The Intriguing Upside Of Lockie Ferguson and Jimmy Neesham

In working through a 'winners and losers' idea from the Blackcaps World Cup campaign, it became rather clear that such a yarn wouldn't be all that interesting. Part of that has to do with the three super duper world-class cricketers in the Blackcaps squad, all leading the way for Aotearoa as Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor scored most of the runs, while Trent Boult did his steady Boulty thing with the ball.

On the flipside of that, are folks like Martin Guptill, Tim Southee and perhaps Ish Sodhi. Guptill had a stinker of a tournament, while Southee and Sodhi played one game each in the entire tournament. What holds me back from finding this 'loser' bracket interesting, is that none of what happened at the World Cup is likely to have major repercussions moving forward; these three didn't have the tournaments they would have liked, although they didn't really lose on any grand scale.

Blackcaps teams moving forward, depending on the format, will still include Guptill, Southee and Sodhi. Heck, Colin Munro may still be able to wiggle into different Blackcaps teams and with regards to Munro, his batting style and technical weaknesses were evident ever since he got the ODI opening gig and so from my perspective I don't find his failures all that interesting. Or, more to the point, the Munro/Henry Nicholls opening situation was clouded by selection shenanigans throughout the summer and I'm not going to blame players for the endless lack of common sense in selecting Blackcaps squads/teams.

I settle on a rather obvious breakout star in Lockie Ferguson, who finished 2nd in total World Cup wickets with 21w @ 19.47avg/4.88rpo. Breakout star to some, classy operator who is merely rising through the international cricket levels at a consistent rate to those who have paid closer attention to Ferguson's arc. For many around the world though, Ferguson was a bit of an unknown.

Since Gary Stead took over as coach in August, 2018, Ferguson has taken his ODI average down from an incredibly slick 25.65 career average to 21.10 under Stead. That tells us that Ferguson was already a reasonable gun seamer in his 16 ODI games under Mike Hesson, then Ferguson hit a nek level with Stead's arrival and a nek nek level on the biggest stage. Of course, Stead's tenure as coach comes with Ferguson playing more T20 cricket and racking up all sorts of experience which has had a major benefit as well.

Regardless of what has made Ferguson better though, he is now a dominant force. My favourite bowler at this World Cup and in general is India's Jasprit Bumrah and their are some funky similarities between Ferguson and Bumrah. They both bowl fast for starters and along with natural heat, they are both skillful in their variety they biff down the wicket. Both made their ODI debuts in 2016, although at opposite ends of the calendar with Bumrah debuting in early 2016 and Ferguson late in 2016.

The most notable similarity is what they have done in that period since August 1st, 2018 (roughly when Gary Stead became Blackcaps coach). Ferguson has played 20 ODI games in that period for his average of 21.10 and Bumrah has played 21 games, averaging 20.87. Bumrah has a superior career ODI average of 21.88 and that consistency gives him an edge over Ferguson, yet this shows that Ferguson's steady rise is on par with the best in the business.

Ferguson is 28-years-old and 36 games into his ODI career. His best domestic format is First-Class where he averages 24.65 and Ferguson averages under 30 in every format he has played throughout his career. Nothing is predictable, or able to be forecasted in fast bowling as injuries are a huge factor in a seamer's career, based on what we have seen to this point, it's completely rational to suggest that Ferguson has immense upside. Again, availability is the best ability, but the development and improvement in his Blackcaps career is what I base this upside on.

Another Blackcap who I meditated on, with an intriguing upside coming out of that World Cup is Ferguson's former Auckland Grammar School comrade Jimmy Neesham. Unlike Ferguson, Neesham didn't have the performances that demand attention and instead went about his work with bat and ball, chiming in with runs and wickets. Neesham had a few opportunities to make greater contributions; in the 8inns that Neesham batted, he only had one score of less than 10 and that was a knock of 9 vs Australia which still came from 22 balls.

Neesham got a start in every innings that he batted in at this World Cup, which is more impressive considering the range of situations that Neesham found himself in. Three scores in the 20's and three scores between 10-20 tell a frustrating tale, of a batsman who did the tough stuff but couldn't kick on. Neesham's tournament was headlined by a 97* vs Pakistan and all of Neesham's work with the bat, was boosted by taking 1+ wickets in all but two of the nine innings in which he bowled.

For those who like it hard and fast: Neesham was 3rd in Blackcaps runs and 3rd in Blackcaps wickets at the World Cup. When I'm sussing out who I'm intrigued by moving forward, the context around Neesham's performances are crucial as I vividly remember writing about domestic cricket when Neesham was out of action for Otago. At the time, all I could do was wonder wtf was going on down in the deep south and whether Neesham would slide into Corey Anderson territory in not quite cashing in on obvious cricketing gifts.

Anderson can still get back in the mix and a move to Auckland may lead to every kiwi cricket fan's fantasy of Anderson and Neesham at the peak of their powers for the Blackcaps. But from an external view, it wasn't looking good for Neesham and as Neesham is very open and honest, we came to learn that Neesham was stuck in a hole. For Neesham to work himself out of that hole and contribute as an all-rounder at a World Cup, is nothing but inspiring for young kiwis who are battling the dark arts.

Neesham went walkabouts, to find himself and that's something every kiwi should challenge themselves to do. Working hard on yourself, is more important than working hard in a 9-5 job or whatever sport/craft you pursue. Neesham had a good World Cup, not Ferguson-level amazing but damn good and it feels like the foundations have been laid for Neesham to continue his development; a bunch of Blackcaps have rather blatantly improved since Stead came into the set up.

Ferguson has something unique, something that Aotearoa tends not to produce and something that is coached out of young seamers in Aotearoa as coaches look for perfect bio-mechanics in a bowling action. While not as extreme as Bumrah, Ferguson bowls fast and he does it his way, which opens a niche for Ferguson to gain consistent selection moving forward.

Like Ferguson, there is a path for Neesham to settle into the Blackcaps 1st 11 long-term. Neesham is arguably better with bat and ball than Colin de Grandhomme, definitely younger and with more potential. We saw at this World Cup that Neesham's batting prowess is true, in the sense that he's got the batsmanship to go with power and that idea is also evident in his bowling; Neesham has the speed and skill of a legit bowler.

How these two progress over the next 12-24 months is going to be fascinating. They have both been on the scene for a long time and yet this World Cup felt like the first time for us as fans to see Neesham and Ferguson out-perform other Blackcaps and international players, making meaningful contributions to a World Cup campaign that I personally vibe with more than the 2015 World Cup.

This Blackcaps team wasn't suppose to make the final in England, the preparation for this tournament was borderline shocking and despite having some dark horse potential, the kiwis weren't top-four favourite. Neesham and Ferguson played their roles and in doing so, have set themselves up to continue on the trajectory.

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