Jimmy Neesham, ‘not a cliché-maker’

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When Jimmy Neesham was named in the thirteen-man squad for the second Test against India, all the way back in February 2014, it was very much as a utility cricketer.

It was his second Test-squad, having been brought in as cover for Corey Anderson in the lead up to the third Test against the West Indies two months prior. On that occasion, he was a like-for-like backup for a tender Anderson.

In February, however, he was brought in as a fourth seamer who could do more – officially replacing Doug Bracewell in the squad, national selector Bruce Edgar stated that it was Neesham’s multi-faceted skills that had borne him his chance.

“We see Jimmy as a genuine all-rounder who can play a number of roles for us,” Edgar said to media. “His form with both bat and ball in the Plunket Shield this season speaks for itself.”

Edgar was right – his form was impressive. In his four Plunket Shield matches that season, before the Test call-up, he’d totalled 342 runs at 68.40, and snared 19 wickets at 24.94. And it was just a few days before his Test debut that Neesham hit a better-than-run-a-ball 147, and took a four-for, against Central Districts.

“It was a bit of a watershed year for my First Class batting that year. To be honest, I’d been under-performing in four-day for Otago and Auckland before that, for a couple of years. And that season, I think I might’ve averaged around 60 or 70 with the bat in First Class cricket, so I really found, I suppose, a method of scoring runs.

“And it did help to have a consistency of play, for a few games in a row, as opposed to coming in and out with the Blackcaps. So, for me, yeah I did feel in really good touch. And I suppose that’s the time that you want to make your debut in Test cricket – when you are batting well, so you can just continue taking what’s working from First Class cricket and just transfer it to a different format.”

But while it was his batting that had been most impressive, it was his bowling that got him his Test cap, in place of spinner Ish Sodhi. I don’t think anyone has forgotten what happened during that Test – certainly, no New Zealander has.

Thanks to New Zealand’s 84 year wait for a Test triple century, the last morning of that match became about a lot more than the result of the game, with McCullum finally superseding Martin Crowe’s 299.

Having watched Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling bat for 133 overs, Neesham joined the former with the team score 446, and McCullum’s score 229. If the 300 was being thought about, it certainly wasn’t spoken about – the lead was still only 200, and spectators’ minds were still on a McCullum-Watling masterclass.

“It was certainly the longest I’ve ever waited to bat in my life. I think it was something like 100 overs in the end. I was just willing them to keep going, and keep going, basically. I didn’t have any selfish ambition to get out there and start scoring runs or anything, I was just happy to see the lads getting closer, and closer to a draw.

“And thankfully, when I did get out there in the end, myself and Brendon were able to forge another partnership, and get us even closer.”

Before the Baz-BJ heroics, however, New Zealand had come perilously close to humiliation. New Zealand’s first innings had folded for 192 – and could have been much worse at 86/6 and 133/7. Neesham had made a brisk 33 before deciding to leave the ball a shade too late, edging it through to ‘keeper Dhoni – a shot I suggested to Neesham “probably wasn’t exceptional”.

From there, India clouted 438, with Ajinkya Rahane punctuating the innings with 118.

And then New Zealand collapsed again, being 94/5 when Watling joined his captain at the wicket. It brought back memories of the first Test, where New Zealand were 11/3, then 15/4, then 25/5, and eventually 105 all out in their second innings.

But the dressing room wasn’t despondent.

“Well, first of all, I tried to leave a ball outside off stump and tickled it through to the ‘keeper, so I wouldn’t have called it an awful shot.

“There’s a natural ebb and flow of the environment of the dressing room depending on how the game situation is. And, to be honest, I’d never been in the dressing room before in Test match cricket, so I didn’t quite have anything to compare it to, I suppose.

“I think we were always, not confident, but we knew that we had the ability to bat the game out for a draw. And once we got those first 40 or 50 overs under the belt, and we started to dig our heels in a little bit, then there was just a sense of belief the whole time that whoever came in would dig in and make a big contribution to the team.

