Tom Blundell: Wisden Cricketer of the Year – The Almanack
The Five Cricketers of the Year represent a tradition that dates back in Wisden to 1889, making this the oldest individual award in cricket. In 2023, Tom Blundell was one of the five.
Tom Blundell’s kit might not have been the only baggage he carried to Lord’s for the First Test in June. On his two previous visits – including the 2019 World Cup final – he had been twelfth man. And, having played 11 Tests in three and a half years, he then had to wait until the retirement of wicketkeeper BJ Watling, after the World Test Championship final in 2021, for a proper crack at New Zealand’s XI. Even then, he struck turbulence: in his first six innings back, Blundell totalled 34 runs, prompting a visit to his sports psychologist, Pete Sanford, “to figure out how I wanted to play, and what’s important to me”. The result was instant: a sparkling 96 against South Africa at Christchurch in February 2022, which gave him “great confidence leading into the English summer”.
If the abiding memory of the series was England’s rollicking redefinition of Test cricket, then the resistance of Blundell and Daryl Mitchell was not far behind. In fact, they put New Zealand in a winning position in each game. Mitchell was the series’ top scorer, with 538 at 107, and Blundell his valiant sidekick, with 383 at 76. In the second innings at Lord’s, he arrived with New Zealand 56-4, leading by 47, and helped Mitchell add 195. Within four of etching his name on the honours board, he was trapped in front, but the experience felt more of a triumph than a disappointment. “It was a pretty good ball from Jimmy Anderson, up the slope, nipping back,” he says. “I don’t think I could have done much.”
Blundell quickly made amends. At Trent Bridge, he scored 106, and kept Mitchell company during a monstrous stand of 236 in a total of 553. Five catches and a stumping completed a superb all-round performance. Then, at Headingley – watched by his infant son, Charlie, and his partner, Kate Logan – Blundell top-scored in the second innings with an unbeaten 88, as New Zealand set England 296. He had seemingly done enough for victory.
It wasn’t to be, but Blundell had continued his knack for rising to the big occasion. He had stormed into Test cricket with a hundred on debut against West Indies in December 2017. Then, unwanted for two years, he was brought back as opener, and clouted a short-pitched barrage from Australia’s pace attack all over the MCG, making a memorable century in the Boxing Day Test of 2019. Not until Nottingham did he tick off his third hundred. “It’s pretty special to do it in England,” he says. “You hear so much about the conditions and the Dukes ball, and how tough it can be. You want to be in the hardest situations. Yes, it was bittersweet in terms of how the series panned out, but I was pretty proud of what I achieved.”
THOMAS ACKLAND BLUNDELL was born on September 1, 1990 in Wellington. He grew up in the capital’s largest suburb, within a lofted drive of Karori Park, briefly a first-class venue and still a hive of activity, football as well as cricket. He was bitten early by the sporting bug, whether playing backyard Tests against his brother, Ben – four years older – or watching his father, Andrew, play football on Saturdays. Karori Park’s clubrooms became a regular haunt; after being named in the 2019 World Cup squad, Blundell used them for his media interviews.
A slightly built teenager, he dabbled in rugby at Wellington College – the city’s dominant state school for boys, which looms over the Basin Reserve – but cricket was always his favourite. A batter and back-up wicketkeeper, he made the Under-19 team at the World Cup in New Zealand in 2009-10, alongside Tom Latham and Jimmy Neesham. Blundell dabbled in off-spin, but sensed an opportunity behind the stumps in Wellington, because Luke Ronchi was getting more international opportunities, and other glovemen were dropping off the radar. He made his first-class debut in February 2013 under coach Jamie Siddons, the one-time Australian international credited by Blundell with taking his batting to a new level – particularly against the short ball, and spin. Siddons preached a high backlift, for clouting the ball even harder, and Blundell topped 1,000 runs for Wellington in 2015/16.
An injury to Ronchi meant a New Zealand debut in a Twenty20 game against Bangladesh in January 2017, the day after helping Wellington Firebirds win the Super Smash; he was then summoned to New Zealand’s ODI squad for the Chappell-Hadlee series against Australia, only for Latham to keep. Later that year, he won his first Test cap, at the Basin Reserve – Watling was injured – and joined a select group of debut centurions. “It sounds quite strange, but I actually visualised it,” he says. “I was daydreaming about representing New Zealand at the Basin on a nice sunny day…”
With a standing ovation from his home crowd ringing in his ears, Blundell’s fame soared. Hours after the victory over West Indies, team-mate Trent Boult photographed him on his way home, still in whites, clutching a souvenir stump at a pedestrian crossing. “I copped a lot for that,” Blundell laughs. “It was one of those moments I wanted to enjoy and make the most of. I still get asked a lot: ‘What were you thinking?’”
But with Watling on top of his game, he had to wait until Melbourne, where Jeet Raval was dropped, creating a vacancy at the top of the order. Blundell stepped in, and made a blistering 121 in the second innings, roared on by a rowdy section of Kiwi fans. That ended 2019 on a high, after a World Cup in which he didn’t play a match, but joined his bemused team-mates on the Lord’s outfield to digest defeat by England on boundary countback.
He waited three more years to stride out from the Long Room, then returned to a rousing reception – the home of cricket finally witnessing the best of this c cricketer.
The Five Cricketers of the Year are picked by the editor, and the selection is based, primarily but not exclusively, on the players’ influence on the previous English season. No one can be chosen more than once.