Trent Boult bowls to Dimuth Karunaratne
Rob Jefferies / © Getty Images


Swing, smile, repeat: the secrets of Trent Boult's success

How Lovely Trenty became one of New Zealand's all-time greats

James Borrowdale  |  

Trent Boult had just been told there were at least eight things wrong with his bowling action.

He had already played Test cricket. His debut, in Hobart in December 2011 was - remarkably for a New Zealand player at the time - an away victory against Australia, the Black Caps' first Test victory in that country since 1985. He chipped in with four wickets in that match, and a brisk 21 on the final morning perhaps exerted as much force on the game's scales, which that afternoon tipped New Zealand's way by seven runs.

He was young, yes: he'd had to make an emergency call to his orthodontist five days before flying out to get his braces removed, worried about a cordon featuring Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin and the fodder a set of braces on a 22-year-old might give the combined malevolence of their Australian wit. Of course, it didn't stop the Australian keeper greeting him with: "Mate, does your mother know you are here?"

Still, he'd forced his way into the New Zealand squad on the back of strong domestic form, and given the start to his international career, he didn't appreciate the opinion he'd just been offered about his action. Worse, it was from New Zealand's new bowling coach, Australian Damien Wright; worse again, it was the first time the two had met, at the New Zealand Cricket facilities in Lincoln. Brendon McCullum told me that the youthful Boult had been "a pretty cocky young fella". Boult remembered that he took Wright's insight "incredibly defensively. I was pretty much like, 'F you,' and walked off."

He called his older brother, Jono, then a couple of years into his own cricket career with Northern Districts. "I said to him, 'The new bowling coach is a muppet.'" Jono, with four years more wisdom and no pride on the line, asked if he knew what issues Wright had picked up - he didn't - and told him to find out. Boult returned, a little chastened, to Wright. "What he said to me… [was] my arm was going behind my head, and I was falling over this way, the delivery stride was too long. It's not going to work." Trent relayed the information to Jono. "My brother said he was right."

Hobart huzzah: Boult made his Test debut in an unforgettable seven-run win in Australia, 2011-12

Hobart huzzah: Boult made his Test debut in an unforgettable seven-run win in Australia, 2011-12 Quinn Rooney / © Getty Images

As did the broad bat of Graeme Smith. Boult, bowling first change in the first innings of the 2011-12 series opener in Dunedin, his third Test match, came up against the opposing captain, whose burly forearms muscled the young bowler all over University Oval. "It was horrendous… He absolutely pumped me. I remember it. I remember it very vividly." Boult went at more than seven runs an over in that innings and conceded 151, for two wickets, across the game. With those figures came a realisation: "I'm not good enough, really. I don't have the skills here to be successful." The selectors evidently agreed: he was dropped.

Boult, 31, has had plenty of time to reflect on his career. The last time we spoke, he was shuttered in his Chennai hotel room, still encamped with the Mumbai Indians. The bubble of the IPL was yet to be pricked, but the strain of bubble life was wearing on him. At that time New Zealand had closed its borders to anyone, citizens included, travelling from India. As we spoke, his meal - "my 50th curry of the month" - was delivered to his door. "You go to the stadium," he said, describing his days, "[and then] you just come back and go to your room". It was "amazing, definitely", he said, that the tournament was going ahead.

And then, of course, it suddenly wasn't. Boult opted to fly back to New Zealand - the ban, by now, had been lifted - to spend time, after another 14 days in an Auckland quarantine hotel, with his wife and two young kids at his home in Mount Maunganui, just down the road from where he grew up. He reached England in time to play the second Test against the hosts, at Edgbaston, ahead of the inaugural World Test Championship final, against India, in Southampton on June 18.

Boult, though, is alive to the fact that cricket is only one part of his life. "If I live until I'm 80 years old and I've played [professional] cricket from age 20 to 32," he told me during that conversation, "that's [only] 12 years of my life that cricket has taken up. It's everything at the moment, but life goes on."

"It's still the game I fell in love with when I was 11 or 12 years old" Tsering Topgyal / © Associated Press

Shane Jurgensen, his Black Caps bowling coach, described a character who would quite often turn up to training after stepping off the beach, where he'd been with his young family, Louie, his pet dog, tied up to watch him bowl. "He really has a nice balance of that life and cricket," Jurgensen said, although sometimes he'd like to see Boult bowl "a few more overs" in training. Perhaps that balance is a legacy of the fact that Boult came to cricket late.