“And the way Brendon and BJ batted for nigh on two days was really a catalyst for us in that series.”

After McCullum and Watling ground out runs, McCullum and Neesham flaunted them. The run rate of the previous partnership – 2.86 – was blown away by the run rate the latter pair cantered along at, 4.57.

So on the morning of day five, with a Basin Reserve resolutely heaving with supporters and excitement, Neesham brought up a 123-ball century. It was followed the next over by what the spectators really wanted. Brendon McCullum’s triple hundred.

“It was a bizarre experience, really. There was a palpable difference in the atmosphere from when I was on strike compared to when Brendon was on strike for that period. I think it was pretty clear what everyone was there to see, and there were a whole lot of jitters around the ground when Brendon was batting, and when I was on strike it all sort of relaxed and toned down a bit.

“I wouldn’t change the way it all happened, I think it was perfect to bring up my hundred just before he did, and then sit back and watch history, I suppose.”

Strange to think, given all that went on, that it was only six years prior that Jimmy Neesham was in a very different place in his life – winning the National Bank Fast Bowling Challenge (for secondary school cricketers) by bowling 132km/h beamers. Neesham laughs at that.

“I think as a few fast bowlers have shown over the years, when you’re really trying to bowl as fast as you can, the odd beamer does let slip every now and then. The runner-up in that competition [Lockie Ferguson] is still one of my really good mates these days, and I still give him a bit of ribbing about it every now and then.”

Neesham was a student at Auckland Grammar School at that stage, and already showing promise. He represented Auckland at Under-17 and Under-19 levels, and went on to play for New Zealand Under-19s.

The summer after his Fast Bowling Challenge success, he virtually single-handedly won the 2008/09 national under-19 final. He took two top-order scalps at a reasonable economy, and then top-scored with 69 from just 48 balls. Neesham’s 11 fours were almost as many as the entire Canterbury side’s 13 – a team including Tom Latham, Dutch international Logan van Beek, MCC Young Cricketer Tim Johnston, and Canterbury senior rep Matt McEwan.

“I think the main thing is just about learning to meet challenges. What, I suppose, people wouldn’t see is that my year in each of the tournaments didn’t go that well at all. And I managed to, thankfully, have an opportunity to go away and spend the rest of the season getting better again, and then come back in my second year and have the attributes to perform quite strongly.

“So, I think the main thing is having a wakeup call there, going to those national tournaments and realising ‘oh, I’m not as good as I thought I was’ for a start. And I suppose getting the desire and the spark to try and improve and get better, and come back to those tournaments again and perform at a much higher level.”

It was around the time of fast bowling challenges, national age-group tournaments and high school cricketing success that Neesham decided to focus on cricket – up until then he’d played an array of sports.

“I think, to be honest, it was just what I was best at. We had a really, really good team in my early teens, and moving forward from there, with a lot of guys that I’m still really good friends with now. It was just what I enjoyed the most, and what we had the most success at. I think definitely having a strong team – with a few players who were much better than I was, and chose to do other things in life – having a successful team and having a lot of fun was probably the main reason.”

But all requirements aligned, and eventually Neesham broke into the Auckland senior side. His cricketing maturity had been helped by a season of English league cricket, for West Bromwich Dartmouth. His side came mid-table in the Birmingham and District Premier League, but the experience offered him the chance to develop the mental side of his game.

“I think league cricket can be a burden sometimes on a player, and it can develop you a lot as well, depending on how you approach it. I think it’s probably not the best method of getting better as a batsman or bowler technically, but as far as the mental side of the game goes, there’s not much better way to develop handling under pressure, and I suppose having a game on your shoulders, than playing league cricket.

“Especially in the league I was in – basically, if we lost, it was my fault no matter how well I played. It was basically my responsibility to guarantee the team a win every game, and it puts a lot of pressure on your shoulders. And when you come back to First Class cricket, where you have other people around you who can also play, it puts you in good stead to take the bull by the horns in crucial situations and lead the team to a win there.”

