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'Once you realise you'll survive without the game, you'll enjoy it for what it is'

Jimmy Neesham fell into a funk after a rack of injuries and missing out on the last World Cup, but he's back in love with cricket now

Says Jimmy Neesham, Twitter star: "If you treat Twitter like anything other than a joke, you are probably going to struggle with the things you read"  •  Harry Trump/IDI/Getty Images

Says Jimmy Neesham, Twitter star: "If you treat Twitter like anything other than a joke, you are probably going to struggle with the things you read"  •  Harry Trump/IDI/Getty Images

Halter is a start-up based in Auckland that makes cow collars. These collars, which use sounds and vibrations, allow farmers to remotely herd cattle, instead of using fences, bikes, dogs or humans. More cows, less labour. The jury is out on whether this is kind or ethical, but in the winter of 2018, Halter had a communications manager who ended up steering his other career back in the right direction.
"James", he used to introduce himself as. He enjoyed that there were obvious fruits for his labour here. If he worked at something for a week, he had something to show for it. He never found himself questioning if the hard work he put in was worth it. He didn't obsess over his job after work hours. He didn't feel pressure to come across as strong and positive if he didn't feel strong and positive on a given day.
This was in sharp contrast to his other career, in the bewitchingly frustrating sport of cricket.
It is intrinsically an obsessive sport. It doesn't give you obvious results. You can hit 1000 balls and the most perfect cover drives in the nets, but you could nick off first ball in a match. Perfection in cricket is an illusion, but the pursuit of it still tortures cricketers. And yet they love the sport to bits. In the high-performance environment of international cricket, or on its fringes, every failure gets magnified. You are always moving in this results-driven group of - in the case of men's cricket - alpha males where it is difficult to express any uncertainty or vulnerability.
In the New Zealand summer of 2017-18, Jimmy Neesham had had enough of this grind. At the age of 27, he was ready to end his international career.
It wasn't quite four in the morning but it was the end of December; the settings of a Leonard Cohen song. This is when, in 2017, Heath Mills, the long-serving chief of the New Zealand Cricket Players Association, received the call.
Neesham was still struggling to come to terms with missing out on the 2015 World Cup, one that had brought the whole country together and given the players who played it the "time of their lives", as captain Brendon McCullum put it. Neesham was fighting his own body and the injuries he kept sustaining. He had lost his NZC contract. Even Otago had dropped him after a run of scores of 2, 8, 0 and 10 and an economy rate of 11.25 in those games.
It was not supposed to end this way. In his mind, Neesham, the premier allrounder in the country, was supposed to walk back to domestic cricket and score double-hundreds every time he batted and take five-fors every time he bowled. New Zealand were supposed to miss him and realise their mistake immediately and recall him to the side. In reality, though, bowlers were getting him out, batsmen were hitting him around.
He would be angry, hit the stumps with his bat if he got out. He would remember every game, every dismissal, in detail
His reaction was to train harder, to obsess even more. He would be angry, hit the stumps with his bat if he got out. He would remember every game, every dismissal, in detail. If he wanted to end a session with ten perfect cover drives and he missed on the tenth, he would start all over again. It was bringing him no tangible results, the way his job at Halter would do.
"I just had had enough basically," Neesham says. "It wasn't a logical thought. I had just had enough of the grind of training and not getting anywhere, and yeah, I just made the decision I didn't want to play anymore. I think that's reasonably simple."
It had come down to waking up and hoping to see it was raining so he didn't have to play cricket. So he didn't fail again.
And anything was a failure. "If I scored 80, I wanted a hundred; if I scored 120, I wanted 150," he says. "Basically, no game was a success. I was obviously pretty highly strung, pretty intolerant of failure. When you have that attitude towards cricket, it is a tough sport to be playing because by nature it is a sport where you fail a lot."
It was only natural to want to walk away from that sort of environment, but Mills convinced him to take two to three weeks off, go back to Auckland and "rediscover your love for the game". Neesham came back to play by the end of January, but that was not because he had found his love for the game again. Mills had essentially convinced him to go back and play out his contract.
The real challenge began at the end of the 2017-18 season. As Neesham says now, he had been in the funk for more than two years at that point. He doesn't say why he had unreal expectations of himself - "that's for my book perhaps" - but he is quite open about what injuries and being excluded from the World Cup did to him.
In 2014, Neesham and Corey Anderson were New Zealand's main allrounders. Grant Elliott had had his day in the sun; he was not part of the 19-man party that travelled to the MCG in October to acclimatise to that beast of a venue. This was going to be Anderson's and Neesham's tournament. That's what we on the outside thought.
In the months before the World Cup squad was picked, Neesham put himself through the wringer, agonising over selection. "Sort of playing every innings as if I needed runs to get picked in that team or I needed wickets to get picked in that team," he says. Eventually he wasn't. New Zealand decided they needed more of a batting allrounder, which Elliott was. Neesham had taken 18 wickets in 16 ODIs, but he was averaging under 15 with the bat.
He tweeted to Elliott: "Good luck for the cup mate. Go hard!" Elliott was thoughtful in response: "Thanks mate, feel for you. You have a lot of good times ahead of you!"
Neesham watched the World Cup in agony, even though, "holy f*****g shitballs" it gave him "the best day of my life", as he tweeted when New Zealand beat South Africa in a thrilling semi-final in front of a packed Eden Park. Neesham was part of that heaving crowd.
