The Will to Succeed

Words by Irena Brooks
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

It took nearly ten years for New Plymouth cricketer Will Young to make the step from First Class player to fully fledged Black Cap — yet less than one to become a world champion.

The Black Caps’ World Test Championship win in June was hailed as the greatest achievement by a New Zealand cricket team ever. It’s the first time our men’s team has won a cricket world title.

Sir Richard Hadlee commented the current group of players was New Zealand’s “best in our history … their skill sets have complimented each other to make them a complete playing unit.”

Batting cover for the team, Will Young didn’t play the final.

He got one chance to bat during the UK Tour and he made the most of it, scoring a match-high 82 runs over England. He wrote himself into the record books at Edgbaston as the highest run scorer for a New Zealand test side since 1958 — the win clinching the test series for the Black Caps.

Just five days later, the final against India was due to be played at the Rose Bowl in South Hampton, England, and Kane Williamson was match fit with ‘Youngie’ back on the drinks.

LIVE Magazine spoke to Will shortly after the team arrived back in New Zealand and just over a week after New Zealand’s historic win of the inaugural World Test Championship (18 – 23 June 2021). He and the rest of the team were in an Auckland hotel doing their two weeks of MIQ … savouring some KFC courtesy of Ross Taylor, watching sport and reading Owen Eastwood’s book called ‘Belonging — the ancient code of togetherness’ (a must-read for anyone interested in building a long term high performing team). 

He laughs at the irony of the title and the fact he and other team members are reading it while in isolation.

The Win

The thing Will Young remembers most about the day of the WTC win is the calm before the storm.

“Going into that final day … it still wasn’t guaranteed that there’d be a result,” Will says. “We could have won, we could have drawn or we could have lost, which is the best part about test cricket. You can play for five days — and this had six — and go into the last session and the whole game can be decided in that next two hours.”

He remembers going down for breakfast on that last day.

“The team … just had this sense of calm about them and optimism about what the day was going to bring. There wasn’t ever a thought of ‘oh we might lose this’ it was all ‘cool, we’ve got an extra day, the sun’s out, this is the opportunity to win the Test Championship’ which is I think such an important part of this team. It’s the way they think and it’s always in a positive light and what’s possible, rather than thinking about the negative.

“That translated into the day’s play really.”

The mood in the changing room before the final day “was quite funny really. The batsmen, as they normally are before going out to bat, are kind of serious and quiet you know, concentrating on the task at hand, but the bowlers were on the other side of the changing room … they were so nervous … they had bats in their hands and sort of walking around the changing room playing shots and doing all sorts of stuff.

“Thankfully it didn’t come down to them and the batters finished it off. It was so cool to see Kane and Ross finish it off in such emphatic style. It was so fitting for New Zealand Cricket to have them both there at the end.

“Ross hit the winning runs with his trademark flick over to the leg side and it was just incredible after that. The whole changing room just erupted and we all sort of got into a big huddle and were jumping up and down just screaming … it was pure joy really. It was a special day.”

That positive mindset is something Young thinks has slowly grown in New Zealand Cricket over a long time.

“The group that were playing that game have been part of New Zealand Cricket for the last five, six years, even longer … it’s such a strong group of New Zealand cricketers.”

The impact of previous Black Cap teams and the legacy they left, the current group have just taken that a bit further and continued it on, Young believes. 

“So it’s not just the playing 11, or 15, and the support staff that were there on that day, it’s sort of grown over a long time.”

As for the $1.6 million (NZ$2,286,377) prize money, the players got to divvy that.

“The Players Association had a chat with some of the senior members of the side and they decided a system where it all worked out in a way they thought was fairest.

“As far as I’m aware, all the domestic competitions I’ve won and talking with the Black Caps about prize money in the past as well, the majority of that (prize money) all goes to the players, and support  staff, rather than New Zealand Cricket as a business.”

Coming Home

Celebrations on the flight back to Auckland were obviously limited because of COVID restrictions.

The team flew Business Class and the special mace (the WTC trophy) was strapped into its own seat.

“The best part was a couple of hours out,” Will recalls. “It was a Saturday morning, and someone opened their blind and you could see the sunrise coming up over the white cloud, you know the Land of the Long White Cloud. It was about 4am New Zealand time and the team all woke up and to see the sun rise like that over New Zealand was pretty special. We all ordered a round of drinks (Baileys on the rocks — this is cricket after all, not rock ’n’ roll) for a couple of hours before we arrived.”