Boult, with Māori lineage, from the iwi (tribes) Ngāti Porou and Ngāi Te Rangi, was born in 1989. But it wasn't until late childhood that he was dragged, in the backyard of the family's suburban Tauranga home, into the slipstream of his older brother's enthusiasm for the game. Jono was an opening batter in his youth, and Trent's fate as a bowler was sealed. It was a big square backyard, with a fishing net rigged up to heighten the fence so that when Trent bounced his brother, the ball wouldn't be lost to the neighbour's property. The lawn was often filled with kids from the neighbourhood. The brothers, as the bouncer-catching net suggests, fought hard for supremacy of their patch of turf - and even then, Jono says, "you knew he had something about him".

Even so, Boult initially struggled to make the age-grade representative teams that seemed the birthright of his Tauranga contemporary, Kane Williamson. His breakthrough came at 15 or 16, when bowling to Jono in the nets as he prepared to bat for Northern Districts in an Under-19 tournament. A coterie of New Zealand Cricket big shots - Dayle Hadlee and Mike Shrimpton among them - were there and expressed curiosity about the young left-armer. Boult mentioned that he wasn't even in the Bay of Plenty U-17 team - the level below Northern Districts. "I think a few calls were made," he said, because it was then that things started to happen very quickly.

At 18, he was in a New Zealand team featuring Tim Southee and Williamson, competing at the U-19 World Cup in Malaysia in 2008, and then - before he'd played even for his senior provincial team - he made his first-class debut in Chennai, for New Zealand A against India A. He came back home, made his debut for Northern Districts, and was shortly on the plane to Australia, in the New Zealand squad for the Chappell-Hadlee series. He took one wicket for plenty of runs in a fixture against a Prime Minister's XI, and didn't make the ODI team. "I was actually quite happy I didn't play because I was nowhere near ready," Boult said. "I'd played four or five first-class games and literally nine List A games, and I was potentially running in against Ricky Ponting at the WACA."

That winning feeling: Boult's only ten-for came in December 2013 over West Indies in Wellington in a match that turned New Zealand's fortunes around

That winning feeling: Boult's only ten-for came in December 2013 over West Indies in Wellington in a match that turned New Zealand's fortunes around Hagen Hopkins / © Getty Images

Back home the accelerated nature of this ascent caught up with him. He was, he remembered, a young guy trying to impress. "Trying to bowl as fast as he can, bowl a lot of overs in the nets and trying to be picked." He broke down during a New Zealand A series against the England Lions with a stress fracture in his lower back. Early on, someone handed him a copy of a magazine featuring Mitchell Johnson, who overcame a horror run of stress fractures in his own youth. For inspiration, Boult tacked the article to the wall above his bed. The layoff, however, when he returned to bowling, introduced into his action those impurities later noted by Wright.

The Test after Boult met Smith was in Hamilton, but he saw little of South Africa's canter to a nine-wicket victory. Instead, he was in the nets behind Seddon Park, trying to recover the bowling action of his youth. He showed Wright some old footage, and together the two worked on getting his action back to where it used to be, when, as a 17-year-old inspired by Wasim Akram and Shane Bond, he had been crowned the fastest schoolboy bowler in the country. His 1st XI coach at Otumoetai College, Nick Page, remembered that action as "effortless and rhythmical".

Now Boult and Wright were breaking it down and building it up again. "Two steps, bowling; two steps, bowling… That was definitely the start of it, with pulling the action apart and going back to where I was as a kid," Boult said.

"I think the backyard is where he got his competitiveness from, not so much his joy," Jono Boult said, when I suggested that perhaps his brother's attitude to the game could be traced, like his bowling action, to that Tauranga home. "You're playing against your brother - that's probably the only person you don't want to lose to. It still goes on now."

Brendon McCullum on Boult, who took 121 wickets at 29.15  in 31 Tests under his leadership:

Brendon McCullum on Boult, who took 121 wickets at 29.15 in 31 Tests under his leadership: "The thing I always found about Trent is that he's fiercely competitive, yet he enjoys himself when he's out there" Hannah Peters / © Getty Images

But there is a certain joy about how Boult plays his cricket - something approaching a child's pleasure in the mechanics of the game and an aesthete's delight in the athletic potential of his body. Cast your mind, for instance, over the multitude of spectacular catches for which he has become famous, the ball plucked from the air like a conjuror's showstopper. And then there's the laughter, not the release of pent-up fury, when things go his way. "Setting up a batter and then delivering that plan and being successful - I'm always going to laugh when that happens," he said. "That's something that I've planned, and it's worked. I'm not going to stand there like a psycho and scream my head off."