After coming back from the UK, Neesham managed to break into the Auckland side. He had stiff competition, with the Auckland batting order fairly packed in all formats. It meant he didn’t first break into the side until the back-end of the 2009/10 summer, making his T20 and First Class debuts in the last matches of the respective seasons.

After one more season of limited opportunities with Auckland, he headed to the deep south – Otago.

“I just wasn’t getting enough game time I think, at all. We had a pretty high-quality team at that stage, and we were winning a few trophies. And I just basically couldn’t break my way in, as a young player.

“Vaughn Johnson became the coach at Otago, and we’d worked together when he was in the national bowling coach capacity on a couple of occasions at Auckland. He basically gave me a call and said that he wanted to have me down there, and that I wouldn’t have a contract or anything, and wouldn’t start ahead of anyone, but I’d basically be in the squad and have a chance to push my case.

“I think I sat out the first four or five games of that season, and then finally got my chance, and never really looked back.”

Coming into that side, Neesham had a stack of senior heads to turn to – Craig Cumming, Ian Butler, Neil Broom, Warren McSkimming, Aaron Redmond – and the team environment at Otago meant that the presence of those players was beneficial, not intimidating.

“It’s always a bit of a daunting occasion, I suppose, when you join a new team, and you’re meeting guys that you’ve seen play on TV, and you sorta see them as Blackcaps and international players, and now, all of a sudden, you’re sharing a dressing room with them.

“The main thing with Otago is there isn’t that separation between the senior players and the junior players, you just go into the group, and you’re treated like anyone else. And they enjoy going out and having a couple of beers as a group and that sort of thing. It’s a much more accepting culture than, I suppose, it was at Auckland at the time.”

It was after solidifying his spot at Otago that Neesham took the next jump up – to the international stage. It came on a strange tour of South Africa in 2012/13, which was split into three parts. The three Twenty20s were played at the start of the series, with both sides performing adeptly. The two Tests were held in the middle, with New Zealand getting horribly mauled – South Africa batted just twice over both games.

“To be honest, I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to the Tests on that tour. I was a bit overwhelmed by the occasion of debuting for my country. And the way that tour was set up, I think it was the Twenty20s first and then we actually went home for a couple of weeks, while the Tests were on, then flew back for the one-dayers.

“I was quite busy with the flights, and playing domestic cricket back here, and then flying back over. And obviously worrying a lot about my debut series and how it was going to go. The Tests didn’t really have a huge impact on how I was thinking about the game, I was just excited to be involved in the limited overs format.”

Then came the three ODIs, where New Zealand recovered from the Test woes to win the series. The first win came courtesy of a James Franklin special, the second thanks to one of the great ODI knocks from Kane Williamson (with the added bonus of five run outs in the South African innings).

And Neesham agrees – that Williamson innings was an amazing knock.

“Yeah, it was! We actually managed to bat together for a little while in that game, until he completely sold me up the river and ran me out in about the fortieth over. That was unbelievable, I still remember that innings vividly to this day. It was one of, probably, five or six innings from Kane that take your speech away. That was, yeah, unbelievable and I think he’s improved on that promise that he was showing back then, and started to delivery far more regularly, and much more impressively.”

For Neesham, personally, it wasn’t a great tour – his scores over the six games he played were 10, 12, 0, 5 and 13 (with one did-not-bat), and he picked up just one wicket.

He didn’t find himself facing too much of a change in media exposure, however, and wasn’t overly disheartened by his performances.

“There wasn’t a whole lot to cope with, to be fair, from the off-field point of view. That was a tour that was a bit unusual, I suppose, in the fact that there were, I think, six debutants picked. And it was a very new team, for obvious reasons.

“I think it was more a bedding-in for me, and an opportunity for guys like me and Corey [Anderson] and Mitch [McClenaghan] to get a taste of international cricket. And it always would have been a tough ask to come in and perform from ball one against a very good South African team.

