Devon Conway was out in the middle for a quarter of an hour before he actually did any batting on Wednesday morning. His partner, Tom Latham, took one single off the last ball of the first over, another off the last ball of the second, and faced all of the third himself, so the game was into its fourth over before Conway finally got to face his first ball. Eight hours (and 136 runs) later Conway said that he’d been happy to have the extra time, that it had allowed him to watch the bowlers at work and learn a little more about what he was up against. What’s another 15 minutes, after all, to a man who’s waited almost 15 years?
Conway made his first class debut for Gauteng back in March 2009, when he was a 17-year-old kid who was still batting No 3 for his school St John’s College. In the years since, he’s played for at least 21 different teams in three different countries, had spells in franchise and provincial cricket in South Africa, done stretches in the Lancashire League, the East Anglian League, the West of England League, and the Northern Premier League, taken two turns in Somerset’s second XI, and worked his way up from club cricket through to first-class cricket and then into the international set-up in New Zealand.
There have been older debutants, but not many who spent so long so far away from playing Test cricket, languishing out in the fringes of the professional game. “I was always just dreaming of getting a chance,” he said on Wednesday evening.
When it finally came, it didn’t worry him that it was on a ground he ’d never played at, in a position he’d rarely played in, against two bowlers, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, who’d been playing Test cricket for even longer than he’d been dreaming of doing it. He played with the quiet authority of a man with a very clear sense of purpose, who knew exactly what he wanted to do and how he was going to do it. As if, having waited so long for the opportunity, he was all the more determined to make the most of it. Which he did. His 200 was the highest score anyone’s made on a Test debut in England.
How does a man capable of playing like that go for so very long without anyone else in the game ever figuring out that he can? Omphile Ramela, who captained Conway at St John’s, and went on to play for the Cape Cobras, suggested it was down to “poor talent management” in the South African system. “Some of his coaches referred to him as an ‘amateur bully’ and stated that he wouldn’t cut it in international cricket,” Ramela wrote on Facebook. “In other words, our system had effectively hammered his confidence and could not recognise his talent.” It’s not just South Africa. Somerset must be wondering how they let him slip, too, after two years in their second team.
Conway had to emigrate to New Zealand to get his chance. He put a lot of his success since down to the technical improvements he made after he started playing there in 2017, and he is quick to admit that he never quite made the most of the chances he was given in South Africa and England. But still seems incredible that he had to sell his house and his car and move his family to another country to find the opportunity he was looking for.
“I know many cricketers of the same ability as him,” Ramela said, “who do not have the luxury to walk away and ply their trade elsewhere.” Which makes you think there are dozens of other undiscovered Test match batsmen out there, that maybe there are some among the 800-odd players listed on the Cricketer Exchange as being available for hire by your local club, men and women who used to play a bit of representative cricket back in the day, played a few trials, or did a stint as a club pro in the leagues, but never quite got the shot they needed in big time cricket.
There are certainly a lot of them knocking around New Zealand. Conway went there because two of his best friends from the Gauteng team, Malcolm Nofal and Michael Rippon, went ahead and told him he ought to follow them. There are more. Neil Wagner, Chad Bowes, Warren Barnes, you could pull together a full squad of South Africans playing in New Zealand’s first class competition at the minute. And those are just the ones who made it.
And in England too. The leading run-scorer in the County Championship right now is David Bedingham, a 25-year-old from George, who decided to leave the Cape Cobras to come and play for Durham, the best spinner in the country is Simon Harmer, a 32-year-old from Pretoria. According to the World Bank, South African’s three main exports are platinum, gold and iron ore. Presumably runs and wickets must run them a close fourth and fifth.