For close to three years since his Test debut in 2016, Jeet Raval was a regular opener. His six half-centuries in his first nine Tests gave New Zealand solidity at the top of the order. But Raval hit a wall against England and Pakistan in 2018. A maiden hundred, in Hamilton against Bangladesh, was a weight off his shoulders and should have been the point where his career took off, but instead he lost his central contract with New Zealand Cricket, and has now switched from Auckland to Northern Districts in domestic cricket. He hasn't given up on a comeback, but isn't beating himself up over it. The two-month lockdown due to Covid-19 has given him better balance and perspective, as he tells us in this chat.
How do you look back at your career so far?
It's been a lot of fun. I've been fortunate to have been part of a successful New Zealand Test side. Winning in the UAE and Sri Lanka has been a highlight of my career so far. We rose to No. 2 in the Test rankings, which hadn't been done before. From a team's perspective, it's been an amazing journey. Personally, I feel I didn't fully live up to my potential.
Twenty-four Tests, one Test century, seven fifties and an average of 30. How do you view these numbers?
You ought to have done something right to play those Tests. I felt I did well in the first couple of years and then my form fell away. A few issues started creeping into my game and then it sort of turned into a battle of the mind. But look, I'm content with the career I've had so far, and I'm determined to get back to where I was through the lessons I've learnt.
What are the lessons you've learnt?
As an opener in New Zealand, you will probably fail more than you succeed, so when you do get runs, you need to look to make it big. In my case, I did all the right things at the start of my innings, but couldn't capitalise. And that started playing on my mind.
Your first Test hundred came in your 17th Test. Did that wait make you restless?
Not from within, but people around me often kept asking, "Hey, when is that first hundred coming?" And then I'd think, "Yeah, I'm yet to score that despite getting starts." The external pressure starts weighing on you, so it was nice to be able to get that monkey off my back [against Bangladesh]. I was proud to get there. Where I come from [Ahmedabad], you think of the struggles we made as a family. It wasn't about me, but the [people] around me who helped me get to where I was.
"I had a chat with Kane Williamson after I got 1 in each innings. He said: 'Take your mind off cricket for a few days, and when you go to the next net, let go of all the worries and play like you did as a ten-year old"
When did you realise you were putting a lot of pressure on yourself?
In Sri Lanka last year, perhaps. I'd prepared as well as anyone could have. Before that tour, I went to India with a club side, played days matches on all sorts of turning tracks, chatted and trained with Andhra Ranji players to get a different perspective. I hit thousands of balls in the nets. In the very first innings in Sri Lanka, I got a very good start before getting out in the last over before lunch to [Akila] Dananjaya. It frustrated me so much that I started to analyse why it happened, and then it affected my next innings. I kept digging the hole deeper instead of saying, "Hey, I batted out a session nearly to get 30-odd, I must have done something good." The next two innings on that tour didn't go well. I kept getting frustrated innings after innings.
Was it the nature of your dismissals that annoyed you?
No, it was more the pressure I was putting on myself. Having been part of the team, I kept feeling I had to contribute more. In the heat of the moment, you get caught up in things that aren't important and then struggle to come out of it. While we were on the field, things were very normal. I was as invested in the team's success as anyone else was, but when I went back to the room, it hit me: "Why did I do that?" And it was a never-ending chain of thoughts.
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Did you speak to someone about it?
Not after the Sri Lanka tour. I kept it to myself because we were getting ready for the home summer. [The focus in] Sri Lanka was anyway about playing spin, but the focus going forward was to play in our conditions against a good England pace attack.
What was your frame of mind going into that England series?
I didn't get a run in three innings in the build-up to that series. Pressure started to build and I started looking at technical aspects of my game. I was questioning myself and thinking, "What if I try this or what if I try that?" instead of trusting the game I had. No doubt I was underdone in terms of having a weight of runs behind me.
I started well in the Mount Maunganui Test and got out to a dreadful slog sweep against Jack Leach's left-arm spin. I had slogged him for a couple of unconvincing fours, but I thought I could take him on. I should have really put it behind me because I got a solid start, but it started to chew me up. We got about 600 runs in that innings, so every run the team scored, I was beating myself up and thinking I could've got these runs. I let that affect me and it got really hard from there on.
In the game after, my mental state was so bad that I didn't even realise I'd smashed the ball onto the pad and didn't refer an lbw. I started to tense up, thinking way too much. Everything had built up. I froze. I remember while batting in that series, for every ball I used to keep thinking: "I hope I don't get out this ball." That rut got the better of me. When I got dropped, it was not nice, but it gave me a chance to reflect on what was going on inside my mind and come out of the bubble. As much as it was terrible at the time, I'm a better person for it now.
How did you react at the time?
When you're going through good times, you leave training behind, spend time with family, play golf and those sorts of things. When you're not doing so good, you're always thinking of failure. "Why did I fail? Do I get picked again?" You are not giving yourself a chance to get away from the game. I started tightening up too much. It wasn't a healthy place to be in.