And yet he will tell you what no cricketer will admit. He had to deal with the guilt of, at times, grudging New Zealand their success. It was "possibly the toughest" part of sitting out, and one of the reasons why he eventually fell out of love with the game.
"Sometimes you just have to put your hand up and say you don't have all the answers. And being able to open up to someone else, it feels like the right thing to do"
"I was watching the tournament a bit bitter, I suppose," Neesham says. "About being on the rehab table and not being there. It is still some of your best mates out there playing, you still want them to do well, but then also a bit of you sort of thinks if you are not out there doing it, then you don't want anyone to be out there doing it."
That is a man completely different to the one you see on Twitter: funny, self-deprecating, not overly self-aware. Twitter, though, is a bit of a lark for him. "I think cricket fandom in general can be quite a toxic place," he says. "If you take things the wrong way, there is a lot of anger, a lot of negativity. If you treat Twitter like anything other than a joke, you are probably going to struggle with the things you read."
It gets worse when you are injured. As a self-confessed cricket tragic Neesham struggles to stay away from watching the game. And when you watch, you inevitably spend more time on social media. And when you watch, you miss the game more, and you get more desperate. The body, though, doesn't always reciprocate. And if you get injured again, you start doubting the body too. Search ESPNcricinfo's player page for Neesham, and there are a whole lot of stories about him getting injured and missing out.
"Injuries certainly did play a role [in falling out of love with cricket]," Neesham says. "I had a major back injury at the start of 2015. If I look back at it now, I wasn't probably over that till mid-2016. Obviously I was on the field again but still stressing about re-injuring myself. Had a couple of false starts coming into cricket, getting injured again. I suppose that was a contributing factor to the fear of playing. Anytime I was bowling I was wondering whether that was the day I was going to get injured again. It is very hard to enjoy the sport when you are thinking like that."
In the winter of 2018, he was ready to admit he needed help from the outside. He started to go to mental-skills coaches. "It had reached a point where I was willing to try anything really," Neesham says. "It became pretty clear to me that it wasn't a physical problem that was holding me back. It was how I was approaching the game.
"Sometimes you just have to put your hand up and say you don't have all the answers. And being able to open up to someone else like that and take their suggestions - it feels like the right thing to do but also the brave thing to do."
He realised two things over those sessions: that he needed a life outside cricket, and that his cricket was his responsibility and not any coach's.
For the first part, he took up the job at Halter. "What it reinforced for me was that I am more than a cricketer," he says. "I don't potentially need this sport but I do enjoy the sport, and that's really the reason for me to play.
"I don't need to be playing to service my mortgage or to feel self-worth as a person. I think once you get a perspective and you realise that you will survive without the game, you will enjoy the game for what it is. And it is just a game.
"It is something that I loved playing when I was a kid, from the age of four or five, and long before I thought it would pay for things I wanted or give me status I wanted or whatever the outcomes are. And I think having those times away from the game and realising that I sort of did enjoy life not playing cricket really allowed me to come back and treat it for what it is - which is just a game really."
To sort out his technique he watched his most recent footage, and saw it was not Jimmy Neesham. It was a Frankenstein's monster. "When you look at being in Otago and at Derbyshire or Kent or Black Caps or New Zealand A, there is always a different set of people around and different batting coaches and support staff, and they obviously all have their opinions on things you should be doing and the way you should be batting," Neesham says. "I think I really started falling between stools a little bit. Trying to please different people.
"I really didn't see in any part of my technique anything that I believed in. It was all sort of an amalgamation of different ideas from different coaches."
He went back to Kit Perera, who coached him when he was just out of school, and in three hour-long sessions they took the batting back to where it was. "I started to see the ball-striking that I had when I was a kid," he says. "From then on it was all about purifying it, and letting it work with your tactical awareness and your situational awareness of batting."
He joined Wellington, where Bruce Edgar, Hamish Bennett and Michael Bracewell were in the leadership group. He liked the culture there, which focused on players as humans and not just cricketers. He stopped obsessing over perfection. Now if he was 30 off 40 and hit a ball straight to cover, he didn't let it spiral out of control and lead to his dismissal.
The body began to react too. Neesham has now had an 18-month injury-free run. "I can run in and worry about where the ball is going rather than what my back is doing." He is back in the World Cup squad, consciously thinking of the team more than himself, and more importantly, in love with the game.
Why exactly does he love it, though?
"Anyone can get anyone out on their day," he says. "Anyone can beat anyone. I think we have all seen guys bat terribly and get hundreds. We have all seen guys nick off first ball, playing a perfect shot. You really understand you have to take each day and train as best as you can and prepare as best as you can absolutely, hit as many balls as you can. Once you are on the field, you have to accept that there is nothing you can do to guarantee your success."
Or, in the words of the man who replaced him for the last World Cup, Elliott, "You have to care a lot, but play like you don't care."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo