Getting picked in the New Zealand squad for the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup 2019 was "surreal", an elated Jimmy Neesham has said, especially since he was contemplating retirement 18 months ago.
A hard-hitting all-rounder, Neesham was among the 15 players named for the World Cup in England and Wales, starting 30 May. It was the latest step in a strong comeback for him, since returning for the Sri Lanka series at home.
Neesham had been dropped after a disappointing ICC Champions Trophy 2017 and even lost his place in his domestic side Otago. He remained out of national reckoning thereafter, before making a triumphant international return in January this year, when he smashed 47* in 13 balls. He has since maintained that form, but he explained that it had taken him considerable mental fortitude to keep going when the chips were down.
"I actually called Heath Mills [CEO of New Zealand Players Association] and told him I was going to retire," he told reporters on Thursday, 4 April. "I owe a lot to him for convincing me to take a little break and come back three or four weeks later. From then on, being able to make progress steadily, come back with Wellington and make this team as well, it's all been a pretty surreal ride.
"He talked me off a ledge a little ... Basically told me to go home, have a couple of weeks off, not pick up a cricket bat, and see how I felt in a fortnight or so and we'd gradually talk about getting back into the game. When I did go back to Otago, I didn't want to. I wanted to have another week or so off, but he convinced me the best way to get back on the bike is to just get back on and see how you go."
When I was the most driven and most motivated, I played my worst. Trying too hard isn't too helpful for me as a cricketer.
At the end of that season, Neesham made the switch from Otago for Wellington, and success came through runs and wickets, even as he began to enjoy the sport more. The break had helped him identify an important facet of his personality and game: "When I was the most driven and most motivated, I played my worst," he said. "Trying too hard isn't too helpful for me as a cricketer. Once I started enjoying the game again and being more carefree, that's when it started to come together.
"I put way too much pressure on myself. I wanted to dominate domestic cricket, wanted to score 100s every game. Once that starts going in a downward spiral, you aren't scoring runs and taking wickets, you put more pressure on yourself, and it got to the point where it had to break. Luckily, I took that advice and took a short break instead of a long break, and since then it's been on the up and up."
Neesham spoke to a psychologist to help him work through his frustrations. "I'm not much of a communicator at the best of times. Just being able to talk through a few of the struggles I was having off the field [was helpful] – it only took four or five sessions to really see some progress.
"I'd given the other way around a good crack, trying to get enjoyment from succeeding, but once I paid less attention to the runs and wickets, less attention to hitting balls for two hours the day before a game, and just going out and enjoying it, that was when the results started to come."
Making the call-up sweeter was the fact that he had missed out on selection in 2015 – having been "the consensus No.16". "Obviously, missing out four years ago was gut-wrenching," he said, remembering how it was "bitter-sweet" watching from the stands as Grant Elliott won them the semi-final against South Africa.
Now, with New Zealand starting their campaign on 1 June against Sri Lanka, a more relaxed Neesham is set to make amends.