It’s 5:39 AM in Wellington. Almost dawn yet a certain man is glued to the TV screen the entire night. Not for a moment, Glenn Pocknall felt like hitting the bed because, for him, everything was coming together. The culmination of a dream.
“Devon just wanted to be a Blackcap when he came down to Wellington but pretty unbelievable really to think what he has achieved yesterday,” Pocknall, the Wellington Firebirds coach, tells cricket.com.
“Look, I obviously know he's a very good player and I've seen it first hand with how successful he's been for Wellington, but to do it on the world stage is stuff that you can't think up. Absolutely over the moon for him. Just so happy for him. He's worked very hard since he was a young kid. Just really stoked that all that hard work has given him an absolutely unbelievable memory for the rest of his life.”
After struggling to carve his niche in the franchise competition in South Africa, the Gauteng wicket-keeper batsman moved to Wellington where he subsequently worked with Bruce Edgar and Glenn Pocknall, the Head Coach and Assistant Coach of Wellington Firebirds respectively. After moving from South Africa, Conway knew that he couldn’t afford to go easy. He put his head down and worked doubly hard on his cricket while working as a part-time coach in different clubs to make ends meet. However, a chance eluded him till he was called up as an emergency substitute for regular wicket-keeper Tom Blundell who was called up to the national team.
It was as if he was waiting for that opportunity with a bated breath. He made full use of the chance to pile up two 50-plus scores in the first three games and never looked back ever since. “Devon's been very happy with the environment. He's been given some solidarity by us in terms of coaches and in terms of what we want out of them. What I mean by that is just the consistency in the batting position. Behind the scenes, we just worked really hard along with him, obviously. But I think the starting point was that he wanted to change the way he played cricket and the way he batted specifically,” Pocknall elaborated.
“So, that, I reckon, was the evolution of him as a cricketer. He went away and he looked at some of the world's best batsmen's techniques. And then he came back, and then we had a chat. We tried to experiment with a few of those different techniques. When we landed on one of them, we just spent five months working really hard to perfect it.”
In the last three seasons, Conway has been an absolute superstar on the New Zealand domestic circuit. He topped the run-scoring charts in five out of six domestic competitions of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 season. His transition to the ODI and T20I team was rather smooth-sailing, but opportunities in the whites had to come at the cost of the same batsman he had twice replaced for his Wellington debut in List A and T20s.
In the limited opportunities, Blundell, the reticent Wellington lad, had done alright to deserve a long go.
However, perhaps keeping BJ Watling’s imminent retirement and Blundell’s future demotion to the No.7 spot in mind, the New Zealand management handed Conway the debut as an opener at the Home of Cricket - Lord’s. And what a decision it turned out to be! He became the first batsman to score a double century on Test debut on the English soil. Pocknall feels that a slight shift in thought process played a big role in Conway launching his game to a whole new level.
“Devon has really developed his mental game. And what I mean by that is that, in a training environment, he's really prepared to push himself through a bit of pain and face some challenges. And obviously, you get that at the highest level. But what we tried to do together is to replicate Test match conditions, effectively ― the ball swinging, the ball coming at your head, the ball being up and down, challenging fields, challenging situations.
“We just tried to put him in as many situations as we could to try and train his mind to think positively by being in those pressure situations. So it's been pretty cool to see it work. Because look, 98% of the time, it doesn't work with the players. But with his attitude and his willingness to take on those challenges, it has paid off, which is awesome.”
Did he make any technical changes to suit the standard of modern-day Test match batting and mould himself into an all-format star? “Oh Yes, we only made one small change. That was the way he prepared himself, in terms of his feet movement facing up to the bowler. Well, that's where Devon did some research on Virat Kohli, Joe Root, and AB de Villiers,” Pocknall revealed.
“He looked at their position at release ― when the bowler was bowling the ball ― and we looked at his position at release, and we discussed that and came to the conclusion that it needs to be slightly different. We just changed his feet position and changed his trigger. So basically, he was giving himself more time once the ball was delivered. Prior to that, he was standing still on the crease. And look, he was still a great batsman ― don't get me wrong. But by making this small change, it just gave him a lot more time. It enabled his position at release ― when the ball was coming down to him ― to be a brilliant position to defend, leave, or attack which is a key part of batting at the highest level.”
However, nothing in life would prepare you to open in English conditions for the first time. It could have been baptism by fire and none would’ve batted an eyelid for the challenge the position evokes, but Conway made it seem like a walk in the park. This, despite opening only twice in his first-class career.
“I think he just got given that opportunity from the Blackcaps coach, and I think any better would just take it. But yeah, for us, he batted at three every single match ― other than for one game. And #3 is a hard position as well because you could be in for the first over, or you could have your pads on for two sessions. So I think, with him being exposed to three, he certainly got exposed to the elements of a green pitch ― the ball swinging, the ball seaming, the bounce.
“The New Zealand conditions really helped him, I guess, in terms of preparation for being an opener, because he'd effectively been doing it anyway, even though it was just a different position. And the way he trains is, we set up a lot of environments to really challenge him in terms of the swinging ball. We just try and replicate that because the conditions here, as I'm sure you're aware, seam and swing, and they're very similar to English conditions. It was just a natural step that, I thought, to succeed over there because he was so used to facing the swinging ball,” the Wellington man, who had earlier served as the coach of New Zealand A team, added with a reminder that many such feats await the 29-year old in the near future.
And who can really disagree with that? He has already given a dazzling reminder of the bright future that lies ahead of him. As Pocknall believes, this is just the start of a long haul of dominance -- the start of the Devon Conway era. But for Pocknall himself, it was the end of a long wait to see his ward donning the whites for New Zealand.