Border control staff were smiling from ear to ear, and photos were taken (with appropriate social distancing) before the team was whisked off to quarantine.

It was all quite a contrast to when Will went to England ahead of the rest of the team, as he had a month long contract with county side Durham.

At that time quarantine into England involved nominating an address you would self-isolate at for ten days, but you could pay extra and cut that time to five days. Will went straight to the apartment the Durham club had organised for him. There were two self-testing kits there for him to use on arrival and on Day 4. 

“You then walk to the post office to deliver them … that’s the only time you’re allowed out …. then wait for your second negative test to come back and when you do, you’re out, you’re free.”

The different COVID protocols from country to country are hard to keep up with, Young admits.

“It’s all a bit of a rigmarole really (quarantine). Then you throw on top that there’s different rules for different countries and then on top of that there’s vaccinations where some countries are ahead of others and some countries have different protocols around that.

“It’s challenging, and every time you go overseas you know when you come back you’ll be in hard quarantine like this which poses its own challenges from a mental standpoint too.”

It’s already starting to impact the choices players make.

“All the top dogs of New Zealand cricket get offered all sorts of contracts over and above their New Zealand representation and I think now people are picking and choosing what’s really important to them because your time on the road has extended by so much.”

In The Beginning

Even as a kid he wanted to be a professional cricketer.

“I didn’t know how exactly it was going to happen, or what it entailed, but I’ve always loved the game and always aspired to do as well as I possibly could in it. Even now looking back at what I’ve achieved as a cricketer and some of the things I’ve been a part of, I’ve sorta gotta pinch myself to believe that this really is true.”

His aspirations didn’t go down well with the New Plymouth Boys’ High School hierarchy when it came time to choose subjects for his senior year.

“I can still actually remember sitting in that room at Boys’ High and they asked ‘what do you want to do’ and I said ‘I’m pretty good at cricket and I’d like to do that’ and they said ‘yeah, but what else do you want to do?’”

He ended up taking subjects that leaned toward eventually studying for engineering.

The summer between his last year of school and going to Canterbury University, Will’s cricket really took off.

He captained the New Zealand U19 team at the 2012 ICC Under-19 Cricket World Cup and was selected for the Central Districts Stags for the first time. He soon realised he didn’t have time to complete an engineering degree and moved to Natural Science, which he ended up chipping away at for five years (it’s normally a three year degree).

The following summer he received his first contract (with Central Districts) and became a professional cricketer at the age of 20.

But the lively start slowed down like God himself had sent down a few curve balls at the rising batsman.

“Just before my third year of university started, CD had three or four games left in the season and I actually got dropped for the last couple of games.

“I was a bit happy-go-lucky … just young and a bit naive really.”

However, he was picked for a NZ development training squad. It was there that it dawned on him what it actually takes and the sacrifices that have to be made to play cricket at a high level.

The following summer he was re-signed by Central Districts and at the age of 23 went on to captain them for three seasons (2016 – 2018). Under his captaincy the Central Stags won the one-day Ford Trophy in 2016 and the first-class Plunket Shield unbeaten in 2018. 

But after the 2018 season, Young gave away the captaincy to concentrate on his own game.

Will credits that early experience as captain with his rapid development as a cricketer.

“You’re having to make tactical decisions day in and day out, on and off the field and that helped me understand the game a lot better.”

Over time, he started getting picked for New Zealand A squads.

“I think the major learning curve was actually playing on the Indian A tour,” he reflects.

“I went over there and did terribly. We played a couple of first class games and I didn’t score any runs and we got beaten badly.”

Eighteen months later, Will went on another NZ A tour to the UAE where he performed well in similar conditions to what he’d had in India.

“To have some success was such a great feeling after remembering the pain of failing just 18 months before.”

That form continued.

He returned home to more NZ A matches against the same India A team from 18 months prior.

“We were in the middle of the series at the Bay Oval in Mt Maunganui.

“It was the second game of three and we batted first and I made a hundred. I walked off the field and Gavin Larsen, the NZ selector, was standing on the sideline and he pulled me aside and said ‘Look, the New Zealand test squad is assembling to play Sri Lanka in the next couple of days and we’d like you to be part of that.’

