatfield, John Parker, his brother Murray Parker and Jack Kerr all represented New Zealand in Test cricket, and Peter Connell, born there in the same year as Ronchi, has played for Ireland.
The Ronchi family moved to Perth when Luke was seven, old enough to remember his early life in New Zealand. His parents have since moved back to New Zealand, and he has aunties and uncles who never left. Now 31, Ronchi has decided that his best chance of playing international cricket again is to return to the country of his birth, and he snapped up a contract with Wellington earlier this year.
It is an understandable move, for in Australia he would be behind Haddin, Wade, Paine, Peter Nevill and possibly Chris Hartley in the queue for international cricket. And his timing could hardly have been better, for New Zealand have used seven wicketkeepers across all formats in the past two years: Brendon McCullum, Kruger van Wyk, Gareth Hopkins, Reece Young, BJ Watling, Peter McGlashan and Tom Latham. In Test cricket, van Wyk is the incumbent, but if Ronchi has a strong start to the domestic season he will be a contender in all formats.
"Two seasons ago I started thinking about it and wondering if it would be worth a go to move to New Zealand," Ronchi told ESPNcricinfo. "Last season by December I'd been talking with my wife Shaan and we'd made up our minds that we'll have a crack at it and see how it goes. If I hadn't done it I would probably regret not having done it. I would have finished my career and then would have thought why didn't I at least try?
"I'm just trying to get as high as I can. If I'm putting performances on the board for Wellington and doing the right thing for them, then hopefully there's a position in a game for the Black Caps. It just depends on what's available. My goal is to play for them, otherwise I wouldn't have come over. But Kruger van Wyk might just have an absolute cracker of a summer and I might not have an opportunity to get in at all. If that's the way it goes, good for him."
There was a time when Test cricket in the baggy green was not an unrealistic goal for Ronchi. Haddin's broken finger allowed him to play four ODIs and two Twenty20s in the West Indies in 2008, and his glovework was impressively sharp. He also showed his striking power with the bat; his 22-ball half-century in St Kitts remains the fourth-fastest fifty by an Australia player in a one-day international.
But six months later, Ronchi fell into a form slump and by the end of 2008-09 he had been dropped by Western Australia. The axing came at just the wrong time, for had he continued to produce runs he could well have been the backup to Haddin on the 2009 Ashes tour instead of Manou, who ended up playing the Edgbaston Test due to a late injury to Haddin. Over the next few years, Ronchi occasionally showed his talent but lacked consistency.
"I still felt from a keeping point of view everything was good but my batting was inconsistent," Ronchi said. "I'd have a really good few games and then a really poor season, then a good one, then a poor one. That hurt me, and that's understandable. They want whoever's playing to be consistent and from a domestic point of view, I wasn't doing that. I was up and down. That's always been the trend for me and it's something I've had to keep working on. Hopefully, it doesn't happen in Wellington."
He certainly started well for his new side. After making the decision to move with his wife and two-and-a-half-year-old son Brody to New Zealand, Ronchi took the chance to play a Plunket Shield match for Wellington late last summer. He made 111. It just so happened that Wellington were looking for a wicketkeeper at the same time that Ronchi was considering his options; they had used the part-timer Michael Papps for much of last season.
"I didn't want to be going somewhere where they already had a keeper and changing up the dynamics of teams," Ronchi said. "You don't want to be turning up and kick people out of teams. They were looking for a keeper. It was a good start. I didn't want to come over for one game and get a duck or something, then everyone starts saying 'What are they doing?' But it worked out really well. Hopefully, I can do a bit more of that this year and see how we go."
Far from seeing his playing for New Zealand as a certainty, Ronchi knows he needs to perform consistently for Wellington to have a chance of higher honours. He will qualify on January 13, four years after his last appearance for Australia. That was a one-off T20 against South Africa. He didn't take a catch or get to bat, but international cricket holds only good memories for Ronchi.
"It was an awesome feeling to play at that level and it's what every cricketer dreams of doing," he said. "You'd love to travel the world playing cricket and playing the best cricket you can. I'd love to have a crack at doing that with New Zealand."
Dannevirke could yet produce a fifth wearer of the Black Cap.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here