lIt says a lot about the New Zealand way – a philosophy England hopes to tap into in Test cricket – that Matt Henry is laughing at the suggestion that a shirt is his next Thursday to open the Test series at Lord’s.
In the final outing for the reigning Test world champions against South Africa in February, Henry was named Player of the Series, taking 14 wickets and seven for 23 at Hagley Oval, which matched Richard Hadlee’s New Zealand home record; he was the executioner at Edgbaston in last year’s 1-0 win in England.
But although twice a 50-over World Cup finalist, this strong, versatile fast right-arm has found test opportunities fleeting since his 2015 debut. Tim Southee and Trent Boult have dominated the new ball for a decade, Neil Wagner was a unique left-arm battering ram at the first substitution, while the hulking Kyle Jamieson has recently appeared.
“Ha-ha, no,” Henry says, when asked if he’s definitely an incumbent now (not least with the late arrivals of Boult and Southee from India). “It’s not something I’m too concerned about. The key for our group is worrying about what you can do to contribute. It’s great to have personal success, but that’s how you get the win for New Zealand.
“We’ve been lucky enough to have the competition for spots. Guys come in, understand their role and know what it takes. Mine has changed over the years and it’s about how you fit in to try and take 20 wickets for the team. It’s knowing there’s a bigger job ahead and that’s something this group is proud of: coming to get a job done.”
This team-first mentality echoes the clarion call of Ben Stokes, Henry’s Christchurch fellow son, when he took over the England captaincy last month. The move to then sign Brendon McCullum as head coach of the all-rounder was a matter of shamelessly squeezing one of the leaders who set New Zealand on this path and hoping for the same magical results.
“I can only speak from my experience, but I loved Brendon’s leadership,” said Henry, who won 21 caps across all formats under McCullum’s captaincy. “He’s great with people and building relationships. I’m sure he will do very well with England.
“Something we’re proud of is doing it our way, working in a way that’s authentic to us as a group, with that style of play. Brendon was instrumental in setting it up, after which Kane Williamson took over as captain and the group continued to evolve.
“Brendon’s job now is what that change looks like with England. I don’t know what that environment is like, but you have a very strong pool of players and when you come here – yes, there is a new captain and coach – nothing changes: it is England in their circumstances.”
England conditions and the Dukes ball are something Henry is clearly enjoying with spells at Worcestershire in 2016 and Kent two years later taking 102 Championship wickets at 18 runs apiece. He has signed a contract to return to the latter after this tour, although he does get a wry smile when he notes how real the fields have played this season.
New Zealand has made a similar move domestically over the past decade and, while challenging, Henry credits this for “adding tools to your belt” as a bowler.
“I like to strike with the new ball, but you might still have played a part on the other side, hold on, create pressure. It makes days like summer [against South Africa] sweeter,” he says.
Moments like these may not have been for Henry, who suffered a severe stress fracture in the lower back at age 21 after bowling with it for a year. Needless to say, he has huge sympathy for the English sailors – Saqib Mahmood, Jofra Archer and Matthew Fisher – who are out of season with the same problem.
Henry’s was so bad that he was forced to undergo an extreme surgery that involved fastening screws and a titanium cable in the lower back. The procedure, which came with an endorsement from his Canterbury team-mate Shane Bond, was rather seen as the last roll of the dice and not carried out on such a young sailor.
“It was a daunting time as a fast bowler, but I’m glad I made it through the other side,” he says. “Coming back was a mental battle. I was lucky enough to have Bondy around for a coffee and chat.
“You have doubts, cramps and fear that the problem will return. The most important thing Bond said was ‘Your back is stronger than ever, you did everything right, let it go and trust it’. I don’t think there is one magic answer to the broader problem, although every bowler is different and at their own stage of development.”
Olly Stone underwent the same procedure last summer, but it remains to be seen whether others on the sidelines will need such dramatic intervention. Henry, now 30 and with the issue a distant memory, is proof there is a way back, with his sole focus these days being the best teammate possible and hopefully getting the nod to Lord’s.