Matt Henry – ‘Everyone on the team offers something different, and it creates a bit more versatility’

The trees outside Matt Henry‘s window were swaying in a stiff breeze against greyscale skies on a gloomy Christchurch evening. “It’s a bit of a whirlwind,” he said, smiling, not referring to the weather at all, but New Zealand’s innings and 276-run win inside seven sessions against South Africa.

Henry’s is a rare Zoom interview which is not being done against the backdrop of white walls or interesting artwork disguised as decor. The lighting is soft, the outside is visible and he seems completely at ease. “I’m at home,” Henry told ESPNcricinfo. “The guys based in Christchurch are at home and the rest of the squad are at the hotel.”

Two years ago, this piece of information would never have made it into a story. Now, with sports teams confined to bubbles, it seems an unusual throwback to the way things used to be, although they’re not entirely there yet. “We’ve still got some rules and we’ve got to be careful with what we do and don’t do. There’s guidelines to keep ourselves nice and safe,” Henry said. “But yeah, I am at home.”

The South Africa players could be forgiven for feeling envious, especially after the 10-day quarantine period they served. It was the strictest restrictions they’ve had on a tour, and though they insist it’s not an excuse for their poor performance in the first Test, insiders say it had an enormous impact on their head space. Perhaps the opposite is true for New Zealand.

Since March 2020, New Zealand have the best win ratio of any Test team, with victory in two-thirds of their Tests (8 out of 12). In that time, they’ve had just two wins away from home and six in their own backyard, five by more than an innings. On one hand, that may be an indication of how well the country has managed the health crisis; on the other it’s a measure of New Zealand’s highly successful attack, who have all the ingredients for big successes. “Everyone offers something slightly different and it creates a bit more versatility and balance for the captain. He can put people on in different roles and keep trying to put pressure on in different ways,” Henry said.

It was the absence of easy run-scoring opportunities, rather than extreme pace, bounce or movement that allowed New Zealand to squeeze South Africa, and ultimately inflict their second-biggest defeat on them, according to Henry. “We managed to create pressure from both ends for a sustained period and I got the rewards at the one end.”

But it is not as though Henry just got lucky. He became the first player to take seven wickets and score a half-century batting at No.11 in a Test, which takes more than good fortune. He also claimed the best figures by a New Zealand bowler at home and joint-third best overall and put his performance down to familiarity on his own turf, rather than form.

“This is my home ground and I understand how to operate here. I knew how I wanted to bowl and going in with confidence helps,” Henry said. “At Hagley, especially on day one, there is always pace and bounce in the wicket. Most of us bowlers were pretty excited when we won the toss to have a bowl. But when you do get in that situation, it’s important to bowl in the right areas and get batters to play and make as many decisions as possible.”

After more than a decade of playing Canterbury, Henry has learnt that it can be easy for bowlers to get carried away when they see the venue’s green surface, but that doesn’t necessarily mean things will simply happen for them. They have to know how to make best use of conditions and Henry, through years of playing on them, has some inside-knowledge. “I like to try and hit the strings and get as much bounce as I possibly can, as well as a bit of seam movement,” he said. “For me, I’ve got to come in with a good bit of intent and make sure I get batters to play as much as possible.”

According to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball data, South Africa’s line-up was made to play at a third of Henry’s deliveries and all but one of his nine wickets came when the batter was caught undecided between whether to go forward or stay back in his crease, moving late and making an error. Though Henry is not particularly quick, he moves the ball from short of a length and with Tim Southee swinging it at the other end, South Africa were completely at sea. “That’s the beauty of it. The bowling group has been together for a while and has quite a lot of strengths,” Henry said. “The boys are in a good space and everyone is confident and understands their game and we’ve got quite a nice balance as well.”

Dynamic as they are, New Zealand’s attack has seldom had space for Henry, who has featured in just 15 Tests and has only twice – against England in 2015 and India in 2016 – played two matches in the same series. That should increase to three times with Boult ruled out of the second Test because his bowling loads are not quite where New Zealand would like them to be and there would appear to be no other reason to change a winning combination. Henry would not give anything away about whether he expected to get the nod save to say that he would “find out more at training,” an activity you may think he knows better than most.

Henry has been part of several New Zealand Test squads and barely played, which must mean he uses his extra in the nets, right?

“Maybe,” he jokes. “I guess there is a little more opportunity to train here and there but mostly I just don’t worry about selection and try to focus on being better as a player and growing; and understanding that if I do get the opportunity, I’m ready and in the right space.”

That includes being ready with the bat. Henry is no regular No.11 and has only batted there in nine matches in his 79-game first-class career. He is much more of a No.9 and enjoys any chance to bat alongside the specialists. “It was pretty cool to go out there with Tom (Blundell) who was really settled at the crease,” he said. Blundell and Henry went on to share a 10th-wicket stand of 96. “When you’re batting with a batter, it’s always enjoyable because they peel things back for you and keep it nice and simple.”

That is the way New Zealand have approached this as a collective, knowing that despite being World Test Champions, they could easily have been underdogs.

“We are missing some key players (Ross Taylor, Kane Williamson and Boult) and there has been talk about South Africa being such a quality side and what’s happened in the past (New Zealand have never beaten South Africa in a Test series),” Henry says. “For us, it’s not getting too caught up in that and, it sounds cliche, but just doing our jobs and sticking to our roles.”

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent

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