Inside Devon Conway’s remarkable rise from South African second tier to Test match double centurion

Devon Conway scored 200 in his first innings in Test cricket

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Four years ago, Devon Conway sold his car. He sold his house, too. Together with his partner Kim, he left his old life in South Africa behind, moving from Johannesburg to Wellington.

“I always felt that if I hung on to my property and my car and that sort of thing I always would have felt it’s easy, it’s easy to go back to South Africa,” Conway recalls. “It was basically the mindset of saying right we’re going to do this and we’re going to fully commit.”

The idea of uprooting his life was hatched over a round of golf with Kim. Conway was stagnating in South Africa, where he was thriving in provincial cricket – the second tier of the first-class game in South Africa – but had failed to command a regular berth in franchise cricket, the top tier of the domestic game.

Conway knew friends who had made the same move, including the cricketers Malcolm Nofal and Michael Rippon. “They’d sort of rant and rave about how amazing it is to live in New Zealand, the people, the culture, and also the cricket being really good,” Conway recalls. “It was basically taking a leap of faith and just seeing what it was like, making the move across to New Zealand.”

And so, in August 2017, the couple boarded a flight to New Zealand, where they had never been before. Conway had just turned 26.

In South Africa, Conway had been regarded as a schoolboy prodigy at St John’s College, where he scored around 40 centuries. He made his first-class debut aged 17 and then, aged 19, hit 47 and 86 on his franchise debut. But in the years ahead his returns dwindled, suffering from being shunted around the batting order. 

He lacked a consistent berth, and, despite scoring prolifically in the second-tier competition, averaged just 21 in 21 franchise games. While he had played regularly in English club cricket – and played for Somerset second XI in 2010, when they needed wicketkeeping cover – there were never any offers to play as a Kolpak in England.

Conway arrived in Wellington with a contract to play as the club professional, and coach in schools, for Victoria University Cricket Club. He immediately thrived with the bat and, when Wellington’s Tom Blundell was called up to play for New Zealand, was selected to represent the district. Success in T20 led to call-ups for the two longer formats; Conway promptly made a century in his third innings in the Plunket Shield, New Zealand’s first-class competition.

Such performances earned Conway a professional contract with Wellington. During his first off-season, in 2018, Conway worked with Glenn Pocknall, who is now Wellington’s head coach on becoming “a little sharper in his movements”, Pocknall recalls. 

This entailed studying the trigger movements of leading batsmen before landing on what worked for Conway: the slightly quirky open stance as the bowler runs up, which morphs into an orthodox batting position when the ball is released, as seen at Lord’s. “Given he was 27 at the time, this change would take some time to embed in his game so it was a solid four, five months of basic drills so it became natural.”

Conway identifies this off-season as one of the catalysts for his remarkable rise. “One was a pre-movement to try to get my feet moving slightly before the bowler’s bowling, so trying to get momentum into the ball. And then really just focusing on trying to get my head in my strong position, which then creates strong positions within my strokeplay.”

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Yet, more than technique, Conway believes the main reason for his prodigious run-scoring in New Zealand – he averages 66 in first-class cricket for Wellington and was the top run-scorer in five of the six domestic competitions in 2018/19 and 2019/20 – is psychological. 

“It was probably just finding that self-belief. And having that sense of belonging, when I got those opportunities to play higher up.” In South Africa, Conway sometimes merely tried to survive; now, he tried to dominate. “It was just a mindset of being positive and having a look-to-score mindset.”  

Conway’s prodigious scoring led New Zealand’s selectors to offer him a central contract three months before he qualified to represent the country, after three years of residency, in August 2020. He promptly hit 41 on his international debut, a T20 against the West Indies in November, before 99 not out in a T20 against Australia, and a maiden international century in an ODI against Bangladesh, confirmed the fine impression. 

There was no obvious vacancy in the Test batting line-up, but Conway forced New Zealand to recalibrate their thinking: he was pushed up to open, with Blundell – his Wellington team-mate and friend – dropped despite a Test average of 38.

Though Conway had only opened twice in his previous nine years in first-class cricket, and had never made a century opening, he was not phased. “I’ve batted three most of my career so nothing really changes other than the fact that you know some days you’re batting early, some days you might have to wait a wee while. It’s just adapting to different scenarios, and then batting accordingly.”

Even when he whipped a ball through square leg to bring up his Test century, Conway retained his equilibrium. “I was probably so soaked into the game and what the team required of me at that present moment, I never really reflect too far or think too much. It was just a moment of really being grateful at being out in the Lord’s middle and just about really trying to make sure I continued doing the job. I always knew that I didn’t want to just get 100. I wanted to try and score big for the team.” Conway duly did, becoming only the seventh Test cricketer to score a double century on debut.

Conway reached his first Test 100 in style

Credit: REUTERS

The performance embodied what Pocknall sees as Conway’s defining quality. “He has the ability to shut out any distractions or thoughts in his head that may hamper his natural fluency,” Pocknall says. In winter training, Conway’s resilience and adaptability has been honed through facing different scenarios and using different types of balls. “It’s this skill of being able to formulate a plan under extreme pressure which has served him so well.”

In South Africa, the mystery is less Conway’s international success than why he did not achieve it for the Proteas. From his teens Conway possessed “star quality”, says Omphile Ramela, who was three years above Conway at St John’s and was a long-time opponent, and occasional team-mate, on the South African domestic circuit. 

“What is of concern is that we could not find a way of cultivating him – actually saying ‘he might not make it now but we need to find a way of keeping him in our system so he can bloom in two or three years’. We lose too much talent in South Africa to the lack of clear talent management.”

Conway’s 12 years in the first-class game were not wasted years but, instead, provided him with the tools to thrive from his first ball in the Test arena. Only one New Zealand Test cricketer in history – Neil Broom – had more first-class runs when they made their debuts. A month short of his 30th birthday, the best could be yet to come.

“He is the kind of guy once he’s in rhythm and a good space he doesn’t miss out – he stays consistent,” says Ramela. “If you’re loyal to him and show him that love that some players need, he thrives.” The shame for South Africa is that Conway needed to move 7,000 miles to find it.

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