Driving back home the next day (he lives in Napier these days), on the radio midday news was the announcement of the test squad. Young had to pull over and let partner Elise drive “because my phone just started going absolutely nuts.

“All the people that had been there for me during my journey were just so stoked and hearing their elation on the other end of the phone was just amazing.”

He was batting cover for that series and didn’t end up playing at all.

Later that summer, there were three test matches against Bangladesh scheduled in March and again Will was called into the squad as batting cover.

He wasn’t required for the first two tests, but the third test was due to be played in Christchurch at the Hagley Oval on Saturday the 16th March 2019.

“I got told that Kane Williamson had sustained an injury and I was going to play and make my debut in two days time.”

Disaster Stops Debut

“The next morning was hosing down with rain … and I had a press conference at 12 o’clock at Hagley Oval, which I went to with Tim Southee, because that was going to be Tim’s first match as captain of the New Zealand team, so it was a special time for him too.”

He noticed the Bangladesh team bus at the Oval.

“They were due to have lunch at the ground and then leave for their prayers at the mosque.

“By the time Tim and I got back to the hotel, the Bangladesh team were just pulling out to go to the mosque and the mosque shooting happened.”

From 1:40pm for 12 awful minutes, 51 people were gunned down at the Linwood Islamic Centre and Al Moor Mosque in Christchurch.

“So within a couple of hours of doing the press conference and preparing myself to play the next day we all got a text on our phone to say ‘there’s a gunman on the loose in Christchurch, everyone get back to the hotel immediately’. 

“We were all hunkered down in one of the boys’ hotel rooms watching the news as I’m sure everyone else in New Zealand was, watching scenes unfold. It was just devastating for everyone involved. At the time I didn’t even think about cricket. It was just without question that the game was going to be called off.

“The Bangladesh cricket team missed being in that mosque by less than a minute. I was told that their team bus pulled into the driveway of the mosque as people were running out to try and flee from the killer. It was an act of God really that no-one from that cricket team was hurt.”

It wasn’t until about a week later that it dawned on Will that his opportunity to debut for the Black Caps was gone. That match was going to be the last of the season.

There was however an upcoming ODI tour to Australia, and beyond that, the World Cup was looming later in the year.

After a six week break, he was selected as part of a New Zealand Xl to play three unofficial ODIs against Australia in May 2019.

Young returned to training and in a freak accident injured the labrum in his left shoulder.

Though he could still bat, throwing was painful and he was going to need surgery, and nine months of rehab, to rectify it.

Despite his shoulder injury, Young went on the Australian tour and scored back-to-back centuries. He averaged more than 100 in the series with consecutive scores of 60, 130 and 111 against the defending Cricket World Cup (ODI) champions.

He then returned home for surgery, effectively putting him out of contention for the infamous 2019 World Cup where New Zealand made the final against England but lost on the final ball.

Rehab and New Focus

The nine months away from cricket was a frustrating time for Young.

He was worried that he may never bat the way he’d done against Australia, ever again.

He counts his blessings that he had signed a NZC contract just before the injury.

During the soul-searching of this period of his life, Young had a lot of time to reflect on his ‘why’ —  “why I play the game and what I want to get out of it and everything like that.

“One of the things I came up with was ask myself what I can do to give back to the game.

“I count myself pretty lucky to have some fantastic people around me in Taranaki to give me the opportunities as a cricketer that I have had.”

He set up The Will Young Cricket Trust to try and resolve any financial barriers kids may have to playing cricket in the region. 

“It’s available for any aspiring Taranaki cricketer, male or female, to apply to for coaching sessions, gear, to attend tournaments or whatever financial barrier they may be facing. That’s something I’m really proud of and something good that came out of that nine month period of rehab and reflection.”

Already his Trust has funded brand new Gunn & Moore gear for Marfell School, while a young pace bowler from rural Taranaki is able to attend a fast bowling academy this winter, as well as provide support for numerous other kids.

Third Time Lucky

Will’s first game back from surgery was for Central Districts in January 2020, scoring 62 runs in a Ford Trophy one dayer. Young continued to have a good season for the Stags over the next six weeks, right up until the 18th of March when their last two games were abandoned due to Coronavirus precautions.

COVID put a bit of a halt on things for a while but as the world came to grips with the pandemic. Later in 2020 it was announced that the Black Caps were to play their first test series for the 2020/21 summer against the West Indies. The test squad was named for their first test in Hamilton, and William Young was on it, opening for an injured BJ Watling.

