Devon Conway speaks to Mark Geenty about the stunning start to his Test career which saw him named a Cricketer of the Year in the 2022 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
Devon Conway’s patience had already been tested when he strode through the Lord’s Long Room to make his Test debut on a sun-drenched June morning: only a few weeks short of his 30th birthday, he was playing his 109th first-class match, having qualified for New Zealand nine months earlier. And he was opening the batting, which he had rarely done before.
More suspense ensued as Conway – calm on the outside, a bundle of nervous energy within – watched Tom Latham face the first 18 balls of the series, from James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Conway recalls: “The over before, Broady said really loud, ‘Is this going to be the longest someone has not faced a ball on debut?’ My biggest memory is him running in – he swung it away and I let it go by. Then I thought: ‘I can see the ball, it’s not too unfamiliar.’”
Over the next day and a half, the left-handed Conway did not simply announce himself to the cricketing world: he shouted through a megaphone. It came as no surprise to those who had watched him gorge on runs ever since arriving in Wellington from Johannesburg in September 2017. A checked drive off Broad soon fizzed through extra cover, the first of 22 fours in almost ten hours. Watertight defence and clinical accumulation occasionally gave way to flamboyance, notably when Conway swatted Ollie Robinson through square leg to raise his century. Next day, he pulled Mark Wood for his only six of the innings to bring up the first double-hundred by a Test debutant in England. Four balls later, he was last to go, run out by Joe Root at the second attempt, for exactly 200.
But he was not done. A knock of 80 helped set up New Zealand’s first Test win at Edgbaston, and a first series victory in England in 22 years. Then, in the inaugural World Test Championship final, against India at the Rose Bowl, Conway’s first-innings 54 proved the game’s highest score in tricky conditions, and paved the way for a historic New Zealand triumph. At Taunton, Somerset unfurled the red carpet for their new import, who had previously played six seasons of league cricket in England for five different teams, including Taunton Deane. He averaged 61 from eight T20 Blast innings, and 40 from three in the Championship.
Not everything, it’s true, went his way. Back at Lord’s, this time for Southern Brave in The Hundred, Conway broke a finger, which meant eight weeks without gripping a bat, including 14 days in an isolation hotel back in New Zealand. Then, in the T20 World Cup semi-final at Abu Dhabi in November, after tormenting England once more, he instinctively punched his bat in frustration when he was stumped for 46. Next day, in an emotional address to team-mates, he revealed he had fractured a bone in his right hand. He was out of the final against Australia, and the subsequent two-Test tour of India.
It meant another gloomy flight home, though Conway soon lifted his spirits by writing a summary of the 12 months since his international debut, a home T20 against West Indies. By the end of 2021, that format alone had brought him an average of 50 and a strike-rate of 139 (in three ODIs, all against Bangladesh, he averaged 75). “I jotted down all these really cool things that had happened – the first time in my life I’d written things down. Along with that, there are the lows that balance things out. But it was nice to take that moment to reflect on everything.”
DEVON PHILIP CONWAY was born in Johannesburg on July 8, 1991, the youngest of Denton and Sandy Conway’s three children. His parents ran an office-products store, and Devon and his sisters, Candice and Charne, grew up on a plot of land near the airport. Among the farm animals, he played cricket and football, hit golf balls and rode quad bikes. Denton’s sporting passions were kart-racing and football, but he coached Devon’s cricket team; his first representative side were Gauteng Under-13. At King Edward VII Preparatory School, he was one year ahead of the future South African wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock, still a close friend, but they parted ways when Conway earned a sporting bursary to nearby St John’s College. “That was probably the best decision my parents made for me,” he says.
At 14, he chose cricket ahead of a potential career as a central midfielder; at 17, he made his first-class debut for Gauteng in March 2009, against Easterns at the Wanderers (he was out for a duck). It was there, eight years later, that he signed off from South African cricket with a double-century against Border. Conway had made up his mind to leave, having raised the prospect during a round of golf with his partner, Kim. She urged him to chase his dream, and they agreed to start a new life in New Zealand. The young couple sold their car and three-bedroom house in Bedfordview, a well-to-do suburb of Johannesburg, and booked the flight.
“It was two things,” he says. “A better opportunity to play international cricket, and a better lifestyle in a different country. We had really good feedback from friends, who said New Zealand was a safe and beautiful place to live, so we thought let’s give it a go.”
Wellington had seen a few South Africans come and go, but Conway was on a different level. His new team-mates at Victoria University Cricket Club were struck by his humility and good nature, and watched open-mouthed as he batted in the nets. In October 2019, he plundered 327 not out off 352 balls against Canterbury in a Plunket Shield match – the highest score both for Wellington and at the Basin Reserve. That summer, he topped the domestic run-charts in all three formats, and murmurs grew louder around the city of a Test-cricketer-in-waiting – three years of waiting, in fact, to satisfy the ICC’s residency rules.
The New Zealand coach, Gary Stead, had seen enough. In May 2020, three months before he became eligible, Conway was named among the country’s 20 contracted players. He made his debut, at Auckland, then won the public’s hearts with a whirlwind 99 not out off 59 balls at Christchurch to help secure a T20 win over Australia. After being bafflingly passed over for home Tests against West Indies and Pakistan, he made up for lost time at Lord’s – one of cricket’s all-time memorable debuts.
This piece was originally published in the 2022 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Buy it here