County-prepped Will Young now looks to deliver in New Zealand colours
Northants stint leaves NZ batter well equipped to face Ben Stokes' England challenge
The majority of New Zealand's Test squad will arrive in the UK this weekend ahead of their three-match series against England in June but two players are already in situ and have been preparing for the challenges of foreign conditions with early-season stints in county cricket.
Will Young and Colin de Grandhomme had dinner together in London last week during Surrey's innings win against Northamptonshire and will play again for their respective sides from Thursday before joining up with their international team-mates ahead of warm-up games at Hove and Chelmsford at the start of next week. The five Test squad members at the IPL - Kane Williamson, Trent Boult, Daryl Mitchell, Tim Southee and Devon Conway - are due to arrive once their franchises are knocked out.
While de Grandhomme has played several blocks of county cricket before, Young is returning for only his second stint and has had significantly more freedom to enjoy the experience than he did while undergoing regular Covid-19 tests during his four games for Durham last year. He is averaging 39.4 across his five innings for Northants to date despite two single-figure scores last week and expects to be fully acclimatised by the time his international team-mates arrive.
"Durham was a cool experience and the perfect lead-up to our Test series last year," Young told ESPNcricinfo at The Oval. "I wanted to emulate the same thing if I could so I put my name forward and thankfully Northants offered me a deal. This time I've signed for slightly longer - quite a bit of the Championship and also some of the Royal London Cup so I'm stoked to have a proper go at county cricket.
"Covid is no longer a thing over here so I can experience the summer and everything there is on offer over here. Last year I was limited as to what I could do with Covid restrictions and tests every second day but this time it's pretty much a free-for-all. My partner is over too and we've been trying to get into London when we can and to various other parts of the UK. It feels like life as usual.
"Over here, every team utilises the fact they can have two overseas professionals playing. Back home, you don't really get that, so playing for your domestic teams, it's just the guys from that region so you know a lot of those players, especially now I've played 10 years of domestic cricket. It's a fast learning curve here: you're thrown in there and not only are the conditions different over here and you play with a different ball, you're learning constantly against the guys you're up against. That's why I'm here: to play as much cricket as I can and learn about how the game is played over here."
Young's time at Durham also gave him the opportunity to get to know Ben Stokes, having played against him in domestic cricket in New Zealand in 2017-18 when Stokes was returning to cricket after his late-night indiscretions in Bristol ruled him out of the Ashes. "We played against Canterbury home and away in the Super Smash," he recalled. "I was a little bit younger then and thought it was pretty cool to be playing against Ben Stokes.
"I met him properly up in Durham last season. He was injured but he came in after one of the wins we had a had a couple of drinks in the dressing room and helped us celebrate. I'm stoked for him. I'm sure it's a proud time for him and we're the first assignment. I'm sure he'll be looking to make a mark so it'll be a good challenge."
Young played a walk-on role in New Zealand's tour last year, playing the third Test of his career when Williamson was rested at Edgbaston and making 82 and 8 to help set up an eight-wicket win which clinched only their third-ever series victory in England. He was left out of the side for the World Test Championship final against India but has played each of their last six Tests and is averaging a respectable 31.35 across his career.
But with Williamson due to play his first Test since November and following scores of 8, 3 and 0 against South Africa in February, Young does not feel certain of his place. "I'm just thankful to be part of the squad at this stage," he said. "To get an opportunity in the starting XI would be great but we'll just have to wait and see.
"New Zealand tend to play a lot of two-match series and it can be difficult to get into a rhythm at times. If you don't find it, you're struggling. It's an experienced side that's coming over and a lot of them have experienced these conditions before. I'm sure there will be some questions and information sharing when they arrive and that's what the two warm-up games are for as well: there's plenty of time for the guys to get ready for those Tests."
There are two key absentees from the side that won the WTC final in Ross Taylor and BJ Watling, both of whom have retired in the last year, but one of New Zealand's main strengths in the recent past has been to build squad depth through future planning, pushing their A-team programme and giving opportunities to players on the fringes of the set-up.
"It's a huge loss, Ross and BJ," Young said. "They've both given so much on the field to New Zealand and they're both huge parts of the success over the last while and were well-liked, popular guys in the group. There's definitely a hole with them gone but in the same breath, there's been enough opportunities for guys to be around the group and familiarise themselves with the team so it's not a huge shock to the system when it comes to actually playing Tests.
"Certainly for me, I was around the group for a few series beforehand and it's the same for others. For example, Tom Blundell, who is stepping into BJ's shoes, he was around the group as an opening batsman and now he's got the gloves and has slid down the order. It's great because there's not such a huge hole when guys like that have left.
"It's been a big push from NZC over the past three or four years to have two tours - one home, one away - every year with the New Zealand A side and I've been lucky to be part of that, as have some of the other guys who are getting opportunities now. This England series is an incredible opportunity which we're all looking forward to. The guys will all get stuck in once they're over here."
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98