For the third time he called close friends and family with the news, ahead of the official team naming.

“The same people who said they would always be at my first test were.

“I didn’t bat for anywhere near long enough,” he laughs wryly (he scored a 4 then a single before being caught), “but it was still an awesome moment.”

Over the rest of last summer Young not only managed to make his test debut, but also his one day international debut and his Twenty20 international debut (scoring 53 off 30 balls).

One of the many messages that came through after that match was from someone in Taranaki who said  ‘Congratulations! You’re now the first Taranaki cricketer to have represented NZ across all three forms’. However, Will confirms he’s actually the second — Peter Ingram was the first in 2010.

Then the opportunity arose to play county cricket for Durham during April and May this year.

Will scored a couple of centuries there, “which was a great way to build into the New Zealand tour that was coming up in England and test my skills in those conditions.”

It was also an opportunity for him to put up his hand up to the selectors and show them what he was capable of.

He was selected as batting cover again, and Will got his opportunity in New Zealand’s second and final test against England at Edgbaston, when Kane Williamson was ruled out through injury.

“Batting 82 at Edgbaston, in front of a packed stand of Barmy Army fans, who’d just got out of 18 months of lockdown, is definitely my career highlight to date. They (the Barmy Army) were  so loud and just so much fun to play in front of.”

The songs they sang stuck in all our heads for the next two weeks, Will recalls.

Will also got an Instagram message that night from a New Zealander saying that he and his mates had come up with some lyrics based around the song Forever Young.

“I can’t remember it all now but they’d changed some words to encompass me and batting.

It was really funny and neat to get that from some random Kiwi in the crowd.”

The Young Days

Will Young still has fond memories of his time with the Taranaki Wanderers cricket tour to England in 2007 … a trip he made when he was 14. He says it had a huge impact on his cricket.

“I think the problem with cricket in New Zealand, especially in Taranaki, is that the timeframe for players is so small.

“Towards the end of each season you think you’re getting somewhere, and then the season ends and you’re playing winter sports and everything you’ve learned about cricket over the summer gets completely forgotten about, until you go through the process of re-learning it the following season.

“One of the things that tour did for me, because it took place over the English summer, was an opportunity to keep growing as a cricketer when you otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Over three weeks they played 12 or 13 games of cricket against very different sides.

“I remember one team was solely West Indian men, another was a really affluent private school, another was a club side. We played these fantastic grounds with a whole lot of history about the game, or a huge castle overlooking it, .

“As part of that tour we went to Lords and did the dressing room tour and went up to the media centre and to their net facilities. When I went to Lords this year with the Black Caps I could envisage what it would be like. If you’ve got a dream it’s great to have actual knowledge of how it will feel and look like.”

He and other team members on that Wanderers tour also pointed out the name Martin Donnelly, up on the Honours Board in the away dressing room. As a New Plymouth Boys’ High School student it was a name Will was already familiar with, as one of the four team houses is Donnelly, named after the great cricketer, who is also a NPBHS old boy.

“I remember thinking as a kid how cool would that be to have my name up there along with his. Although it’s not up there yet but it was cool to walk in there again (this year) and see it.”

Young still regularly visits Taranaki when he can, catching up with friends and visiting the places he loved as a kid. Like Fitzroy Beach — he’ll regularly take his Central Districts team mates there for swims when the team is in town.

One of the texts that came through after his first Black Caps selection was announced was from a childhood neighbour, Ryan Hickling.

“He said how happy he was for me and how he remembers back in the day I would bribe the neighbourhood kids to bowl at me and if they got me out I’d buy them a $2 lolly mixture,” Will laughs at the memory.

He’s had a whole mix of people helping him on his professional journey — “you take bits and pieces from everyone,” he comments.

But locally two men stand out.

“Debu Banik has always been my coach and has always been there for me, right from when I was 10 to now.

“I also really liked Kane Rowson as a first Xl coach when I was at school. I have a lot of respect for him — it was fun times playing cricket for school under Kane.”

On the day LIVE was due at the printer in late July, Young was due back in town with the World Test Championship mace as part of a nationwide trophy tour for the team.

As for the future, Young knows only too well that life is like cricket … you’re best to concentrate on one ball at a time.

To connect with the Will Young Trust, contact Travis Stewart at the Taranaki Cricket Association. 

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