Black Caps Cricket World Cup hero Jimmy Neesham reveals what happened on that ill-fated day at Lord’s and how to move on.
Jimmy Neesham is doing OK now. But it’s taken a while.
For those still suffering from the lead-weight despair of seeing the Black Caps losing the World Cup final in the closest possible way, talking about it helps. So, after a cathartic month playing T20 in Canada, allrounder Jimmy Neesham sat down with The Spinoff’s cricket podcast, The Offspin, to talk all things cricket and life.
“I’m good now. It was an up and down month after the final,” said the Black Caps allrounder, who faced all but one of the balls bowled in that extraordinary super over, which finished tied on 15, and left England holding the cup after a countback of boundaries scored in the tied 50-over contest.
“Sorry, I’m not ready to talk about it yet,” was his initial response when the podcast approached him. But after he watched an interview where US comedian Stephen Colbert discussed dealing with the grief of the death of his father and two brothers in a plane crash, and how you move on from that, he agreed to talk.
“Obviously losing a World Cup final is not the same as losing your father. But they talked a lot about gratitude. They talked about how if you’re going to be grateful for life and the opportunities you get – playing games in front of 30,000 people – you have to be grateful for the bad days. Because they come together,” he said.
Without the pain of loss, there is no joy in winning. He also decided a month was about a reasonable duration for self-pity, and decided it was time to suck it up and move on.
“You sort of get sick of yourself. You’re moping around a lot and you’re sad and miserable and you just look at yourself in the mirror and you go, ‘Who is this? What’s going on here?’”
So, thinking back to that Sunday at Lord’s in July: what did he say to Martin Guptill as he picked him up off the ground after he’d fallen a metre short of winning the Cricket World Cup?
“I think I said, “you’ll be right mate.” Then I said, “100% effort is all we ask for. And if you give 100% effort you take what comes.” No one is going to be hurting more. There’s no point telling him don’t worry about it, or we’re proud of you, or anything like that. You just have to remind them that it’s not the end of the world,” Neesham said.
When the game was squared after the first 50 overs, there was an on-field discussion about who would be sent out to bat for New Zealand’s super over while the England players prepared to bat. The conversation was led by captain Kane Williamson and the senior leadership group. Neesham was silent.
“I’m not at the level to be throwing out suggestions, certainly not volunteering myself in a situation like that. Kane turned around and said me and Gup, and that was before we even bowled.”
How was he able to focus on fielding for six balls knowing that he was about to bat in the biggest moment of his career?
“That’s something I’ve done a lot of work on, staying present, concentrating on what’s relevant. And I think the nature of a situation like that, every little mistake is amplified. You really need to concentrate on what matters, and I think you saw some misfields and poor calls when they were fielding that potentially gave us a chance to steal the game,” he said.
“But my attention turned to batting as soon as that final ball was crossing the boundary from Jos Buttler. Obviously, you only have six or seven minutes, and it’s quite a long walk to get all the way back up to the changing rooms. We had a discussion about boundary count before we went out to bat. Everyone knew. So it was reasonably hectic there. But once you get back out on the field it’s quite calm.”
Has he ever hit a ball better than that third delivery from Jofra Archer’s super over that he pumped into the stands beyond deep midwicket?
“I certainly haven’t hit a more important ball better. Probably not. You don’t really remember individual shots over a career.
“It’s one of those things. You set up for a delivery, all you can do when you’re facing a guy bowling 90mph is set up for what you think is coming and hope. That was basically the ball I was hoping for, an attempted yorker that was dragged down a touch. You’re not not going to swing are you.”
He still hasn’t watched a replay of the game. But he clearly remembers all those tiny moments – Boult’s first ball to Roy, the boundary catch, the magical six off the back of Stoke’s diving bat – that defined the game, ultimately in England’s favour. And when he did accidentally bump into a highlights package of the game on TV he didn’t like what he saw.
“There was a montage (of the World Cup final) that played during the first Ashes test when it was raining. I’ve seen that. It was awful. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever watched.
“Every time I think about it I remember another thing that was astronomically unlucky that happened. There’s about seven or eight in a row. It’s almost a little bit surreal.”
But the way luck can define cricket is part of what makes it a beautiful sport, argues Neesham. It’s part of what makes it a special sport to play. You have to cope with it. You have to try and ride it.
“It’s all just trying to ride the waves of that luck. You look at someone like Ben Stokes in that last five overs: was he lucky? Yeah, he was incredibly lucky, but it wasn’t lucky that he was there on 85 not out giving himself the opportunity to have that luck. That’s all you can really do is work as hard as you can to give yourself the chance to be lucky.
“And then you just have to shrug your shoulders and go it wasn’t our day, that day.”
Neesham feels very lucky to have even been there at all. Eighteen months before the World Cup – out of love with cricket, and out of form – he’d contemplated retirement. He describes it as a gradual and prolonged downward spiral. At the end of 2014-2015, he’d had a really bad 12 months in the game. After an intense nine months away from home as part of the T20 circuit, he hit a wall. Then he was left out of the 2015 World Cup squad. He never gave himself a chance to recover from that, physically or mentally.
“I had such a rollicking start to my international career, and had such a bad year, I lost sight of how long it had taken to lay the foundations for that start. Then you start at zero again and you go, ‘I want to be scoring test hundreds again,’ and the more you try and push for that the further away you get. It became the most frustrating thing I’ve experienced.
“I watched footage of me batting in 2017 and I was fucking awful. And you just go: who is this? It’s not me. I’m not batting out there. It’s probably an amalgamation of six different coaches and eight different mentors all saying you should do this and that. And because you’re lost, you just listen, and you latch onto anything that might help, and eventually, you’re not yourself any more.”
At rock bottom Neesham found clarity.
“You sort of look around and go ‘what am I doing?’ And you get a chance to go: I’m not going to do that any more, my technique is going all the way back to what it was when I was 18, screw everything I’ve learnt since then, I’m going to start again. What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
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It got to the point where he got a real job. His partner’s brother got him a job as a marketing intern, trying to convince farmers to embrace new technology. He kept training and then he found a lost love for the game with a move to Wellington at the end of the 2018 summer. He found his form again too, and then his way to a World Cup with the Black Caps.
“I was very fortunate that Michael Bracewell and Bruce Edgar, the leaders in Wellington, called me up and convinced me to come back. I am very fortunate to have a bit of a resurgence and playing the cricket I have. And there are a lot of people around me that are owed more for that than I am.”
And then he found himself batting in a Cricket World Cup Final super over.
“One more would have been nice.”