Devon Conway: 'Having success in T20 leagues has given me the backing that I can perform in any environment'

The New Zealand keeper-batter on playing in the IPL, tackling spin, and his side's chances in the T20 World cup

Devon Conway has established himself as a reliable all-format player for New Zealand lately and is also making his presence felt on the T20 franchise circuit. He speaks here about his dual skills, stints with Somerset in the Vitality Blast and Chennai Super Kings in the IPL, and the prospect of New Zealand winning the T20 World Cup in Australia later this year.
It has been almost two years since you made your international debut. How do you look back on your progress as an all-format player for New Zealand during this period?
I've been very fortunate to get the opportunity to play in all three formats. It has been good to get that support from my team-mates and the support staff. It has been a good two years for me, so I'm very happy with the way things have gone and just hoping to keep producing and contributing to the team as best possible, and just keep finding ways to improve as a player.
You recently opened the batting with Martin Guptill in the T20Is in the Caribbean. Having also opened more regularly for Wellington Firebirds, is that a role you enjoy?
Yeah, I'm very happy to get the opportunity at the top of the order [for New Zealand]. I have a fair bit of experience batting up the order, especially for Wellington, and getting the opportunity to open the batting alongside Ruturaj Gaikwad at Chennai Super Kings and learning from him there, and also from Martin Guptill, who has played so much international cricket. Taking the gloves as well is something I enjoy.
The 2021 T20 World Cup in the UAE was your first Asian tour since a schools visit of Sri Lanka in 2005. But you immediately adapted to the conditions and brought out a variety of sweeps, including the reverse.
That has been the exciting challenge, experiencing different conditions and pitches in different parts of the world, trying to practise and emulate as much as possible in terms of training on different pitches. Even in New Zealand, I tend to practise the different options I might have to use in the subcontinent or on wickets where there is a lot of pace and bounce. I still haven't nailed it down as exactly as I want to, but it's a great process for me to learn and develop different shots.
Do you see adapting quickly to different conditions as one of your strengths?
I think I'm very lucky to have a lot of experience around me. I tend to ask the guys who have been to these parts of the world how they go about it, how they construct innings, and how they've had success in the past. I then try to adapt it into my game.
The way you countered Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi with your sweeps and reverse sweeps in the 2021 T20 World Cup was impressive. Did you play a lot of these shots at training as well?
I certainly did train hard on sweeping - both the [conventional] sweep and reverse. We have a very good facility in Lincoln, where we can get onto a spin machine called the Merlin. I have spent hours on that machine, sweeping and reverse-sweeping, particularly for the subcontinent. Also, working closely with Chennai [Super Kings] in the IPL, speaking to guys there who have played in the subcontinent for a number of years, just working out how they go about their sweep and reverse sweep and trying to access that game.
New Zealand adopted an aggressive batting approach during their recent European and Caribbean tours. Has there been a discussion about going hard at the top in the lead-up to the 2022 T20 World Cup?
We try and encourage positive batting to get the team off to a good start. [You] need to put the opposition bowlers under pressure as much as possible and always take the aggressive option whenever there's a bit of a pressure moment. If it doesn't quite work today, it doesn't mean we change the approach tomorrow. And we get full support not only from the leadership [group] but from within the team and the support staff, saying, "Go out there and express yourself." That is the sort of language and things we try to practise to get that positive start to an innings.
Your Wellington team-mate Michael Bracewell has emerged as a new star for New Zealand. You have likened Bracewell to Neil McKenzie, one of your heroes.
I think it's Michael Bracewell's calm nature - he is very down to earth. He is always willing to ask questions and always willing to help as well, like Neil McKenzie. Always happy to have a conversation around batting and trying to help with whatever he can.
Does the firepower of Bracewell, Jimmy Neesham and Glenn Phillips down the order help free you at the top?
We have firepower throughout our line-up. I think Mitch Santner might have often batted at No. 8 or 9, and when you have him alongside Tim Southee, who also gives it a good hit, we've got so much batting that allows us to go out and play with freedom and know that even if we lose a couple of wickets, we've got plenty of batting to come and lots of power-hitters at the end of the innings to put us in a strong position.
Even before you forged a career at New Zealand, you floated up and down the order while playing league cricket in the UK. Did those stints help you become more flexible as a batter?
Yes, certainly. I've batted in all different positions throughout my career and for me it's about adapting to the situation. I'm happy to bat anywhere in the top order, wherever it is best for the team. It's important that I adapt to whatever situation the game is in and try to contribute wherever I can - whether it is at the top of the order or in the middle order.
How do you view your progress as a wicketkeeper and has that role had a positive impact on your batting as well?
I think so far it has been really good. I've put in a lot of work on my keeping and I work quite closely with Tom Blundell in Wellington. He helps me with my keeping in white-ball cricket. It has been really nice to get the opportunity to keep in T20 cricket. That has helped my confidence behind the stumps and I certainly look forward to that in the future.
In terms of my batting, yes, keeping does help my batting. Even though we batted first every time against West Indies, I can only imagine if I kept first, it would have allowed me to get a feel of how the pitch is playing - basically play an innings before I've even batted. It gives me an opportunity to be really dialled in by watching the ball for 120 deliveries per innings.
On that tour, the same pitch was used for all three T20Is in Jamaica. How did you deal with that as keeper and batter?
That was certainly a challenge. In the first game, the wicket was really good and as time went on, in the second game, it started to deteriorate a little bit more. Obviously in the third game, it deteriorated even further. It's about understanding that the conditions are changing, knowing that certain shots might be a little bit of a challenge to play in the third game as compared to the first game. It was a good challenge, but a lot of credit needs to go to the Jamaican ground staff for getting the wicket up to speed again and making it suitable for us to play three T20s on one surface.
A couple of years back you got into a negative mindset with respect to your keeping when you dropped a crucial catch off Neesham in the Plunket Shield. How did you overcome that?
I experienced that when I dropped a very important catch. It sort of made me feel like I was nervous as a keeper. It made my hands feel stiff and tense. The most important thing as a keeper is… if you look at MS Dhoni, who has been one of the best keepers in world cricket, is how relaxed his hands are, how quick they are when he takes the ball to the stumps. That's a key thing and it's very important as a keeper to keep wanting the ball to come through and keep expecting it to come through.
You don't want to find yourself in a position where you're almost hoping that the batter hits the ball so that you're not involved in the game. That's the space I sort of had to get away from. I want to be more relaxed behind the stumps and make sure I'm ready to catch every ball - that changes your mindset behind the stumps. That is something I need to control, which has been a good learning curve for me to experience.
How did working with sport psychologist Natalie Hogg at Wellington help you overcome negative feelings brought about by cricket as well as the Covid-19 pandemic?
She has been fantastic. I've been working with her for a good five years now. She knows how to get the best out of me and to be there when I want to talk about anything. She has been very supportive. She gives me clarity and keeps my mind positive and keeps me thinking about taking the clear options and backing myself. As a player, you're not always going to have good days, so how to manage that pressure, giving yourself the best chance to perform and doing the job for the team. Natalie has been good not only for my keeping but also for my batting.
What were your takeaways from your stint with Somerset at the Vitality Blast last year?
I absolutely loved my time with the Somerset team. I had known a couple of guys whom I had played with [in the second XIs] in 2010. A lot of those guys from then were playing in the first XI. Just getting the opportunity to bat with Tom Banton was also really cool. He's such an explosive player and a great guy too. Also, it gave me the experience of playing as an overseas pro - a guy who has been signed to do the job and win matches for a county team. We made it to Finals Day, but unfortunately, I had to leave to play for the Southern Brave [in the Hundred], but yeah, to get the team through to Finals Day was very special.
Did you feel extra pressure as an overseas pro?
Yeah, I think for the first time in my career, I did feel a little bit of extra pressure. Before that, I'd never played as an overseas pro. It was a great learning curve for me to relax and just try and be myself, play the cricket I play and not be somebody different with the bat or the gloves. I was pretty grateful that I got that opportunity, and within a year I was signed to play for CSK. I'd gone through the experience with Somerset and I was able to deal with the pressures that came with being an overseas signing.
Even before joining the IPL, you had the opportunity to work with CSK coach Stephen Fleming in the UAE ahead of the 2021 T20 World Cup. What was that like?
Working with Flem has been a very good opportunity as a player. We all know he is very experienced, so to learn from him and to get his advice around batting, especially as a fellow left-handed batter who gets the angles and plans.
He is very clear with how he approaches things. He just brings that sense of clarity and calmness to my game, which I'm really grateful for. He's a really good mentor to look up to. I'm very, very happy that he signed me for CSK, and hopefully I can continue playing many years for them in the future.
You had a low-key start at CSK, then returned to South Africa for your wedding before coming back to score three successive half-centuries. Did being part of a franchise like CSK, which usually gives players a sense of security, help you deal with the highs and lows better?
It wasn't so much of a challenge. Obviously, it didn't go as well as I'd have liked to in the first game. With Moeen Ali being away during the first game, it gave me the opportunity to play, and even though I didn't quite perform and we didn't get the win, I was learning from that experience and then carrying the drinks for the next four-five games.
I could sit back and learn from the guys - there was lot of experience in Robbie [Robin Uthappa], Rutu [Ruturaj Gaikwad] and Mahi bhai [Dhoni] and Ambati Rayudu as well. Gathering information from them so when I did get the opportunity again, I felt a lot more comfortable with the job in hand. It allowed me to play with freedom and contribute with back-to-back fifties.
The highlights were your sweeps, of course, and the use of your feet against spin. How confident were using both those options?
Like I said, I practised pretty hard on those. I know the importance of playing those shots, particularly in India. I know I have to use those options, and like I said in one of the interviews during the IPL, I had to give credit to Mahi bhai for the one game where he said: "I think you should use your feet and that is a strong option next game." I certainly took that advice. Having the backing from the captain at the time and backing those options gave me more success against spin.
There was also this shot against pace that stood out. Do you recall pumping a rapid delivery from Umran Malik over extra cover?
I remember it vividly, because Umran was bowling very quick that night. He is an exciting young fast bowler, but I think a lot of credit needs to go to Ruturaj, because he was on strike when Umran Malik came into the attack, and I think first [fourth] ball he hit him straight over his head for six. That sort of settled the nerves and we said, "Right, we can put him under pressure." The way Ruturaj played gave us the confidence to try and play the same way against him.
Since you are particularly strong against spin, teams tend to attack you with out-and-out quicks. Has playing the likes of Lockie Ferguson and Adam Milne in the nets helped you prepare better for that match-up?
It's been a massive help facing these guys at the nets. Obviously not comfortable to face really fast bowling at the nets, but it gives you the chance to sharpen up your reaction time and find a way to face these fast bowlers, because every country these days has bowlers who bowl 145-150kph. It really keeps you in tune with your reaction time and your decision-making, so we're lucky to have these bowlers in our environment.
You were in South Africa when MS Dhoni finished the game off against Mumbai Indians and followed that finish from a restaurant in Johannesburg.
I was very upset that I wasn't at that game to see it live. We know there is a huge rivalry between CSK and Mumbai, so I was very disappointed to not be there. But then again, just to see it on TV and to see how calm and collected Mahi bhai and DJ [Bravo] were to finish off the game - yes, I was watching it in a restaurant from Johannesburg on the night before my wedding. It was almost like a little wedding present from them. It was a very special evening.
How much confidence has playing and succeeding in the big T20 leagues given you?
One, it gave me the backing that I can perform in different conditions in different parts of the world. There is a lot of pressure that comes with batting and there's an element of self-doubt every now and then. You are never sure how it's going to go, but once you feel like you're contributing in these matches, it gives you confidence in your own ability. Having success for those particular teams has really helped me grow as a player and given the backing that I can perform for any team in any environment.
A bizarre injury, where you broke your hand striking your bat in disappointment after being dismissed in the semi-final, sidelined you from the T20 World Cup final against Australia last year. How long did it take for you to get over it?
It was obviously very disappointing to go through that injury and it was a moment of madness. It was a very silly moment that I will remember for a long time. It took me about eight weeks to get over the injury and it put me out of the Indian white-ball tour straight after the World Cup. I certainly won't be doing that again anytime soon.
What are New Zealand's chances of winning their first T20 world title?
I think we certainly have a good chance. We have a strong, powerful group of players who have been through the [last] World Cup and have performed, and we were very close to winning it. We will take a lot of confidence and learnings from the previous World Cup and implement it in our campaign this year in Australia and hopefully we can get across the line in the final.
We will assess the grounds in Australia very quickly. We have a few guys who have played pretty much at all these grounds, so they will have good intel and experience as to how we can approach it. We need to ensure that we take the dimensions of the ground into consideration and that we execute shots that suit the fields that we're going to play on.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo