'I just go out and react to whatever is bowled at me'
Luke Ronchi was once best known as the answer to a trivia quiz question. He is the first cricketer to represent both New Zealand and Australia: "It's a cool thing to say." But after giving up international cricket, he has turned himself into one of the world's best T20 batsmen.
Since the start of 2017, he is the fastest starter in T20s*, hits boundaries most frequently, and has the fastest overall strike rate. And, as a wicketkeeper who opens at elite level, he gives his franchises bountiful options in how they assemble their teams.
Ronchi was always capable of pyrotechnics. In a Sheffield Shield game for Western Australia against Queensland in 2007, he scored a century in 51 balls. His second fifty came up in an absurd 11 deliveries. He brought such explosiveness to his two stints in international cricket - there was a 28-ball 64 against West Indies during his brief international career with Australia, and 170 not out off 99 balls for New Zealand against Sri Lanka, the highest ODI score for a No. 7 - but rarely. Ronchi's averages in his two main formats - 23.67 in ODIs and 17.95 in T20Is - indicate a player who struggled for consistency.
"The mental side of cricket is where I made most of my mistakes," he reflects. "I've always been an aggressive batter, but I think picking and choosing the right times to do it, and not getting too nervous before I'm batting, is where I struggled with things."
Early last year Ronchi chose to retire from international cricket after the Champions Trophy. The decision was a catalyst for his transformation. From the day he told Mike Hesson, then New Zealand's coach, of his plan, he was "just more relaxed going out to play," he says. Even as a naturally aggressive player, Ronchi was affected by the strain of playing in high-octane matches, which cluttered his mind and therefore inhibited his performances.
"When I was playing internationally I was trying too hard to do too much. I'm just going into games a lot more relaxed now, and a lot more carefree. From that I think I've performed a heck of a lot better."
Since the chat with Hesson, Ronchi has regarded his cricket as akin to a postscript to his main career. And so he has reconnected with the boy who used to belt balls without any thought of the consequences.
"Franchise cricket is a lot more laid-back," Ronchi says. "Because I guess international cricket takes such a toll on people that they get to this and want to be able to have a bit more fun and just be a bit more relaxed. For someone - like at my age - who has finished playing internationally, the franchise stuff is almost like a finishing off of a career where you can go out, you can have some fun, play some good cricket, meet some really good people, and still learn and try to improve your game. I see it as a completely different way of playing cricket compared to international cricket.
"My mind is in a lot more calm state than it was for the majority of my career. So it's been quite a nice feeling going to places, wherever they may be, and being nice and relaxed, and not worrying too much about what's going to happen. Just going out and seeing the ball and trying to hit it, pretty much."
Ronchi's metamorphosis has not only been driven by his freed-up mindset. Teams are now routinely using him in what he considers the best place to bat in T20: as an opener. "There's only two fielders out. You have a bit of fun." In T20Is he opened once for Australia, in 2008, and once for New Zealand, in 2017, when he got a first-ball duck.
Through his extraordinary run, he has stuck to a simple method. Preparing to walk out to bat, he tries to be "relaxed and calm, and just be nice and chilled in the changing room."
Ronchi has no preference on whether his side are batting first or chasing. "Either way, it's whatever happens on the day, whatever the pitch is dictating - I'll just go and do whatever." If his team are batting first, he thinks about what might be a good score and relays that back to his team, though it changes little in his role.
"Just react" is his mantra. "If I can't hit a boundary, then you drop it down - a three, two, one. I look for a boundary first and then after that just get as many as I can."
Ronchi endeavours to pare T20 batsmanship back to its essence, freeing his mind from overly thinking about the situation in the match, what has come before or where a ball fits into a particular over. He laughs about the concept of hitting a boundary and then accepting a single next ball; effectively he treats every delivery the same. In keeping with his approach of simplifying the game, he eschews premeditated shots. "I play better when not thinking about what may come down and just reacting to whatever happens."
Earlier in his career Ronchi sometimes struggled with trying too hard to impose himself on the opposition, something that he has learned does not suit his game.
"I'm not looking to slog. I'm trying to play my shots, or just react to what's bowled," he says. "If I try to whack the ball then I don't hit the ball as well, so my best way of playing is just trying to time it, and then the better I time the ball, the better things work out. So I'm more of a timer of a cricket ball than a whacker."
