Four years ago, James Neesham was in the crowd at Eden Park when Grant Elliott – the man who pipped him to the last spot in the World Cup squad – hit Dale Steyn for six to seal New Zealand’s spot in the World Cup final. In 2019, Neesham did the job himself, taking the last wicket in the toppling of India.
“I certainly preferred the other game than four years ago,” Neesham laughs. In 2015, “it was hard not to get swept up in it as a Kiwi cricket fan. Now, four years later to be sitting here before a final at Lord’s – potentially a redemption final, I guess, from that game four years ago – is really pleasing”.
Struggling Black Caps opener Martin Guptill discusses his highs and lows at the Cricket World Cup. .
Far more than the final wicket, Neesham’s contribution will be remembered for his extraordinary catch to dismiss Dinesh Karthik with his outstretched left hand. “You see it come off the blade and try and stick a hand out and see if you get something on it,” he says. “And potentially I lost my composure a little bit after taking it – but that’s the passion you see in a must-win semifinal.”
With his 213 runs at 35 apiece, 12 wickets at 20 and electric fielding, Neesham is a contender to be in a team of the tournament as an all-rounder. “It’s been a bit of a surreal run so far,” he says.
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New Zealand’s propensity to win close games – with Neesham taking the final wicket against both India and West Indies, and scoring a crucial 25 in the two-wicket win over Bangladesh – suggests a side at one with themselves. “The feeling overall is of calmness. It’s been that way throughout the whole tournament,” he says.
“We just stay in our own bubble. Compared to bilateral stuff there’s obviously a lot more external stuff, and talk in the media and amongst your friends back home. But really the game stays the same. It’s still a bat and a ball and I think we scout well, we prepare for opposition differently each game.”
The semi-final again reaffirmed New Zealand’s sagacity in gauging a good score when batting first. “I’m not sure you could have played the way we played in 2015 this tournament. The grounds are so different, the conditions are so different,” Neesham explains. “You don’t need to win by 100, you just need to win by one. So you don’t need to go hard and try and score 50 or 60 over par. It’s about trying to assess the conditions and figure out what a winning total could be – and then we scrap like hell.”
India could certainly attest to as much. Yet the moments after this exhilarating victory, with New Zealand celebrating in a strikingly understated way, showed what the team expect of themselves. “Kane [Williamson] put a dampener on some of the vibes going on and talked about being one step away from the trophy,” Neesham recalls. “We kept our composure quite well. We got on the bus and had a couple of beers that night. Then, it was back to work.”
For Neesham, preparing for a Lord’s final comes 18 months after coming “pretty close” to quitting cricket for good, aged 27. At the end of 2017, Neesham called Heath Mills, the head of the New Zealand Cricket Players’ Association, to state his intentions. After seeing out his contract, Neesham spent a few weeks working as a communications manager for a company selling electric collars for cows. Then, he decided to stay in cricket, and moved to Wellington.
“It had got a bit overwhelming playing cricket only for success,” he reflects. “I was quite obsessed with success and runs.
“That time away from the game reinforced that I did want to play again for the love of it. Getting back to domestic cricket was all about trying to enjoy the game again and enjoy the process of training and hitting balls and going out and accepting what comes, runs and wickets-wise, on the field.”
Working with mental skills coaches, as is common in the New Zealand side, has helped Neesham grapple with this maddening game.
“It’s a very challenging sport,” he explains. “To just get a bit of perspective on what to focus on, and how to go about training, is really important. I would honestly recommend it to any aspiring professional sportsman to see a mental skills coach.
“I have the mantras and things that I go back to and focus on between games. For me, it’s all about trying to be positive, trying to have positive self-talk in the middle, letting things go that don’t quite go to plan. That was a thing that I fell over a lot earlier in my career – trying to play the perfect innings. It’s a game where you don’t get the perfect innings very often.”
Now, Neesham is “at peace” with cricket and all its lunacies. “You can do all the training you can do off the field and still go and nick off,” he says.
Cultivating a life away from the sport helps Neesham reconcile himself with the game’s volatility and everyday unfairness. And so, two days before England’s game with New Zealand last week, Neesham sat down in his team’s meeting room. He was doing his communication exam at Massey University, with team manager Mike Sandle roped in to the role of invigilator.
“He took over all the supervising duties and made sure I wasn’t cheating. We just sat in the team room by myself in one of the afternoons I had off. The wrist got a bit sore from all the writing. I haven’t written for two hours straight for quite a few years.” Neesham is still awaiting the results. “It’s about trying to get out of the cricket bubble and occupy my mind with something else.”
Yet there will be little else to occupy the mind come tomorrow. If Neesham knows that cricket is just a game, he also knows that a final at Lord’s is not really just a game.
“If I had to choose one,” he smiles, “I’d rather fail the exam and win the World Cup.”