“I sort of took it on the chin when I got dropped after that series, and went back to domestic cricket and knew what I had to do to get better, and what level I had to reach to be successful in international cricket. To come back and get my Test debut a year or so later, and do well from there, is probably down, in no small part, to that little taste I had of international cricket that early.”

From there, Neesham had the chance to play in ODIs against Bangladesh, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, India, and in the Champions League for Otago, all before making his Test debut. But he didn’t see those series and tournaments as opportunities to push towards a Test slot.

“When we went to the Champions League, I was just having a good time really. Enjoying my cricket, trying to bowl quick, and hit the ball a long way. And the success we had as a group was down, I suppose, to Brendon’s leadership again, which is a bit of a theme in New Zealand cricket at the moment.

“But just that no fear attitude, and going out and believing that you’re good enough to win, and that you’re good enough to take your game to the other team. I continued that through on a big run in all those one day series, and just tried to continue playing with no fear, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

“But I certainly never had Test cricket in my mind as an end-goal to those series. It was a big surprise, first of all, when I got picked for the Tests. And that’s just come from playing my natural game, and continuing to be attacking even in the longer format.”

Thanks to his all-round abilities, Neesham has been used in a multitude of roles already. He’s opened the batting, been a frontline bowler and batted at eight, been a middle-order batsman who bowls. At varying times, he’s expected to be a frontline bat, frontline bowler, batsman who bowls, bowler who can hold a stick, and genuine all-rounder.

That adaptability is something that Neesham sees as key to his international career.

“It depends a lot on who the rest of the personnel in the squad are. There are times when me and Corey are in the same team, when my role can be batting at eight and bowling eight or ten overs. Whereas if he’s not around, it could be a top-six and chipping in with a couple of overs scenario. It depends a lot on what the make-up is, and also the conditions we’re playing in.

“We saw on the tour of Bangladesh, on the slower and lower conditions I was probably more a factor with the ball than I was at home in the quicker conditions against South Africa. I think it’s definitely something that I’m looking to develop, is having a bit more adaptability to different conditions. And that’s something that will hopefully come with more experience.”

Since Neesham’s debut, he’s played in a T20 World Cup, in a Test series win in the West Indies, a Test tour to Pakistan in the UAE, a home Test series against Sri Lanka, as well as a throng of limited overs matches and series.

It was on that tour to the UAE, however, that New Zealand faced perhaps their toughest trial – and it had nothing to do with the game going on.

“What happened was pretty devastating for a few of the guys in our team, and I think it affected everyone really, on the morning of the first day. And I think it was pretty unanimous from all the players in our group that no one wanted to continue playing that game. But the powers that be had other things in mind, and decided to make us continue the Test.

“Obviously, if we could have our time again, I’d probably say that most of the lads would’ve refused to keep going.”

Phil Hughes’ death shocked the entire cricketing community – few remained unaffected by the accident, and it certainly cast a shadow over the third Test between Pakistan and New Zealand. The result – a Kiwi win that will be viewed as momentous in future years – was very much palled by the events, and that was evident in the New Zealanders’ outlooks. There were few joyous emotions, fewer celebrations.

“The result of the Test was pretty irrelevant in the end, but I thought it was heartening to see how Brendon and Kane, especially, performed and for the lads to stick together in what was a pretty high-stakes environment. And come away with what was a good result in the end.”

Retrospectively, that victory and the series result (1-1) was further evidence of how far New Zealand have developed. ODI series wins against virtually all-comers (barring South Africa in late 2014), and Test series victories against India and Sri Lanka, in the West Indies, and the result in Pakistan all provided evidence of New Zealand’s climb. Since Neesham’s recent injury troubles, they’ve added World Cup runners-up and a drawn Test series in England to the CV.

Some have suggested this is the greatest New Zealand team ever, or at least one of (something this writer, as an old fart at heart, would dispute – citing 1949, 1961-62, 1986 and 1999), and it’s undeniably been one of the greatest ascendant periods in New Zealand cricketing history. Is Neesham proud to have been a part of it?

