James Neesham made 16 not out

"When you need 11 or 12 runs an over - you don't have time to play for your stats, you just go out there and see if you can pull something off"

David Gray / © AFP/Getty Images


Jimmy Neesham: 'I've embraced walking towards pressure in big moments'

The power-hitting allrounder talks about how he prepares to face crunch moments in T20, his freelancing life, and New Zealand's advantage at the 2024 T20 World Cup

Interview by Alagappan Muthu and Deivarayan Muthu  |  

James Neesham is like all of us. He gets suckered into buying his favourite teams' merchandise. An LA Lakers jersey, for example. He is hurt when they don't do so well. They lost the playoffs 4-1 to Denver Nuggets. And he dunks on his team in front of strangers who he mistakenly assumed keep up with the NBA. "They're very, very bad right now. Not a great time". Neesham is unlike all of us in some ways too. For one, he travels round the world and somehow doesn't pick up any souvenirs, and for another, he seems perfectly at ease with the fact that life has ups and downs. Here is the New Zealand's finisher, opening up about things on and off the field.

Back in the day, you beat Lockie Ferguson in a pace-bowling competition and now you're a power-hitting finisher. How did this transformation happen?
Yeah, you develop through school, I guess. We were both bowling together and he was a year younger than me, so sort of had a bit more time to develop after that. But I always sort of enjoyed batting and so I would come in at No. 7 or No. 8 and slog at the end. As it happens often, players develop in different ways and I developed more on the batting side and Lockie developed more on the bowling side and it seems to have worked out all right for both of us (laughs).

How much of your power is natural and how much of it is down to training?
The game has evolved quite quickly, I think. Even back in the late 2000s or 2010s when I started, it was more of getting your eye in and play more one-day cricket. T20s were, I suppose, an exhibition game at the end of the series for a bit of a hit-and-giggle, but obviously it has become a very important format in its own right. Part of that is being able to come in and generate a strike rate very, very quickly, and a lot of it [power] is natural for me.

I've always been a big guy, I guess, going through the grades. [I] had a lot of power and it's also something you have to train for as well in the modern game. In the nets you practise needing 20 off an over or something like that. It's something we do a lot of with the New Zealand team - scenario training - and putting ourselves in those situations, and it's not always going to come off. You're going to have days when you fail and lose games, but I think it's something that really excites me - the Nos. 5, 6, 7 role and bowling. You're always in the game when it comes to the crunch time and you've got opportunities to win games for your country and your team. Naturally that means you are gonna lose a few as well, but as long as you're winning more than losing or contributing more [times] than not, I suppose that's a successful result in that role.

"In T20 cricket, if you're a bowler like me, you don't often have the new ball, so it's about having plans, knowing different fields to left-handers and right-handers, and spending a lot of time gauging out those scenarios" Paul Ellis / © AFP/Getty Images

You had to bowl the final over against Imad Wasim in Lahore in the fourth T20I earlier this month. Invariably, with bat or ball, you're in this make-or-break situation. How do you deal with that pressure?
I think for me it's very easy to play cricket with no pressure. You just go back and play club cricket or whatever on a Saturday. You really don't care whether you go well or not and you sort of play those games and it's not very exciting. You have a bit of a laugh, but it doesn't really get the juices flowing. So you only really have a choice between a game like that with no pressure or being involved in international cricket or T20 cricket, where the results matter and where people care about how you go. Walking towards that pressure and wanting to be involved in those big moments is something I've embraced over the last four-five years. I think if you have a genuine desire to be involved when the game is on the line, then it's almost half the battle [won].

You accept that it's not always going to go your way. You're going to lose a few games along the way, but it's a valuable skill set if you can be involved in those moments. Obviously, the main goal is winning trophies for your country, and you're gonna have moments like that along the way pretty much in every tournament, and those are the ones you look back on, I guess, with pride.

Which gives you a bigger high: defending not too many runs in the last over or hitting a bunch of sixes in the last over?
Oh, that's a good question. I think... there's no feeling like defending with the ball in the last over. Everyone is looking at you. You're the only one out there, really. Obviously you've got fielders as well, but more often than not, it's about keeping the ball in the park, and you've got guys at the other end who have a whole lot of power. If you get it wrong, it can go badly very quickly, so it's probably more enjoyable with the bat, [but] more of a high when you get it right with the ball.

Neesham on life as a freelancer:

Neesham on life as a freelancer: "You have to stay agile with your skill set, and it can mean a lot of time away from home. But you're more in control of your own schedule and able to choose which tournaments to go to and which to miss" Alex Davidson / © ICC/Getty Images

Your role, especially, is to prepare for the worst-case scenario in T20 cricket and try to beat it. Can you take us through your pre-game training routine?
Look, bowling, for me, is probably 50% of training. Bowling yorkers and slower balls, training for those death scenarios. In T20 cricket, if you're a bowler like me, you don't often have the new ball and it's not really swinging, so it's not really much point practising bowling nice outswingers on a length because you basically don't get a chance to bowl them. So for me it's about having plans, knowing different fields to left-handers and right-handers and spending a lot of time gauging out those scenarios.

For example for the Lahore T20I, before the game I just bowled three overs of death to Michael Bracewell and Josh Clarkson and I was just practising wide yorkers, straight yorkers and slower balls, so that you have the confidence in a game to execute all three options. You're not always going to get it right. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you get unlucky, but I think as long as you put the work in, you have confidence at the top of your mark. But you have all those options available to you because you practised them all recently, and as I said before, that mental battle of having the confidence of doing it is half the battle.

Did you go up to the team and say you can be the finisher? Or did someone spot you at the breakfast table and say, "He's got big shoulders and he can do the job"?
I think it's just how things have worked out, really. With New Zealand's top order, it's a strength of ours, and I'm more than happy in that role at No. 6 or No. 7. We call it the engine room - myself, [Mitchell] Santner and a couple of other guys that come in at the end of games when you need 11 or 12 runs an over. You don't have time to play for your stats and just go out there and see if you can pull something off.

It's enjoyable, and we talk about it a lot at training. Different options and scenarios, short sides and long sides. But I think it's fascinating because there's no right way to skin a cat. You've seen guys like Dinesh Karthik come out and get down on one knee to scoop and reverse-scoop. Then you've got the power players like [Andre] Russell and [Kieron] Pollard and David Miller, who stand tall and just try to hit the ball straight. Then you've got guys like Jos Buttler, who are sort of in between and do both. There's certainly a lot of room for expression of what your own strengths are. At the end of the day, do you think you're clear in your decision-making process? The nature of cricket these days is, if you get it wrong, everyone thinks it's a bad decision, and if you get it right, everyone thinks it's a good decision. That's not actually the reality of how it works.

"I think cricket can be a really brutal sport. You have really, really good stretches and essentially you're not as good as the results are in those stretches. And you have bad stretches where you're not as bad as your results" Fiona Goodall / © Getty Images

Right after your IPL stint with Rajasthan Royals in 2021, you had to detour to Paris after landing in England before turning up at Northamptonshire and hitting 75 not out off 30 balls on debut for them. How challenging is life as a T20 freelancer?
I've really enjoyed it, to be honest. Not having a New Zealand contract was initially a daunting prospect - not having that regular income and not having that base at home to be training with the team - but I think one of the real benefits of it is, you're always meeting a new group, you're always going into a new environment and it keeps you fresh. Meeting new people and going to new places and the scenarios and roles you're going to have in each team are going to differ slightly as well, so it keeps you on your toes.

Sometimes I've been in teams where I didn't bowl an over - Oval Invincibles [the Hundred], for example - and then in the BPL I was opening the bowling and bowling two in the powerplay and two at the death. You have to stay agile with your skill set.

It can mean a lot of time away from home as well. But you're more in control of your own schedule and able to choose which tournaments to go to and which tournaments to miss, when you think you need a break or a conditioning window within a year. So it's probably more work from an admin point of view. When you're playing for New Zealand, you basically get told where to go week to week and what to do. But no, it has been really enjoyable from my side and certainly something I think I can continue to do hopefully for four-five years more.

As a freelancer you tend to spend a lot of time in hotel rooms. How do you unwind when you're away from cricket?
Golf (laughs). As I mentioned before, the change of scenery often keeps you entertained. A new hotel, a new city, and we Kiwi boys like our coffee. So, going on the road and finding different cafés and that kind of thing fills in the day. But often you come into a team and you'll only be there for ten days or two weeks and you've got six-seven games in two weeks. That doesn't leave you with a lot of time to have downtime when you think of travelling, training, gym and recovery. Often in a two-week stretch, you will only have two-three days which you actually have to fill in. Just the standard stuff - Netflix, watching movies and that kind of stuff, really.

"Our strength in world tournaments over the last ten to 12 years [has been] adaptability and being quicker than other teams to change our play-style based on what the conditions are telling us" © Associated Press

Are you better than Mitch Santner at golf?
No one is better than Santner! He's very frustrating to play with (laughs).

When you were at the SA20, you had a chance to captain Pretoria Capitals. What was that leadership experience like?
It was a tough season at Pretoria. There were a lot of injury issues, which hamstrung us throughout the tournament. But it was a great opportunity for me. I've captained a few domestic teams when the regular captains went away and it's not something I want to do on a long-term basis, I think. You know as an allrounder, there's so much on your plate already with preparing for games and training. Captaincy on top of that is too much on a long-term basis. But to fill in for two-three games is enjoyable and I suppose you look at the game through a slightly different lens and care a little bit more about the tactical side of things. But no, I'm more than happy to have an unofficial leadership role in teams and not be the captain when we're playing for New Zealand. Guys like Mitch Santner or Michael Bracewell captain and I enjoy giving a little bit of advice here and there and not being blamed if it goes horribly wrong.