Paradoxically, at the heart of his success is embracing failure. Ronchi understands that for batsmen failure is wired into T20. We speak the day after he has been dismissed for a duck in Guyana Amazon Warriors' opening game of the Caribbean Premier League season, but he remains unperturbed.
"My role - especially batting up at the top in T20 - is to try to get the team off to a bit of a flying start. Go out there and have a clear mind and just react to whatever is bowled to me. I'm either going to get out early on - like I did last night - or I'm going to get us off to a decent enough start."
Ronchi's fundamental approach is not new, but his wholehearted embrace of what this requires is.
"I've always had that sort of a mindset. But I think in the past I was more worried about mucking up, so I was trying to do too much in a short period of time. Once you think that way then then you're actually going to fail more anyway, because you're too tense and not relaxed. You're not watching the ball, and all the basics of cricket that make you perform the way you want to perform. So now I'm a lot more relaxed going into my innings."
Such late-blooming brilliance - Ronchi is 37 - has brought frustration to go with the fulfilment. "It's probably more annoying that I didn't have this mindset for the majority of my career. Because then you would have performed better, it wouldn't have played on your mind as much."
Fear of failure can be debilitating for a T20 batsman, encouraging them to value their wicket too highly and so not score quickly enough. Ronchi has no such fear. And so he has the fastest strike rate over the first five balls, the first ten and in the Powerplay since the start of last year; he also has comfortably the fastest smart strike rate, ESPNcricinfo's metric that compares individual strike rates with those of others at a specific point in a game.
"When I'm performing well, I'm not really thinking anything. The clearer I am in my mind, the better things work out."
Attacking with such lack of inhibition from the opening ball means that Ronchi needs to face fewer deliveries to make a crucial impact. This is especially true when he plays in low-scoring leagues, like the Pakistan Super League and Bangladesh Premier League. In the CPL, Ronchi plays his home games at Providence Stadium, where the slow, turning tracks have resulted in the lowest ground average score - barely 140 - of anywhere in the world in the past two years. That means that, compared to batting on other grounds, here a player like Ronchi needs to face fewer balls and make fewer runs to shape the match.
Still, he often bats for a lot more than a few balls. He has made a fifty once in every four innings since the start of 2017. In this year's PSL, he made 435 runs - the most in the entire tournament - and hit five half-centuries in 11 innings, culminating with a 26-ball 52 to help Islamabad United win the final.
"Once I get on a roll, I just keep it as simple as I possibly can, so that I know that in my own mind things are going quite well."
Role clarity and support from franchises has been at the heart of Ronchi's success. He began this year's PSL with scores of 3 and 0. But, according to Hassan Cheema, the manager of Islamabad, "We knew that no matter how poor a run of form he is in, he will play. We knew that the day he comes off, that's a third of the game sorted for you. If you bowl and finish competently with a Ronchi onslaught, you'll most probably win."
Not quite everyone agrees. Even as he has soared, the suspicion remains that Ronchi remains undervalued on the T20 circuit. He has not played in the IPL since five games for Mumbai Indians in 2008 and 2009, which now seem like a past life; Kolkata Knight Riders showed interest in Ronchi in this year's auction, but he went unsold.
"You just have to cop it on the chin," he says. "I mean, everyone wants to go, and enjoys going, but if it doesn't happen it doesn't happen."
He was also released by Leicestershire despite having enjoyed a fine season in 2017. They preferred Cameron Delport, who has nothing like Ronchi's recent T20 pedigree, instead, and failed to match their quarter-final performance of 2017. This ranks as a bewildering decision even if Ronchi is too modest to say as much.
When he will finish up, he is not quite sure. His less arduous schedule, free of international cricket, allows far more time at home with his young family; outside of tournaments, he maintains a training regime but almost never picks up a bat. While batting with such insouciance and effect, there is no reason to contemplate retirement at all.
"I'm just taking it as it comes. I don't really want to put a time frame on it - 'cause then you've sort of extra goals."
Ronchi plays best when free of all the outside noise and he can just bat. His wonderful late-career transformation - from pub quiz trivia to among the leading T20 players in the world - is not done just yet.
*All stats are up to date till the start of this season's Caribbean Premier League