It got to a stage where I wasn't the person I was. A couple of times, I was out for dinner with my wife. We'd be chatting normally and all of a sudden, I'd stop. I'd be lost and then come up with questions like, "Hey, do you think I should bat like this?" or "Wish I didn't play that shot" and she'd be like, "What are you doing?" That is when I started realising it's not healthy. But because you're in a rut and you haven't got the scores you want, you try so much harder to get it right.
The next stop was Australia. It couldn't have been a tougher tour.
Going into the Australia series, I had a chat with Kane Williamson in Perth, after we were beaten convincingly and I got 1 in each innings. We were in the dining area after the game and I was quietly having dinner by myself when Kane comes in. He's like, "Hey bro, how you getting on?" And I said, "I'm frustrated. Things haven't gone as planned. I haven't been able to contribute."
He said: "Go to Melbourne, take your mind off cricket for a few days. Go do some sightseeing, play golf, spend time with your wife, and then when you go to the next net, let go of all the worries and play like you did as a ten-year old in the gullies of India, without expectations, fear of getting dropped, fear of getting out. Play like it's a T20 game."
And then you got dropped for the Boxing Day Test.
Yeah, but during the lunch break every day, I used to have a hit with Peter Fulton, our batting coach. I told myself: "I don't care if I'm going to get out." I used to get worried about people judging me if I get out. [That] they're going to think, "Oh this guy isn't in form." Fulton said, "Don't worry, just play."
All that week, I would go in, just hit balls without worrying about technique. Then in the next Test, I got a chance to play because of Kane's illness. I wasn't expecting to play, but a couple of days before the Test, we heard of a stomach bug floating about. The coach had given me a brief update that I should be ready. After that chat with Kane, I said I had to just enjoy the occasion, not worry about getting out. I made 31 [at No. 3 in the first innings in Sydney], but it was some of the most enjoyable runs I've scored. I felt like I belonged. The feeling you get while batting in the backyard and bullying your cousins and siblings into scoring runs - it was awesome. I wanted to try and take those learnings forward.
"I remember every ball I used to keep thinking: 'I hope I don't get out this ball.' That rut got the better of me. But as much as it was terrible at the time, I'm a better person for it now"
What have you done now to get out of the low phase?
It comes back to why you play the game. It's because I enjoy it. Not because of money or contracts. It's about the simple things. I'm not holding on to my Test spot now. It's about being relaxed and enjoying every opportunity, because when you're playing you're always thinking: "I don't want to let my spot go." It can become a negative [mindset]. So having realised that, I'm better off for it. The chat with Kane in Perth was literally for just two minutes, but it was so meaningful. Kit Perera, my mentor, has also been a good sounding board. The time in lockdown was well spent. It helped me take my mind off the game.
You lost your central contract last month. Were you expecting it?
Not really, but money is not something that drives me to play cricket. I play cricket because I enjoy the sport. I have an accounting degree, which will help me. Yes, having a contract is good, but it's not the primary driver. Losing the contract isn't going to decrease any motivation I have to drive harder. I know I have to.
How far are you from completing your accountancy degree?
New Zealand and Australia have a combined programme. There are five exams in all. I've cleared three of them. I've enrolled in another [course], which I hope to complete by the end of September, which will leave me with one more. So hopefully early next year, I should be a chartered accountant. Hopefully I won't have the need to exercise my education degree in the near future (laughs).
What was lockdown life like for you?
Luckily for us, it was the end of the domestic season in March, so I was focusing on finishing my Chartered Accountancy course. We had some relatives come over from India for a short break, and they sort of got caught in the lockdown. It's been quite nice to spend time with them and relax. It's been nice to get away from the game and refresh my batteries. I'm looking forward to getting back to training.
Accountancy is a very demanding course. How do you manage it alongside your cricket?
It works well, because I have a lot of time during the off season. Cricket training doesn't happen all day in winter, so I space my time that way, give myself enough time to do gym, study and cricket training. I do yoga, guided meditation, strength-based sessions. I mix them all up pretty well. This has become the norm over the last couple of months. I don't meditate to get something out of it. I just picked it up and it has given my mind some relaxation time. We do it together as a family.
And you're also a director in a start-up?
I used to work with an accounting firm called BDO. I have a good relationship with them, but because of the nature of Covid-19, the workforce is limited, so the opportunity to go back and work isn't there. They are willing to get me back on board should an opportunity come about again.
I'm currently working on a cricket app, focusing on technology and the design aspect of it. We've spent a lot of time ideating, debating, coding, processing, developing it. I'm excited by what it will bring to cricket and the cricket community. We're targeting a September launch. When it's out, hopefully it will be well-received and benefit the cricket community, not just in New Zealand but globally.
How do you look at where you stand at 31?
I feel I have a good few years ahead. I've identified a few technical aspects and the mental side - hopefully it will help me enjoy [myself] and put up performances at the domestic level. I don't want to chase it too hard. Hopefully that will result in good performances that will help me get back.