How much of intel and confidence can you draw from your CPL stints, heading into the T20 World Cup?
I think that's one of the strengths of our New Zealand team at the moment. We've got a lot of guys that have played in various T20 leagues around the world. I suppose we have ideas and knowledge around a lot of different situations. I played for Guyana [Amazon Warriors] and Trinidad [Trinbago Knight Riders] - those are the two venues for our group stage. Kane Williamson [Barbados Tridents] has played in the CPL too, Glenn Phillips [Jamaica Tallawahs and Barbados Royals] and Tim Seifert [Trinbago Knight Riders]. We can even tap into the knowledge of Colin Munro [the highest run-getter among overseas players in the CPL].

I think probably ten years ago, when a New Zealand team went to tour Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, there were often only just one or two guys who had been there before on previous international tours. Whereas now you get tours where seven or eight guys have been in those conditions before, which certainly makes it less daunting to play overseas. I think one of the great things of our team is, there is no hesitancy to share that knowledge among players. I think that has been our strength in world tournaments over the last ten to 12 years. Adaptability and being quicker than other teams to change our play-style based on what the conditions are telling us.

"The nature of cricket these days is, if you get it wrong, everyone thinks it's a bad decision, and if you get it right, everyone thinks it's a good decision. That's not the reality of how it works" Indranil Mukherjee / © AFP/Getty Images

You contemplated retirement at one point and you were talked out of it. You spent a New Year's at home and that was a turning point. Are little things like that very important to you?
Yeah, I think so. I think cricket can be a really brutal sport at times. You have really, really good stretches and essentially you're not as good as the results are in those stretches. And then you have bad stretches where you're not as bad as your results are through those stretches. [It can] play with your mind a little bit.

I think missing out on the 2015 [ODI] World Cup and then getting injured for an extended period of time was a really, really difficult period to get through for me. One of the cool things about life, I guess, is you don't have to be a cricketer your whole life. It's something you do for 15 years, if you're lucky, from 20 to 35, and then you've got about 60 more to fill in hopefully. So, now moving towards the back end of my career, I can take it for what it is better and just enjoy the experience and not worry too much about success or failure. The end is going to come at some point - whether it's in two years or six years or whenever. That will be a point when you will move onto a different phase of life. And I think I'm probably a bit more comfortable with that now than I was five or six years ago, where I think my identity was probably more tied up in being a cricketer than it is now.

After the 2019 ODI World Cup, you went to the netball World Cup and celebrated the success of your flat-mate Bailey Mes. Did friends and family help bring about the transformation?
Yeah, I mean the thing that I got wrong was too desperately wanting to succeed and it was quite a cutthroat environment in the New Zealand team at the time. When I came back from my back injury, I didn't really have a lot of time to find my feet again. I was very much thrown straight back into the Black Caps and expecting to succeed straightaway.

When that success didn't come straightaway, I tried harder and trained harder. I gymmed harder, and did everything you think you were supposed to do to succeed. The reality was, I needed more time to get comfortable in my body again and trust my back again. In hindsight, I wish I'd taken an extra five months of playing domestic cricket to just ease my way back in and find my form again. But that wasn't to be. Sometimes the harder you try, the worse you get and it can turn to a bit of spiral, and I wasn't really enjoying cricket at all at the point.

I was living away from home in Dunedin, which wasn't helping. At the end of the season, I basically had enough and wanted to go back to Auckland, live at home for the first time in six or seven years. Michael Bracewell and Bruce Edgar convinced me to come down to Wellington - not even from a cricket perspective but from an enjoyment perspective - and have a bit of a change and see what happens.

The communication was that if we had one season and it didn't work out, well then I can just retire then and go back to Auckland anyway. No harm, no foul. I really embraced going out and just enjoying the game again and having fun. Obviously, found a bit of secret to success for me, which is not taking it too seriously and being a bit free, and it's something I've continued to take on ever since. It seems to be working, so no point in changing it now.

Now that you're a T20 globetrotter, do you bring back knick-knacks for people at home?
No, I'm not a big one for souvenirs. I've got a seven-month old boy now, so I will have to start by going to a toy store before I come back home. But never been a big one for souvenirs. I have a playing shirt from each team that I've played for in a bin in the garage, so that's probably about it as far as memorabilia and stuff goes.

Alagappan Muthu and Deivarayan Muthu are sub-editors at ESPNcricinfo