'Keep adapting, keep learning, keep enjoying it' - how Southee transformed his T20 game

New Zealand pacer talks about his method, and what's made him successful at the T20 World Cup

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Tim Southee has taken at least one wicket on every occasion at the T20 World Cup  •  Getty Images

Tim Southee has taken at least one wicket on every occasion at the T20 World Cup  •  Getty Images

For four men's T20 World Cups in a row, Tim Southee had little success. In 2010, he was dropped mid-tournament after Albie Morkel hit four of the eight balls he bowled to him for six. In 2012, he was New Zealand's leading wicket-taker - but they lost four out of five games. In 2014, he was dropped after two games, conceding 92 runs in eight overs. Two years later, he spent the tournament running the drinks.
But in 2021, Southee has been a bowler transformed: he has bowled four overs in all six of New Zealand's games, taking at least one wicket on every occasion. His most expensive spell cost 26 runs against India and across the World Cup his economy rate is 5.75, despite the majority of his overs being bowled in the powerplay.
"You're always looking to evolve and get better, finding ways to improve your game - especially when you've been playing for a while," Southee tells ESPNcricinfo. "Sides start to work you out after a period of time so you have to keep adapting, keep learning, and keep enjoying it: the willingness to learn and the hunger to keep getting better has always been there for me."
Southee's method in this World Cup has been simple. In the powerplay - in which he has conceded only 4.71 runs per over - he has regularly hit the middle of the pitch, only rarely looking to swing the new ball by bowling full. When he has returned in the middle overs and at the death, he has eschewed yorkers - 86.7% of his balls outside of the powerplay have pitched on a good length or shorter - and looked to vary his pace.
"We look to swing the new ball," he explains. "There's been a little bit there at times but when you play in this part of the world, you go in with the mindset that there's not going to be a lot so that if it is moving around a bit, it becomes easier. It's a fine line in the powerplay between getting too full and looking for some swing but at all three venues, hard lengths have been the toughest to hit.
"At the death, it's changed. You have to keep learning: when I first started, the low full toss was considered a half-decent delivery at the end. Now, guys can hit 360 degrees and can hit so well that your margin for error in terms of your yorker is so small. That presents opportunities to come up with new things: I've been working on a knuckleball, offcutter and legcutter. To have those options is a really good thing going into that death phase."
Kane Williamson has used his bowlers aggressively throughout the tournament, recognising a fundamental principle of T20 cricket: wickets are more valuable the earlier they are taken. In Wednesday night's semi-final against England in Abu Dhabi, Adam Milne, Trent Boult and Southee bowled in overs 14-16 in order to break Moeen Ali and Dawid Malan's partnership, with Ish Sodhi and James Neesham held back until the death.
After Milne and Boult had conceded one boundary between them, the first ball of Southee's final over was hit for six, but the second drew a thin under-edge to remove Malan. "Our mindset is to be aggressive," Southee says. "If you can keep taking regular wickets, it's the fastest way to slow a side down and we know that with a batting line-up like England's, you need to pick up wickets throughout."
Williamson also placed major emphasis on match-ups, giving Mitchell Santner, normally a key cog in his attack, a solitary over. "For him to only bowl one over in a semi-final, going into it, you probably wouldn't think that would be the case," Southee says, "but having Moeen Ali there, who matches up pretty well to balls spinning into him? It just didn't seem like the right option.
"The analyst sits down with the bowling and batting coaches who then come up with plans and present them to the group. You take what you can from that meeting and come up with your own plans as well, and Kane is across them all. There's a lot of information thrown around before the game but a lot of it comes down to Kane and his gut feels out there as well."
"It's tough being on the road for three or four months but it's an absolute honour to represent New Zealand. If you can do that across all formats, it's a real honour, and you can't do that forever."
Tim Southee
Southee, 32, speaks with the authority of a senior player and one of four men with over 100 T20I wickets but his involvement in this tournament was hardly guaranteed. Going unsold in the IPL auctions for 2020 and 2021 (he was a late replacement for the UAE leg this year) was a mark of his stock's decline after six consecutive seasons involved, and after a peripheral role in the 50-over World Cup two years ago, others would have considered giving up white-ball cricket altogether to focus on extending their Test careers.
"I remember talking to Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad when we were over in England," he recalls. "They were saying that at the time it was a tough pill to swallow, not playing white-ball cricket, but looking back now they reckon they might not be playing while trying to juggle all formats. But in New Zealand we don't have a lot of players: there's a number of key guys that just between all three formats.
"It's a challenge at times to chop and change - after this we go to India, play three T20s, and then have two days to prepare for a Test match - but we probably don't play enough Test cricket just to play that. It's tough, especially with a young family at home, being on the road for three or four months but it's an absolute honour to represent New Zealand. If you can do that across all formats, it's a real honour, and you can't do that forever."
And so to the final. Along with Martin Guptill, Boult and Williamson, Southee is one of four players in New Zealand's likely XI who also appeared in the 50-over World Cup final against Australia six-and-a-half years ago, and took some punishment from David Warner and Michael Clarke during a comfortable run chase.
"There's a lot of personnel changes since then - a different format, a different part of the world, and a long time ago," he says. "In any sport, growing up - rugby, cricket, you name it - there's always that rivalry between New Zealand and Australia. It's always a great occasion, especially in a final. We've been playing some pretty good cricket. Hopefully we can turn out one more performance."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98