Nearly two decades ago, a young boy and his father were at the entrance of the Maungakaramea Cricket Club, waiting for someone to open the door. Neal Parlane, now the club’s coach and then an aspiring first-class cricketer who had come for nets, asked them who they wanted to meet. The father said: “Tim just wants some cricket coaching.” Parlane stared at the boy, hardly 12, but strapping for his age. “So do you want to be a cricketer?” The shy lad without any hesitation replied: “Yeah, a Black Cap.” Impressed, he quickly buzzed the manager and made the requisite arrangements for his enrolment.
The next day, the boy and his father were again at the entrance when Parlane checked in. He took the boy to the nets and asked him to bowl. The first ball he faced was a full toss, but Parlane noticed his action, neat and fluent, without any jerks, remarkable for a boy of his age and without any formal training. He didn’t even think the lad could bowl 22 yards. So, he asked whether he had any prior coaching. He shrugged his head and said a firm “No. I just used bowl in our farm.” Parlane asked the whereabouts. He replied: “The Manawatu Waihora Farm.”
Parlane immediately got the connect. The boy’s father, Murray, was quite renowned in the locality. The Southees, one of the early settlers in the idyllic farming town, owned a sprawling property, 10 dairy farms and dry-stock blocks in Waiotira, 30-odd miles from Whangerei. His next question: “So you come all the way? Your father wants you to be a cricketer, yeah?” Promptly came the reply: “No, I want to be.”
That moment was enough to convince Parlane that he was watching a driven boy with not only talent but determination. So every weekend, Murray would drive Tim to the cricket club in the morning and pick him up in the evening. In that time, Tim would just keep bowling. If the batsmen were tired, he would bowl to an imaginary batsman in the nets. “The boy would work his bum off,” Parlane says.
His colleague Steve Cunis, now the club’s operational manager, was struck by Southee’s ability to learn new things. “In a year’s time, he might have been just 13, he started swinging the ball, booming out-swingers,” says Cunis, a medium-pacer himself. His father Bob, who passed away in 2008, too had played an influential role in imparting bowling fundamentals to the quiet but over-eager boy.
At 15, Southee made his club debut. He got a pasting from a burly opening batsman. But Tim didn’t show any disappointment, he just kept learning and waiting for his next opportunity. “I think he clean-bowled him when they met next,” recollects Cunis. Southee soon became the darling of the club. “He was a likeable boy, always listening, always working hard, no distractions, just focus and eye on detail. And gradually, news spread that a new cricketing talent is in town,” he remembers.
So precocious was his talent that they advised him to move to a bigger cricketing school, as the facilities in the Whangerei Boys High School were nothing extraordinary. So they made arrangements to shift him to the famous King’s College in Auckland, where his cricketing ambitions soared. “You know how the selection process works. You don’t get too much exposure if you are in the deep north,” Cunis reflects.
For Southee, it was a cultural shift, moving from the gargantuan farm in Waiotira to the more urban Auckland. “But he was ready to do anything to be a cricketer. He was so driven,” he says. At 31, the drive still burns, reiterated by his multiple comebacks. Every time one thinks Southee is finished, he bounces back with renewed vigour.
One day at King’s College, his principal Roy Kelley called Southee for an intense conversation regarding his academics. He was winning laurels for his college with his cricket and rugby skills, but Kelley felt he was lagging behind in academics. So like a typical hard-nosed principal, he decided it’s time for some stern words. “I was worried when Tim first came. He was an outstanding rugby player and cricketer, but I just didn’t feel he was paying enough attention to his studies. He had fairly good marks, but I thought he could do better,” he says.
So Kelley asked the self-effacing, soft-spoken boy: “What do you want to be in life?” Like all teachers, he thought he would ditch sports after a while. Like he told Parlane that morning at the gate of the Maungakaramea Cricket Club, Southee replied: “I’ll play for the Black Caps one day, sir.” The principal turned preachy: “I told him that unless he has the discipline and the desire to do everything well, show the same attributes in studies, he wouldn’t realise his dreams. Do you want to be a failed sportsman and a failed student? In bad times, you will know the real value of education.”
