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Feature

Tom Bruce, the free spirit who has finally found his identity as a cricketer

He was the next big thing, and then he wasn't, but the New Zealand batter has bounced right back with a phenomenal sequence of scores

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
07-Sep-2022
Tom Bruce: "You know you've still got to bang the door down and stay optimistic"  •  Getty Images

Tom Bruce: "You know you've still got to bang the door down and stay optimistic"  •  Getty Images

Early 2021. Tom Bruce was having sleepless nights. He had played 17 T20Is for New Zealand but had fallen out of favour. However, it was his red-ball form that was haunting him. He hadn't scored a first-class hundred for four seasons despite being one of the main batters for Central Districts. Worse, he no longer knew what his identity as a batter was.
The dip in form wasn't sudden. Bruce was still scoring runs, and managing half-centuries, but the returns were diminishing. Then, during the 2020-21 Plunket Shield, it plummeted - he scored just 275 runs in 13 innings at an average of 25.00. Eighty-one of those runs had come in just one innings, his only 50-plus score that season.
Bruce hadn't dealt with such a slump before.

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Bruce had burst on to the New Zealand domestic scene during the 2014-15 season. Making his debut as a 23-year-old for Central Districts, he smashed 88 off 65 balls against Otago in the preliminary final of the Ford Trophy, New Zealand's premier List A tournament. At the receiving end of his onslaught, which included five fours and six sixes, were Neil Wagner, Jacob Duffy and Mark Craig.
ESPNcricinfo reported Bruce's arrival thus: "Not much about Bruce is common knowledge at present - not his age, not his place of birth, not his previous cricket pedigree, and not his playing style."
But soon, everyone took notice as he carried his form into red-ball cricket too, tallying 632 runs at an average of 57.45 and a strike rate of 70.30 in his first Plunket Shield season. In 12 innings, he scored six fifties and a hundred.
In fact, his first three seasons were like a dream. On the field, he scored runs across formats. Especially in T20 cricket, with his inventive strokeplay. Off the field, he spent a lot of his time playing golf with Mahela Jayawardene, who was with Central Districts then. A call-up for the national side was imminent.
In 2016, Bruce came close to making his ODI debut, but not for New Zealand. He has a British passport through his father, who was born in Edinburgh, and that made him eligible to play for Scotland. "I happened to be playing club cricket for Netherfield in 2016. Scotland was a few hours' drive north and I had a connection there with Grant Bradburn [the former New Zealand player who was the Scotland coach then]. So we tried accessing that avenue of playing out of Scotland."
In May 2016, in his first outing for Scotland Development XI, Bruce scored an unbeaten 132 against a touring Durham Academy side. A debut against the touring Afghanistan team looked on the cards. He even had the support of New Zealand Cricket and Central Districts - he knew his chances of playing for New Zealand in the future wouldn't be affected.
"It got to a stage where I would get to 50 and start counting down to 100. I would forget what I should have been doing, which is watching every single ball as hard as possible and making the best decision from there"
But he did not fulfil an ICC criterion: he had not lived in Scotland for long enough to represent them.
"Sometimes, these things happen for a reason," Bruce said. "As it happened, I came back to New Zealand the following season and I ended up representing the Black Caps in T20Is. So even if I had taken the field for Scotland, it would have been pretty short-lived."
Bruce's T20I debut was against Bangladesh in Napier in January 2017. Luke Ronchi handed over the caps to him and his fellow debutants Lockie Ferguson and Ben Wheeler.
"The message [from Ronchi] was pretty simple: just keep playing the way you have been playing at the domestic level," Bruce recalled. "I was a bit of a free spirit back then - it was just sort of see the ball, hit the ball. And it seemed to work for me.
"I took a catch early on in the game, and I remember the crowd [Bangladesh fans] sort of shouting at me, trying to stuff it up.
"It was a good game as we chased down the target. I remember batting with Kane Williamson. We had an unfortunate run-out where I was left stranded. But I said to him, 'Surely that means you got to stick with me for the next few games now.'"
In the next match, Bruce struck an unbeaten 59 off 39 to help New Zealand seal the series. However, in the following 12 innings, he managed only one 30-plus score and was subsequently dropped from the side.
He made a comeback with the second T20I against Sri Lanka in Pallekele in 2019 and scored 53 off 46 balls in a last-over win for New Zealand. But during his knock, he hurt his knee and was ruled out of the next game.
His next outing for New Zealand came only in early 2020, against India at home. He played the final two T20Is of the five-match series, and was dismissed without scoring in both.
"It was not easy," Bruce said. "In the last two games against India, I wasn't in a great headspace. My form had dipped and I was playing against probably the best team in the world at the time. So, it was going to be pretty tough to be successful."
Soon after that, the Covid-19 pandemic brought the sport, and the world, to a halt. And when cricket resumed, Bruce found himself out of the squad for the West Indies T20Is.
"That was a pretty tough time," he said. "I had been part of the last T20I squad before Covid, and then we had this big long break, and when the next T20 squad was announced, I never got a phone call or anything like that. It was sort of… not a dumping, but I just felt sort of left out. I knew my form didn't warrant being picked. But it's still nice to know [from the selectors ahead of the announcement] you are not going to be in the next squad even though you were in the last one. I held on to that for quite a bit. And it probably affected my next season."