“I haven’t really thought of it that way, to be honest. A few journalists have been talking about it being one of the best teams in our history, but I think for us as a group there’s still a whole lot of unfinished business that we want to complete. I don’t think we’re anywhere near the finished product yet. And I suppose the series in Australia, and when they come back, this season is going to be a good litmus test for us as far as where we are against the very top team.

“But we’re definitely taking strides in the right direction, and under Brendon’s leadership and a couple of the other senior guys as well, we’ve definitely managed to come a long way in the last two years.”

While he injured himself while the tournament was happening, Neesham was very much fit and available when the World Cup squad was named earlier this year.

Despite being considered one of the outstanding one-day talents in New Zealand, he was omitted – in favour of the (then) less publically-popular Grant Elliott, who ended up etching his name into New Zealand lore in the semi-final.

“Yeah, obviously it was immensely disappointing to miss out on the World Cup. And having said that, with the back giving out the way it did a few days later, it was probably the best way of the two ways for it to happen. I think I possibly would have rather it had happened that way, than have been picked in the World Cup squad and had to pull out through injury later. I think it probably had a little silver lining in the end.

“Moving forward, and looking toward the future, I think there’s definitely a spot there in the one day side. And especially if myself and Corey are going to be working in tandem in all three formats, there are gonna be times when each of us is going to be injured, and we’re both going to have to fill in for the other person’s spot I suppose.

“I think it’s no secret that I think, and everyone thinks, that I’ve underperformed in one day cricket to date in my career, but there are a few extenuating circumstances that have made it a bit more difficult. Hopefully, in the next series, if I can declare myself fit for Zimbabwe, then that’ll be the first stepping stone on the road to getting those career stats back into line with where they should be.”

The format where Neesham has had far more success is the longer format – Test cricket. It’s often said that Neesham and Corey Anderson are fighting for one spot in the XI, and he agrees that’s the case at present.

“I think it is the case right now. If you look at our upper-middle order with Kane, Ross and Baz there’s only space for one more batsman at six there. So we have been battling for the same spot. Having said that, when Baz decides to hang up the boots and a spot opens up there at five, I don’t see any reason why me and Corey can’t come in at five and six together and share the bowling load.

“To make a Test spot mine, I just have to keep doing what I’ve been doing. If I continue to put the numbers up that I have been over my first eight Tests, hopefully that spot will become more secure over the near future.”

Over Neesham’s Blackcaps career so far – eight Tests and 27 limited overs internationals – there have been a number of highlights. From centuries in his first two Tests, to McCullum and Williamson spectaculars, to series victories against varying oppositions in varying conditions. A Test series is what Neesham selects as his highlight of his international career to date.

“I think I would have to say in the changing room after winning the Test series in the West Indies. Obviously your Test debut is a special one, and for anyone to perform that way on Test debut and witness Brendon’s innings was an unbelievable experience. But to go on the West Indies tour a wee bit unsure of Test cricket, and the team a little unsure of how well it could perform, and to come back and perform like that and win 2-1 was definitely the most pleasing moment of my career.”

Not trying to run out Jadeja then?

“No, not intentionally getting Dhoni off strike for the end of the over.”

Outside of the international game, Neesham has also been involved in both the IPL and CPL – tournaments where, rather than playing for your own team or nation, you’re playing for whoever bids the highest. And Neesham believes it is harder to get pumped up for matches like that.

“Yeah, I think that goes without saying. You grow up through all your childhood dreaming of playing for the Blackcaps and playing Test cricket, and when you finally find yourself in the changing room it can be a surreal time, and a surreal feeling I suppose.

“And often you go off to Twenty20 tournaments playing for franchises that you haven’t heard of before, and that sort of thing. And you still want to win, and still want to perform well for your team, but it doesn’t have that same guttural instinct, passion, that it does for doing something that you’ve always dreamed of doing.