Southee merely nodded his head in approval and left the room. “He listened, worked really hard on his academics and got good marks”. On his last day at the college, Kelley told him: “Son, I’m sure you will be an Black Cap one day. The commitment and dedication you have for the sport will take you there.”
Four years later, when he made his Test debut at the age of 19, Kelley called him again and reminded him of the old conversation. “We laughed over it, but later he told me that he would never forget that conversation in his life.” Even now, whenever he sees him on television or reads about him in the papers, he is reminded of that conversation.
It was in 2006, when he was the Northern Districts fast-bowling coach that Vaughn Johnson first stumbled onto Southee. The youngster’s reputation preceded him but he was not willing to believe hearsay. So one day, he attended the U-19 selection trials just to watch him. “He had a lovely seam presentation. The ball didn’t wobble as it approached the batsman. Good height. But I thought he was still quite raw, could be a better bowler if he added a few yards of pace. At that point of time, he was bowling in the mid-120kmh.”
Johnson didn’t hurry him. He would ask him to bowl with a slightly longer run-up in the nets, so that he would get more momentum into his delivery stride. Also, he cut down his leap during the run-up, as he was jumping a bit too much, which in turn was slowing him down. “But in competitive games, I asked him to bowl normally until he fully mastered the new action,” he remembers.
At times, even minor alterations could turn counter-intuitive and wreck careers. But Johnson knew his ward wouldn’t falter. “He’s got a good cricket brain on him, he’s streetwise, he’s a kid that understands the game and is a very good listener,” he says.
Southee’s cerebral quotient is often understated, or overshadowed in the maverick brilliance of Trent Boult and the swagger of Neil Wagner. Yet, in the last two years he has had more success than them. From the England series in March 2018, Southee has 71 wickets at 22.81, compared to Boult’s 61 at 25.49 and Wagner’s 60 at 23.65.
There are few better bowlers who have mastered the art of setting up batsmen. There were several instances of it in Wellington when he worked batsmen with clever changes in angles and trajectories. He went wide off the crease against India’s most fluent batsman, Ajinkya Rahane, who thought he was looking to curl the ball in, only for it to hold its line, infusing dilemma. Whether to leave or not. In the end, he was caught it two minds and feathered a nick to the ‘keeper.
Fewer still have the inch-perfect out-swinger that nailed Prithvi Shaw in the first innings. The inward angle and length draws the batsman forward, before the ball deviates away from him. It’s quintessential Southee. Quintessential swing bowling. He is a swing bowler, he himself frequently claims, but not merely a swing bowler. He has various strings to his bow — he can seam the ball with equal felicity, surprise batsmen with the odd explosive ball, has added variations like the leg-cutter and scrambled-seam slower ball. Never mind his Super Over fumbles, look beyond his average of 29, it’s time he is rated as one of the finest contemporary fast bowlers. Arguably, New Zealand’s best-ever after Richard Hadlee in the subcontinent. In India, he averages 29, in Sri Lanka 15; he has produced match-winning spells in Australia, West Indies and England.
But there was a time when his career seemed spiralling down the gorge. He took a flight out to Auckland to meet Johnson.
In 2017, Southee was dropped from the squad before the series against South Africa. He was badly hurt and epitaphs were written about Southee as an inheritor of unfulfilled renown, that he had lost his pace and cutting edge. Emerged a raft of seamers like Wagner, Lockie Ferguson and Matt Henry who were gunning for a place.
But Southee wouldn’t give up without a fight. Together with Johnson, he dissected his bowling and realised that his non-bowling arm was getting too low when he was releasing the ball, which was hampering the fluency of his action. But more than anything else, he needed a short break and packed his bags for his hometown. Then, one morning, he turned up at the Maungakaramea Cricket Club and asked Parlane: “Mate, can I have a bowl?
What makes Southee a difficult bowler
A concoction of swing, accuracy and smarts makes him an incredible bowler. While his stock ball is the massive away-curler, he can seam the ball inwards as well as make it hold the line. While he has lost a bit of pace in the last couple of years, his effort ball can still hurry the batsman.
What is perhaps more compelling is his ability to set up batsmen. More than the sudden thrill of a quick kill, Southee prefers slow poison. Like a spinner, he would patiently bait the batsmen.
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