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Bruce's white-ball form was still okay, if not spectacular. But not being able to score a hundred in red-ball cricket was weighing him down.
"The first couple of seasons it wasn't as much of a struggle because I knew I had scored a hundred the previous year. But then it got to a stage where I would get to 50 and start counting down to 100," he said. "So when I would get to 60, I would be, right, I've got 40 runs left. I would get to 70, I would be, right, I have got 30 runs left. With this build-up of wanting to get to a hundred so badly, I would forget what I should have been doing, which is watching every single ball as hard as possible and making the best decision from there.
"So it took a toll every time I got to 50. I was just counting down and, as most batters would say, that's probably not a good method. But that is what my mindset was. I needed to get to those three figures.
"To achieve that, I found myself trying to be so defensively minded, which actually was to my detriment. I was trying to be someone that I wasn't, and that took probably more toll when I was out there in the middle. So I would probably reach 50, but it was such a toll mentally that I would feel as if I had already batted for a long time.
"For four seasons, I hadn't performed to the level that was expected of me, or I expected of myself. And what everyone else was probably saying about me, I was saying it ten times worse to myself. I had sleepless nights knowing that I wasn't performing and was letting everyone down."
Bruce was "pretty lucky" that he was afforded lots of opportunities, and he repaid the faith in style.
In the 2021-22 Plunket Shield, not only did he end the century drought but also became the first batter in the tournament's history to score double-hundreds in back-to-back innings. His last three knocks in the season were 90*, 208* and 204* as he finished with a chart-topping 858 runs at an average of 143.00.
The first double-hundred was against Northern Districts in Whangarei. It was a good batting pitch but Northern Districts had quality bowlers in their line-up: Wagner, Scott Kuggeleijn, Brett Randell (the joint-leading wicket-taker of the season), and offspinner Joe Walker.
The second one came against Auckland in Napier, where his team was 11 for 3 when he came out to bat.
"I got into the season to find out who I was as a batter," Bruce said. "I was still struggling a wee bit, but more than anything I was searching for my identity again as a player. It is a work in progress but with that strong season, I got back to being in a better headspace in my cricket and off the field.
"To get over the line with a hundred and then turn it into a double-hundred and then do the same in the following game, it was actually more of relief rather than anything else. Obviously, I was really happy, but at the same time, I knew I hadn't done it for the last five years. So when you look at it in that context, yes, it was a pretty bleak sort of time. Hopefully, it's not another five-year break before the next one."
But how did he turn it around?
"I was having quite a good season without really scoring a hundred. I had a lot of not outs, a couple of 70s and another unbeaten fifty, before we declared or were bowled out. But yeah, in those last three games, I tried something different," he said. "It was standing out of my crease, probably an extra foot or so, and then moving across to an off-stump guard. It was uncomfortable in the starting but soon I felt a lot more comfortable. It is scary to think now that it took only a couple of 40-minute sessions working with our coach.
"By moving across, I figured out where my off stump was. As I was already on off stump, I knew I could leave everything outside my body and pick off the straight balls. And I could still pick up the short balls, which I love to, so it just made things a wee bit easier.
"In New Zealand conditions, the ball seams and swings quite a bit. Standing outside my crease made me feel as if I had taken bowled and lbw out of the equation. If I were to get out, it was going to be through my own error, not through a bowler bowling just a good ball. So not only I was giving myself the best opportunity to score runs but also a solid defence.
"When you change something, it doesn't always breed results. But I was fortunate that when I did that, I scored 90 not out before we declared."
But, wait, why declare when he was batting on 90 and the team was still trailing by 235?
"It will be a topic of conversation for many years to come, I think," Bruce said with a laugh. "Me and our four-day captain [Greg Hay] have a good relationship, so we agree to disagree.
"But basically, we were trying to force a result, because we had to win outright to stay alive in the tournament. I was given a couple of overs to get to the three figures and I only managed to get to 90. As it happened, we declared and Canterbury scored some quick runs and they put us in on day four. I think we were about 100 [99] for none at lunch, chasing 330 [317]. Then the rain came, and the match ended in a draw, so that probably compounded it because I was just ten runs away from what would have been my first hundred in a fair while.
"I still have arguments with our coach [Rob Walter] about it (laughs), and I let him know about my feelings about that one. But that might have spurred me on for the next two games, so we never know."
Earlier in the season, Bruce had notched up 193 runs (average 32.16, strike rate 113.52) in the Ford Trophy and 267 runs (average 38.14, strike rate 163.80) in the Super Smash. All that resulted in him being named the NZC domestic player of the year, jointly with Robbie O'Donnell.
"It [the award] is something I am pretty proud of," he said. "It's probably the best and the most depth that New Zealand cricket has had in a long time. Which means our domestic competitions are strong as the players coming from there are performing at the international level. So if you can keep performing against these guys at the domestic level, you're not far away from the Black Caps.
"But you also know that there's a lot of quality players in front of you that you need to be outperforming. So you know you've still got to bang the door down and stay optimistic."
Bruce, who is currently with New Zealand A on their tour to India, hasn't played at the senior level since his double-hundred against Auckland in April. He missed the first four-day match against India A in Bengaluru because of personal reasons. But he has prior experience of playing in India. He toured India with New Zealand A in 2017 as well, and then stayed on as he was part of the T20I squad.
"Having that experience has been vital; I know what to plan for," he said. "We're pretty fortunate that we were able to train on grass and had all different sorts of surfaces prepared [despite it being the winter off-season in New Zealand]. So we've prepared for surfaces that turn square, keep low, or are green. I don't think in 2017 we quite had this sort of preparation."
But Bruce doesn't have a goal for the tour, neither in terms of runs nor hundreds. Perhaps, in trying to find his identity, he has learnt that having goals, and the expectations that come with them, may not always be the best thing.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo