'I sold my property, car, everything, because I wanted to start afresh'

From underperforming in South Africa to now being close to an international cap for New Zealand, Devon Conway's career has seen unexpected twists and turns

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Conway was the leading run scorer in the Plunket Shield, the Ford Trophy and the T20 Super Smash in 2019-20  •  Getty Images

Conway was the leading run scorer in the Plunket Shield, the Ford Trophy and the T20 Super Smash in 2019-20  •  Getty Images

The Wanderers, Johannesburg, March 2017. Devon Conway, 26, brought up his maiden first-class double-century for Gauteng at the provincial level and roared in jubilation. It was the first in eight years of professional cricket for the left-hand batsman. The innings should have heralded a new beginning. Instead, it marked closure. That was the last innings Conway played as a South African domestic cricketer. That August, he left South Africa for his new home - New Zealand.
While he scored heavily at the provincial level, the second tier of South African domestic cricket, he struggled to make an impression in his sporadic appearances in top-tier franchise cricket. At the time of leaving, he had played just 12 matches for the Lions, averaging 21.29 with a solitary half-century.
"I was always in and out of the team," he says over a video call from Wellington, where he lives. "I didn't have a secure spot. I was also batting in different positions. In the T20s, I would open. In the one-dayers, I'd bat at No. 5. In the four-dayers, I'd probably be in if someone was left out.
"I've batted in all sorts of positions, sometimes even No. 7. I wouldn't bowl either. Lack of clarity and my own inconsistency pushed me down the pecking order. I wouldn't have been able to push my case forward, so I thought it was best to move."
Going Kolpak seemed the most obvious choice, since he had played in England every winter for over half a decade as an overseas professional, but he chose New Zealand because his best friends, fellow South Africa domestic players Malcolm Nofal and Michael Rippon, encouraged him, having moved there themselves for cricket.
Conway's only wanted to keep the joy of playing cricket alive, he says. Little did he imagine, then, that he would become eligible to be a Black Cap - which will become a reality from this August.
"[Before the Wanderers game] I was playing golf with my partner, Kim, when I said to her: 'I don't feel like my game is going anywhere here' and said that I'd be interested in moving to New Zealand," he says. "She said, 'Let's do it then.' I thought she was joking, but she wasn't. I realised you're only young once, so we should take the gamble. I don't think it's a decision we will never regret."
From being frustrated and full of self-doubt in South Africa, Conway has emerged as an impactful top-order batsman in New Zealand. A sound technique that has been in the making for over two years, improved foot movement, and a strong front-foot game have all helped him evolve.
In 17 first-class games for Wellington Firebirds, he has scored 1598 runs at the stellar average of 72.63, with four hundreds. One of those was an unbeaten 327 against Canterbury last October, only the eighth triple-hundred scored in New Zealand.
Conway topped the run charts in all three domestic competitions in the 2019-20 season - the first-class Plunket Shield, the List A Ford Trophy, and the T20 Super Smash - and in two of those three tournaments in 2018-19. His stupendous run also coincided with Wellington bagging the Plunket Shield (which they won for the first time since 2003-04) and Super Smash double.
Three years since he decided to reboot, Conway, who will be 29 in July, is inching closer to an international cap. He laughs at how life has changed.
He grew up on a huge plot of land just outside Johannesburg. The family reared horses, chickens, rabbits, sheep and cows. His father was a football coach at a local club, and was passionate about motorsports.
Conway's first love was football. He would train alongside his friend Elton Jantjies, who went on to play for the Springboks. Conway would eventually choose to play cricket professionally only because "it lasts longer". Jimmy Cook, the former South Africa international, would be Conway's first coach, when he was 12, and Neil McKenzie, who he watched closely on TV, his favourite batsman.
"It's a funny story," Conway says of his first chat with his batting idol. "My dad was actually Macca's football coach growing up, and because he was one of the more talented players, my dad took a liking to him. One evening, my dad said to me, 'I know Neil McKenzie.' I told him, 'No way, you don't know him.' He said, 'I promise you, give him a call.' I was about 10-11 years old. My dad phoned him and said, 'My son wants to speak to you.'
"I picked up the phone and I asked Neil, 'How fast does Brett Lee bowl?'" Conway laughs. "He said, 'He bowls faster than your dad's car.' Ever since that day, speaking to him over the phone and having that little connection with him made him my idol."
Conway was in the reckoning for a South Africa Under-19 berth in 2010, coming through in the same batch as Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma. While those two went on to play for South Africa, Conway struggled to make it in franchise cricket.
Though he managed to break into the Dolphins set-up as an 18-year-old, the joy wouldn't even last a year. He'd return to Johannesburg and continue trying to earn a place in the Lions squad, only to be ignored time and again. Frustration and disappointments piled up, and after six years on the circuit, criticism that he was a run bully at the provincial level but not at franchise level began to hurt.
"A year or two before I decided to move to New Zealand, I felt like my career wasn't really moving forward," Conway says. "I potentially wanted to give myself the best chance of playing international cricket, but unfortunately at the time I didn't perform as well as I would've liked to. I just thought of trying to change things up.
"I didn't necessarily speak to anyone about it, because I didn't have the performances to back up what I wanted to speak about. For me, it was about actions doing the talking. I didn't want to ring up the head coach or assistant coach and say, 'I deserve to play in this role' when I hadn't earned the right. I wasn't necessarily verbal - I tried to show my actions by performing, but that didn't allow me to progress.
"I'd heard New Zealand was a beautiful country. I was lucky to have a few friends who had moved there for professional cricket. I thought, 'Let me go over and play at a club', and that prompted me and my partner to move."
Conway arrived in Wellington in August 2017. He joined Victoria University Cricket Club in a dual capacity as player and coach. Within four days of landing in the country, he had found accommodation and had "fallen in love with Wellington".
"I sold my property, car and everything that we couldn't bring over, because I wanted to close that chapter and start afresh," he says. "If I hadn't done that and my cricket didn't feel all right after one season, I might have started thinking on the lines of 'Maybe I can move back'. I didn't want to."
Conway landed himself a gig coaching 28 hours a week, which involved travelling around Wellington to different schools to train ten- and 11-year-olds. The money from that and his club contract was "enough to get by". While he eased into cricket, his partner struggled to land a job initially.
They had to make a lifestyle change too. In South Africa, Conway grew up driving "decent cars", had property near Kruger National Park, and was overall "very comfortable". Now, he needed to downsize.
"In New Zealand, money doesn't travel far when you're just trying to break into the country," he says. "We had to downsize our living arrangements from what we were used to in South Africa. That's the culture of Wellington; they're not about having big mansions or fancy cars. It's an easy life."
The cricket community in Wellington is similarly small scale, and close-knit. Few big scores go unnoticed on the club circuit. As Conway started churning out the runs, word soon got around about this talented South African first-class batsman who could also keep wicket. Bruce Edgar, Wellington's head coach, and Glenn Pocknall, second in-charge there, were among those who heard of Conway's appetite for run-scoring. When the side happened to be a player short for a few List A Ford Trophy matches - Tom Blundell had received a national call-up for ODIs against West Indies, and Wellington needed a wicketkeeper to fill in for three games - they dialled Conway.
"I got 30-odd in the first game, 78 [74] not out against Otago and 50 [43] not out in the third one, when I faced Lockie Ferguson for the first time," Conway remembers.
Then came his T20 call-up, again involving Blundell, for a Super Smash fixture, on a day he had planned a family outing. "My parents were in New Zealand on holiday and we had gone to the Weta Workshop, sort of a sightseeing tour of how they do the movies," he says. "The second T20 game was at Basin Reserve. Tom Blundell was a little sick, so I got a late call from Bruce at around noon: 'Are you available to play?' The game was at 2pm and I didn't even have kit or anything but spontaneously said, 'Yes, sure' without batting an eyelid. I left midway through our day's outing and arrived at the ground, and they told me I was to open with Hamish Marshall, a Wellington legend. I didn't know how to react, it all felt too rushed.
"Luckily, we bowled first, so that allowed me to calm the nerves. I ended up getting 53 on debut, but we lost that game. That was that. I thought it was another one-off thing, since Tom was to come back.
"But the night before we were to fly to Auckland [for the next game], I got another call from Bruce saying, 'Can you fly with us to Auckland, Matt Taylor's sick.' I said yes again and went. I played the rest of the campaign, where I was just dismissed in one game. From thinking I wasn't going to play at all to this, it was quite an incredible turnaround. It's ridiculous how it all happened."
Ridiculous things continued to happen. In March 2018, Blundell - that man again - had been called up to the New Zealand team, this time for the home Tests against England. The call-up came midway through Wellington's second Plunket Shield outing.
"I was to go to Dunedin and be 12th man again," says Conway. "NZC have a replacement rule that permits a substitution in case someone gets called up to the national team, and I got a chance to play."
Blundell would continue to play the remainder of the Test series, while Conway would be in the Wellington XI for their last four games of the season. He brought up his maiden first-class century in the country too.
"If I write a book, surely there's going to be a chapter on Tom Blundell," Conway laughs. "He's a very dear friend. He brought me a bottle of wine when I scored the triple-century."
Conway hasn't looked back since, graduating to become an all-weather player and part of Wellington's leadership group. He credits the work behind the scenes with Pocknall for the remarkable transformation.
Conway studied Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers and Joe Root, specifically observing their "pre-movement and feet movement". It took a lot of time for the new set-up to become natural. At times he became edgy, and coaches had to ask him to switch off.
"I stuck with it. The more and more I worked at it down the line, the more consistent my movements became," he says. "At one time, I decided I will persist with it and went into the season having total clarity. Bruce told me I'd open in T20s and bat at No. 3 in the one-dayers. That was the backing I needed. Glenn trusted the work I'd put in. A clear mindset of just worrying about the ball and not technical things helped. So a combination of these two things has given me the success I've experienced."
Pocknall thinks NZC must go all out to get Conway playing at the first possible instance after he becomes eligible in August.
"Out of six domestic competitions, he has been the leading scorer across all teams five times - incredible, really, when you look at it," he says. "This has been when a lot of the Black Caps have been playing, so it shows how good he is. He's shown his class consistently over two seasons."
"He is a leader in our [Wellington] team no doubt - he leads by example, having absolute commitment to getting better every day by how he conducts himself. He is willing to take on critical feedback, take it on the chin, and go about doing what he needs to do in order to make those improvements. You get a lot of players saying they will do this and that and they do it once or twice and then revert back to what's easy. He is not one of those players."
Conway has had one taste of what it is like to be part of the Black Caps. "I was invited to an internal T20 camp [by New Zealand coach Gary Stead] in Lincoln last winter," he says. "That was the first time I met and talked to a few Black Cap legends like Ross Taylor, Kane Williamson. I got a chance to face Trent Boult [for the first time]; he's world class. It was a cool feeling."
While Conway is delighted with where he's at currently, he doesn't want to be carried away by the success. "I'm very happy and excited, but it's not a guarantee that I'll walk into the Black Caps team. I don't feel I deserve the opportunity to play presently, but hopefully one day I'll get that chance."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo