Todd Astle and Andrew Ellis were surprise picks for the New Zealand team late in the 2010/11 season. They were both playing in a tense first-class match against Wellington, so the officials allowed Canterbury to make two replacements for the fourth and final day. They brought in two teenagers. Tom Latham replaced Todd Astle and Matt Henry replaced Andrew Ellis.
Wellington was chasing 255 in the final innings to win, and were on 105/0 overnight, with Stephen Murdoch and future Australian reality TV star Cam Merchant, looking solid. Just 150 needed with 10 wickets in hand.
The new boy, Henry, was given the ball. He bowled a maiden, then picked up a wicket in his second over. He picked up another in his fourth over, then another in his fifth. His debut became incredibly memorable when he picked up his fifth wicket in his first spell in professional cricket. He ended with 5/23 off 9 overs. Wellington were rolled for 178 and Canterbury won the match.
It was not long before Henry was playing all three formats for Canterbury, and only a couple of years before he was playing for New Zealand.
His impact was not quite as dramatic as his first-class debut, but it was not far off. In his first spell, he dismissed Shikar Dhawan and Ajinka Rahane. His next spell saw him dismiss Ambati Rayudu and he completed four wickets by dismissing Bhuveneshwar Kumar in his final over. He ended the match with 4/38 off 10 overs.
The rest of that year continued in a similar fashion. He took 19 wickets in six matches, and it looked like a star had been born.
The thing that was so impressive about his start was not just the number of wickets, but the nature of them. Of the 19 wickets, 15 were specialist batsmen who were either starting their innings or well-established, looking to build. He wasn’t just picking up wickets of tailenders or of batsmen having a slog at the death.
However, there was competition for the place opening the bowling for New Zealand. Kyle Mills and Tim Southee were the incumbents, and Adam Milne, Doug Bracewell, Trent Boult and Mitchell McClenaghan were also knocking on the door. Henry missed selection for the 2015 World Cup, and Trent Boult managed to take the opportunity and secure his spot.
However, he then did the best possible thing that he could do: he took seven wickets in a match that the selectors were watching, just before Adam Milne got injured. As a result, he was brought into the World Cup squad and rushed straight into the playing XI for the semi-final against South Africa. He didn’t do anything spectacular in that match, but he also didn’t let himself down, going for only over an over off his 8 overs, then picking up a couple of pyrrhic wickets against Australia in the final.
After the World Cup, he had a couple of poor series against England and Zimbabwe, and the New Zealand selectors decided that Matt Henry’s best role was to open the bowling, and that he was behind Boult and Southee in the queue for that position. Over the next three years, he only played when one of those two was injured.
He only got to play 18 matches from September 2015 to November 2018, but he made the most of them. He took 39 wickets at 22.66 each and went at less than 5.5 runs per over. In the same period, Southee took only 41 wickets from almost double the number of innings, at an average of 42.31. The weight of performances led to Henry coming in as the first choice opening bowler for the New Zealand summer.
That should have been the story of how Matt Henry became New Zealand’s first choice opening bowler. If the story had been a fairy tale, he would have bowled happily ever after, and never looked back. It was not a fairy tale. Instead, he struggled.
He looked relatively toothless. Sri Lanka scored 201 runs off him in three matches, with Henry only picking up three wickets (and those three wickets were two batsmen caught in the deep and one tail ender bowled trying to hit a six). He did better against India, but the four wickets he got included two batsmen slogging and Shubman Gill who had been rattled after being hit by a bouncer and looked completely lost. On the Hamilton pitch where Boult and Colin de Grandhomme destroyed India, Henry bowled eight wicketless and expensive overs. Then he was completely overshadowed by Southee in the Bangladesh series.
In his eight matches as the first choice, he had taken 14 wickets, but only six of them were batsmen at the start of their innings or looking to build. The rest were either tailenders or batsmen who were slogging at the death. He took 2.5 quality wickets per match in his first year, but that was now down to 0.75 quality wickets per match in 2018/19.
The reversal of fortunes continued in the warm-up matches. Southee looked sharp against India, while Henry went for over 100 off his nine overs against the West Indies. He did pick up two wickets, but they were both bowlers slogging at the death. He did not have an answer for Gayle, Lewis or Hope at the top of the order, despite Boult creating a lot of pressure at the other end.
The performance was so bad that an online poll asking who should be the opening bowler for New Zealand between Southee and Henry moved overnight from 75 percent supporting Henry to 80 percent supporting Southee.
But the misfortune would not last forever.
Southee suffered a minor calf strain, and was not considered worth the risk. So Henry was thrown the ball against Sri Lanka. When Lahiru Thirimanne dismissively flicked the first ball off his thigh pad to the fine leg boundary for four, thousands of heads across New Zealand shook in unison. But they were soon nodding in appreciation as the next ball saw Thirimanne pinned in front and sent on his way.
In his fifth over he picked up two more wickets to leave Sri Lanka rattled, a situation they would not recover from. Henry was named man of the match, a remarkable turnaround for a player who had conceded over 100 runs in his previous opportunity.
It was the 13th time that Henry had taken three or more wickets in an innings. He’s one of only six players in history to have taken three wickets in more than 30 percent of their innings (min 30 innings). To put that in context, Michael Holding only took three or more wickets 14 times in over 100 matches, and the top-ranked bowler in the world, Jasprit Bumrah has played more matches than Henry, but has only taken three or more wickets nine times. When Henry has a good day, it’s often a very good day. New Zealand will be hoping that this is the start of a lot of good days in this World Cup.