A comparison with the man who inspired his recovery might be instructive here. Once, Boult had the misfortune to bat against Johnson at the tail end of Ross Taylor's remarkable 290 at the WACA in 2015. The veteran quick - it was his final Test - had been in the field for days. "He was angry," Boult said. "He was very angry." Johnson, a fast bowler of the blood-and-vinegar school, channelled his anger at Boult, who likened Johnson's on-field wrath to "doomsday". Boult powers his performances with a different sort of emotional drive. "I definitely play my best cricket, or I bowl my best, when I'm - well, I'm definitely smiling, I'm running around a bit, I'm doing bloody funky circles and appealing and whatever it is." Success, when it arrives, comes as "a flow-on from that kind of energy". Jono just reckons that's his brother's "natural personality coming through on the field".

Boult was lucky, early in his international career, to come under the wing of a captain, McCullum, who came to approach the game from a similar perspective. "We're living our dreams when we play cricket for New Zealand," McCullum told me, "and that's the point we had to try and get back to." For too long, he said, there had been a sense of entitlement in the team culture. The players needed to be reminded that life could have been very different if they hadn't been granted their dreams, and to "enjoy the game for the game's sake".

"The thing I always found about Trent," McCullum said, "is that he's fiercely competitive, yet he enjoys himself when he's out there. He doesn't like losing, he wants to be the best in the world, there's no doubting that… and that's a good thing." But it's that joy for the game that defines Boult - "Lovely Trenty", as New Zealand has christened him - in the public imagination. As McCullum said, people had come to really "resonate with the enjoyment he seems to gain from playing cricket".

Boult on the 2012-13 Cape Town Test in which New Zealand were bowled out for 45:

Boult on the 2012-13 Cape Town Test in which New Zealand were bowled out for 45: "It was one of my most frightening Tests... Test cricket ain't no laugh in the park" Alexander Joe / © AFP/Getty Images

The transition to McCullum's leadership had to wait. Boult remembered the reaction of the team to that Hobart victory, his debut Test. "Everyone [was] saying to me, you know, 'You lucky bugger' or 'Enjoy this, because they don't come around that often.' Test wins were [as rare as] Kryptonite. It just didn't happen."

That realisation was brought home to Boult soon in brutal fashion. His re-entry into the Test team in 2012 came in the midst of a horror run of results. Victory against Sri Lanka, in Colombo in November 2012 - in which Boult took seven wickets - would be New Zealand's only Test win in 19 attempts between March 2012 and December 2013.

Cape Town, in the middle of that period, was the nadir. McCullum, who had replaced Taylor as captain following that Sri Lanka series, was leading the team for the first time. He chose to bat on the first morning of the series.

Boult remembers: "[Dale Steyn] was bowling so fast. First ball - the viewing area was like straight down, looking at this ground from behind the keeper - and he just comes flying in." Martin Guptill was on strike; Boult didn't even see the ball. "I was like, 'Holy moly.'" Next over, Guptill edged Vernon Philander to the keeper. "And it was all on." The Black Caps were bowled out for 45. Boult, in his ninth Test, lasted an over against Steyn, before top-edging Morne Morkel to the keeper. "It was one of my most frightening Tests," he said of that brief stay at the crease. He remembered thinking, "Yeah, okay, Test cricket ain't no laugh in the park."

In the mythology of current Black Caps success, that match, which New Zealand lost by an innings and 27 runs, was the rock bottom to which the team needed to sink in order to rebound from the floor. The challenge that emerged from that match, wrote McCullum in his autobiography, Declared, was how to "build a soul which reflected who we were as a group of men, and as Kiwis, a soul which flowed from us and was authentic and true for us".

Locked and bolted: Boult takes a one-handed stunner off his own bowling to dismiss Mitch Marsh in Wellington, 2016

Locked and bolted: Boult takes a one-handed stunner off his own bowling to dismiss Mitch Marsh in Wellington, 2016 Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images

It would be some time before the body of results where that soul could reside would transubstantiate into existence. But when that spell of winlessness was broken, it was broken with a Boult incantation. It came against West Indies in December 2013 in Wellington. New Zealand batted first and amassed 441. Late on the second day, Boult took his first wicket: Shivnarine Chanderpaul, caught at cover-point. The next morning - "kinda overcast, wasn't too windy" - he exploded, a succession of full inswingers hooping between the bat and pad of a succession of hapless West Indians with the inevitability of a small moon's orbit. From 175 for 4, Boult, almost singlehandedly, had them all out for 193.

West Indies were asked to follow on, and Boult returned to finish things off, taking four of the final six wickets. A full stump-seeking inswinger to Shannon Gabriel, appropriately enough, was the ultimate action of the match. It gave him ten for the game - and nine for the day. It was New Zealand's first Test victory of the year, and McCullum's first as captain. Boult finished the calendar year with 46 wickets, the fourth highest behind three of the biggest boys of the bowling world: Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Steyn.

It wasn't until 2015 that Boult similarly announced himself in the 50-over format. Before that year's World Cup, held in New Zealand and Australia, he had only played a handful of ODIs, and wasn't even sure if he was in the frame for the competition.

"I remember getting picked in [the 15-man squad] and my parents were just stoked. We've got the World Cup in our own country, and it's going to be amazing." He thought of himself as the certified fifth seamer: "I was never going to make the team." McCullum remembers differently: "He was always in our plans."

Boult bowls Joe Burns for a duck on Boxing Day, Melbourne, 2019

Boult bowls Joe Burns for a duck on Boxing Day, Melbourne, 2019 Andy Brownbill / © Associated Press

A five-wicket bag against South Africa in a warm-up match ensured he was in the team for the opening game of the tournament, in Christchurch. Sri Lanka needed 332 to win. Boult's first four overs went for 27. "And then I was off and I was standing down at fine leg and was assessing it, going 'That was rubbish' to myself." Sri Lanka continued their good start. "And then [McCullum] brought me back on [in the 18th over]. He said, 'Come on, I need you to get us a wicket here, I back ya.'" Boult delivered, first with the wicket of Lahiru Thirimanne, yorked, and then, an over later, with that of Kumar Sangakkara, out lbw. The Black Caps began the tournament with an emphatic 98-run win. "It came from my captain going, 'I'm with ya, mate, go out there and give it a go.'"

McCullum's leadership during that tournament rewrote the rule book for one-day cricket - "ultra aggressive, ultra positive," Boult called it. But having three slips and no one in the covers well into an innings only worked because of the accuracy of his bowlers, Boult as much as anyone. "He really stepped up during that World Cup," McCullum said, noting that he had asked his bowlers "to commit to some pretty aggressive kinds of mentalities as bowlers, and to buy into some pretty unique fields". He made particular mention of the performance against Australia in Auckland, where Boult was "just brilliant".

Boult took five wickets as Australia were bowled out for 151. That should have been his day, but Mitchell Starc replied with six wickets in kind. Boult, batting No. 11, coming in on a hat-trick ball, found himself with two Starc deliveries to face before Williamson could get back on strike.

"I remember swearing and doing a few other things when [Adam Milne] got bowled. And then Tim [Southee] got bowled… I went out there, my heart was moving, definitely, and then to have Kane at the other end… I've known him since I was eight years old. If anyone is going to calm me down, it's him. And he tried to. It didn't calm me down." Boult briefly considered attempting to deposit Starc down the ground, but sense prevailed, and he saw out those two balls - blocking the first, leaving the second - to allow Williamson's match-winning six. His captain had "total faith" that Boult, possibly the most idiosyncratic batter in the game, would pull through: "As I say, big moments."

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Boult, along with Starc, ended that World Cup at the top of the wickets table, with 22, as Starc's Australia ended the Black Caps dream in the rematch, the final in Melbourne. Four years later, New Zealand sought to bury the corpse of that loss, against England at Lord's. Boult was one of five players to play both games, as was Williamson, childhood friend and now captain. Boult went into the World Cup as the No. 2-ranked ODI bowler in the world - he's currently No. 1 - and Williamson had adopted from McCullum a reliance on Boult for the big moments.

They don't get any bigger than the Super Over of a World Cup final. Boult's went for 15, which New Zealand then matched - but, of course, still, somehow, lost on the technicality of the boundary countback. It was the one topic we touched on that Boult didn't want to discuss, other than to say: "I don't think I'll ever be over that World Cup, the final. It still doesn't make sense."

The Black Caps were the eighth-ranked Test team in the world in March 2013; this year, following the series against Pakistan, they reached No. 1, the first New Zealand side ever to do so. There is a phrase of Andrew Fidel Fernando's that McCullum singles out for praise in Declared: "New Zealand amplify the threat of the collective like no other side".

Boult, Southee, Neil Wagner: three very different bowlers - one inswing, one outswing, one intimidation merchant - but a collective threat: in the 36 Tests they have played together, each has taken between 160 and 166 wickets at averages between 25.15 and 25.31; remarkably, almost supernaturally, similar records. Boult's personal methodology within that collective has always been based on a "simple philosophy": "trying to bring batsmen across the stumps and then swing it in and try to hit them on the pads".