“I love the tournaments like the IPL or the Caribbean Premier League, I think they’re crucial to your develop as a cricketer, to rub shoulders with that quality of cricketer. But if I had to pick one, I’d be playing for the Blackcaps every day of the week.”

On the subject of non-international cricket – indeed, non-cricket – a challenge facing every professional sportsman is the lack of security in the job. Neesham’s recent back injury is testament to just how fickle the life of a sportsman can be – and he’s been preparing the groundwork for life outside cricket.

“I’ve been working a little bit on some journalism stuff actually, over the last six months. I think this injury was a bit of a wake-up call for me that cricket might not last forever, and that if I got another injury like this in six months’ time and it ended my career – then would what I do, from then on in?

“I’ve been talking to a few people in radio and journalism and that sort of thing, and there’s been some promising leads. But having said that, it’s been quite difficult while still trying to rehab and get back into the cricket side of things.”

So would he consider becoming a stand-up comic?

“I don’t know if I’d be any good at it, to be fair. I think all the stuff I do is bouncing off other people, and responding to people on Twitter and on radio, and that sort of thing. So I don’t know how it’d go if I was just plonked on a stage in front of people and asked to be funny. It could be a bit more of a challenge.”

His recent back injury has afforded him the chance to become a Twitterlebrity, for want of a less abhorrent term, but the rehab from that is starting to come along well, and he hopes to hit the park again soon.

“It’s feeling good, it’s been a long and slow road. I’m back bowling now off a full run-up, and it’s just a matter of managing the soreness you get coming back into the game after any long layoff. And trying to prevent having any sort of recurrence, first of all, of the back injury, and then also trying to avoid any other sort of niggly injuries that can happen when you come back in.”

As probably the first cricketer to be a proper Twitter character, rather than the typical run-of-the-mill social media-ing sportsman, the injury layoff has given him the chance to become something of a cult figure. Was he expecting that?

“Not really, no. I don’t think I’ve ever sort of looked at it like that, it’s sort of just an extension of my personality really. I haven’t seen it as a tool to get to any goal or any number of followers, I think I just use it when I’m a bit bored and feel like saying something stupid. And if people go along with it and a conversation sparks up, then that’s fine, and if it doesn’t then that’s fine too. And I suppose it’s something that’s been a bit beat up in the media, as, basically, someone who’s not a cliché-maker, and actually says something, as opposed to answering every question with banalities.

“I think I’ll continue that way, and hopefully I don’t cop too much stick for it when I get back in the unit. It’s something I’m hoping to continue.”

But it does throw up one question, and it relates to this Tweet:

So, what on earth compelled him to buy a dolphin-shaped ring?

“Oh, yeah. Yeah. That was a long story. I think I was about 20, and she said she’d really like a ring for her birthday or something, and I was terrified by the thought of getting anything that looked like an engagement ring. So I went down to the store and looked for the ring that looked least like an engagement ring, and the only thing that I saw in there was a silver one that had a sort of dolphin outline down the side of it, and I thought it looked quite cool.

“Jeez, it went down like a lead balloon.”

Neesham’s claim to fame, before on-debut hundreds and Twitter comedy, was the #UnleashTheNeesh hashtag developed by the Otago cricket Twitter account. It’s undeniably catchy, but it’s been used before – albeit in the pre-social media era.

I asked Neesham if he knew who the first to have that phrase used for them was. His first reaction was surprise it had an earlier owner.

“Really? Nah, I couldn’t think of him.”

The answer is Gerard Neesham, an AFL player in the 1970s and 80s, who later became a coach. I personally didn’t have a clue about this – I was researching the phrase, and this article popped up.

“Really? I had no idea about that. I thought it was a bloody brilliant marketing thing from whoever was running the Otago Twitter account during the Champions League.

And if Gerard is out there, give Neesh v2 a yell – there might be a drink in it for you.

“Well maybe I’ll have to give him a call and we can have a beer some time.”

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