Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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After impressing Otago Volts with his big hitting in his first season with the side, Dean Foxcroft went home to Pretoria in March 2020 to visit his family and take some exams. What was supposed to be a six-week visit to South Africa eventually turned out to be a frustrating two-year long stay after Covid-19 struck.
New Zealand's stringent border restrictions cost Foxcroft two years of cricket with Otago. All three of his exemption requests were knocked back, and he even contemplated giving up his New Zealand dream and rebuilding his career in South Africa, the country he had represented in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh in 2016 before moving to New Zealand.
After playing representative cricket for Hawke's Bay, he broke into the Central Districts side in 2018-19. At the end of the next season, he was talked up as a future New Zealand player after he piled up 406 runs in ten innings in the 50-over Ford Trophy and 269 runs in nine innings in the 20-over Super Smash for Otago. More than the runs, it was his imposing presence in the middle and range of strokes that stood out.
"Two years is a pretty long time and it felt like it was never going to end," Foxcroft, now 24, says about the pandemic. "There were times when I was thinking, 'Oh my New Zealand career might be over.' Obviously my dream is to play for New Zealand at the highest level. Yes, there were days when I thought I might have to start playing cricket in South Africa again, but family and friends helped me get through that, and I kept remembering why I moved to New Zealand was to play for New Zealand.
"There were days like 'I want to give up' and days like 'No! It will happen and it can't go too long.' Then you sort of get the news you can go back to New Zealand and you feel like your dreams might come true again."
Foxcroft finally returned to New Zealand in time for this cricket summer and made 239 runs in seven innings to go with three wickets in the early rounds of the four-day Plunket Shield. He is now desperate to make up for lost time and reprise the form he showed four seasons ago.
"This white-ball season is very important for me and it's the format I enjoy the most," Foxcroft says. "I want to make my mark in the system early, and hopefully I've done that with the red-ball cricket. But with the white-ball cricket I want to keep my standards higher and perform for the Volts and do a proper all-round season for them in the Ford Trophy and Super Smash.
"I want to score a couple of hundreds and put in match-winning performances for our team. I definitely want to push up for higher honours, but don't want to rush into things. At the same time, I want to put pressure on myself to do well."
Foxcroft wasn't entirely cut off from cricket when he was locked out of New Zealand. He got the chance to play in the Pakistan Super League and the Oman D10 league (T10 cricket) earlier this year.
"I was quite surprised I got the PSL gig, but it was definitely a good gig," Foxcroft says of his time with the title winners Lahore Qalandars. "Just to play with the likes of Rashid Khan, Shaheen Afridi, Harry Brook, Phil Salt and David Wiese, I will always be thankful for that learning curve.
"I played just one game, but to be honest, I didn't expect to play any, and it was great to share the dressing room with the superstars of today. I want to take those training sessions forward and help players next to me."
After the PSL, Foxcroft travelled to Oman and scored 211 runs in seven innings at a strike rate of over 170 for Ghubrah Giants. The standard of the league wasn't as high as the PSL, according to Foxcroft, but he was just glad to get game time.
"In T20s, you can probably have a couple of balls to get yourself in, but in T10, there's no time and you need to go bang from ball one. The pitches were skiddier, quite similar to the ones in Pakistan. You can often smash your hands through the ball, and it was good fun."
Foxcroft worked with former New Zealand wicketkeeper-batter Kruger van Wyk, who is currently the head coach of Pretoria University's cricket, to shake off the rust and be in good shape for the two leagues.
"I made contact with him [van Wyk] and said: 'I don't want to fall behind and still want to keep my skills up to level.' I started training with him three-four times a week for two hours a day.
"We hit balls and kept the level up and obviously he's quite helpful with the knowledge of having played for Black Caps and at the domestic level in New Zealand. To pick up things from him helped me understand where I need to be when I get back to New Zealand. I also did a lot of running and gym work on my own but can't thank friends and family enough for their support day in and day out during that time."
Despite the lack of top-flight cricket in the past two years, Foxcroft has tried to stay in touch with the rapidly evolving white-ball game, working on finding ways to access boundaries more regularly.
"It's quite scary how things are changing," he says. "Teams want to be 60-plus after six overs [in T20s] and as an opposition team, you can't stay behind. You need to develop your range of hitting and try to hit every ball for a boundary.
"But bowlers are also adapting to the level now, so you need to create new shots or new angles to play with when you're batting. Batters are becoming more explosive now and strike rates are 150-plus, and obviously we need to keep up with that and make it easy for our bowlers as well."
Foxcroft is also working on his secondary skill, bowling offspin, although Otago may not be immediately turning to him to plug the runs.
"We have our first-choice spinner in [Michael Rippon] and then when Glenn Phillips plays, he will be our second spinner. At the moment I'm enjoying my bowling and definitely want to keep improving it so it's something I want to make bigger in the future. Hopefully I'll be able to pull off a couple of tricks in the Super Smash."
Having grown up idolising Jacques Kallis in South Africa, Foxcroft aspires to become a proper allrounder. "How Kallis went about his business in all three formats - he's one of the main guys when I was younger. These days in cricket to be an allrounder or just be a gun fielder is massive. If you keep improving those skills and bowl a couple of overs here and there, or if you can be a second offspinner in subcontinental conditions, it's good. If it benefits the team, why not?"
He reckons that facing New Zealand's top bowlers in domestic cricket has prepared him for the tougher challenges ahead. In the 2018-19 Super Smash final, as a 20-year-old, he made a match-winning 63 off 50 balls against a Northern Districts line-up that was like an international attack.
"In the final of the Super Smash, I faced Tim Southee, Scotty Kuggeleijn, Mitch Santner and Ish Sodhi. It was pretty cool to play against the Black Caps in a final. Against Wellington when I made 82 not out in 2020, I played against Hamish Bennett, Logan van Beek and Michael Bracewell."
The pandemic brought Foxcroft's career to a standstill, but it's ready to take off once again.