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"You know, I've grown up watching this game and I've got my idols - Wasim Akram and Steyn and Glenn McGrath and whoever it is - and I understand the game evolves and T20 cricket wasn't around back then, and bats have gotten bigger, and the introduction of two new balls into one-day cricket compared to watching Waqar Younis and Wasim reverse-swing the ball. A lot has changed. These greats of the game that everyone has idolised, they kept it very simple too, in my opinion. They only really had two or three balls. Glenn McGrath was the most accurate bowler in the world. He bowled a good length, he bowled a bouncer, and might bowl a yorker every now and then. And that's kinda as simple as I like to keep it."

There has, of course, been evolution: on the 2013 tour to England, Boult, enamoured of the Dukes ball's prodigious movement, began bowling outswingers to compliment his natural inswing to the right-hander. In his first Test at Lord's, he thought, "Man, this is amazing, I can swing it around everywhere." But it never brought him much success. He remembers it moving too much, and mixing the inswing and outswing actions resulted in a side strain. So he decided never to bowl outswing again.

Enter Southee, Boult's opening partner and great mate - a groomsman at his wedding. Together, they have fashioned one of the all-time great opening bowling partnerships. In their 59 matches together, almost always sharing the new ball, the pair have scalped 490 wickets. But the partnership goes beyond what we see on the field.

Southee had developed a ball that he was using to great effect against left-handers: the so-called "three-quarter ball", its seam wobbling on delivery, would carry across the left-hander, optimising the effect, when it came, of Southee's natural swing the other way. It was inevitable, after all their years together, that the ball's mirror image would end up in Boult's arsenal.

In Auckland in 2018, Boult and Tim Southee took 14 of the 20 England wickets that fell in the course of a massive innings victory

In Auckland in 2018, Boult and Tim Southee took 14 of the 20 England wickets that fell in the course of a massive innings victory Stu Forster / © Getty Images

Its perfect expression came against England in 2018. Eden Park, Auckland, a day-night Test, the home side's opening bowlers with the first use of the pink ball. Boult started indifferently but in his third over, he began searching for a fuller length. It worked. Alastair Cook was out, edging an outswinger. And it kept on working. Joe Root was sent promptly back by a Boult special that begged to be driven before it swung back in to knock over the stumps.

But for his favourite dismissal of the six he took in that spell - Ben Stokes - he leaned on the ball his friend Southee, who took the other four wickets, had taught him. First, Boult bowled two awayswingers to open his over. "Then I bowled a three-quarter ball that went through the gate and bowled him. And I seriously cannot think of many more occasions where I've gone, 'Okay, this is what I'm going to do', and that's how it happened." England, at one point, were 23 for 8, and threatening to erase New Zealand's 26 in 1955, also at Eden Park, as the lowest ever Test total.

It wasn't quite to happen. England's tailenders slogged the total to 58. But it did offer a different kind of catharsis. Boult and Southee, bowling unchanged had, in 20.4 overs, lain to rest the ghosts of Cape Town. New Zealand won by an innings.

That match came in the midst of an ongoing streak of 17 undefeated home Tests, 13 of them victories. The next best was the 13 unbeaten matches the team managed, for the most part, under McCullum's leadership. Now, the team is expected - and expect - to win. Boult's personal success - 281 Test wickets at 28.02 (before the series in England), 164 of them at 25.35 at home - has contributed as much as almost anyone to that expectation. He is fourth on New Zealand's all-time list of Test wicket-takers. McCullum calls him, simply, "one of our all-time greats".

Boult's thoughts turn to the World Test Championship final in Southampton. "It's about getting a chance to be out there under the most pressure you can possibly find, and to deliver, to put your game to the test. I'm pretty excited about it. It's a hell of a group to go out there and try it with. It's a group that's been together for a long time. There are a lot of close friendships and bonds inside that squad. I can't think of a better group to do it with… It's been an incredible journey, when you look at it."

Boult, the man, has been at that journey's heart, but the boy from Tauranga has come along for the ride.

"It is a game," he said, "and it's a game where I used to run in in the back of our parents' house in Welcome Bay and bowl at a rubbish bin with my brother. I'm just doing it on a professional stage and playing against whoever it is in the world. It's still the game I fell in love with when I was 11 or 12 years old."

James Borrowdale is a journalist and author. His first book is Weed: A New Zealand Story