The rise of Theo van Woerkom: Canterbury spinner embraces greater challenges 

Canterbury's Theo van Woerkom in his delivery stride. Picture Credits: Canterbury Cricket
Canterbury's Theo van Woerkom in his delivery stride. Picture Credits: Canterbury Cricket
Malhar Hathi

Finger spin is oddly satisfying, but to reap rewards with it, you need to put in arduous work. Just ask Canterbury’s left-arm spinner Theo van Woerkom.

Wickets aren’t a dime a dozen, but at least you pick up some before the cows come home. That’s a reasonable idiom for a pastoral country like New Zealand.

At the top of his mark, Van Woerkom starts off rhythmically, before breaking into a subdued hop-skip-jump routine as he launches himself sideways into the crease. The release has a shadow of his idol Daniel Vettori. Hence, it is no surprise the veteran spinner was a huge influence on him growing up but the fact remains that he’s never tried to emulate his action.

The 26-year-old spinner stands out, not only in terms of who he has become, but also because of how he started. While most spinners start off as wannabe tearaway quicks, or so did Dane Piedt’s Twitter bio read a few years ago, at some point they are faced with the inevitable facts- either they aren’t tall enough or fast enough to strike fear among batsmen.

However, Theo van Woerkom wasn’t one to conform to conventional norms. He relied upon an art- not a rare one but the rarest of all- left-arm chinaman at the age of five.

Going through his age group cricket, his coach David Trist introduced him to left-arm orthodox.

“I took that up mainly because of the benefits of turning the ball away from the right-hander and the consistency a left-arm spinner provides. I slowly worked from there. Great thing about spin bowling is that each bowler is so unique in what they do and that has come about from finding their own way of doing things,” said Van Woerkom in an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda over a Zoom call.

Having first burst out on the U19 front during the U19 Cricket World Cup in Australia in 2012 as a fresh, freckled-face young spinner, he played only two games against Pakistan and South Africa with Ish Sodhi shouldering most of the load as the lead spinner.

Shortly after the stint, Van Woerkom spent the winter in a Canterbury cricket exchange with Durham Academy in England. There, he had the opportunity to be involved with the championship-winning team which also featured four ODIs and five T20Is-old Ben Stokes.

Van Woerkom describes him as “a tricky guy to bowl to in the nets (because he didn’t hold back) but a fantastic competitor.”

It wasn’t until 2015 when Van Woerkom made his first-class debut for Canterbury in the Plunket Shield. First XI opportunities were particularly hard to come by in the presence of leg-spinner Todd Astle, off-spinner Tim Johnston and left-arm spinner Ronnie Hira.

Time spent on the side-lines was utilised soaking knowledge from the experienced duo of Astle and former Blackcaps off-spinner Paul Wiseman.

However, it was his long-term potential and red-ball promise that saw him earn his first professional contract in 2018. He also earned a name-check from current Blackcaps head coach Gary Stead as the “most consistent finger-spinner” at the time.

With pitches in New Zealand not allowing two spinners until the back end of the season in the final few rounds, finding game time and maintaining consistency is often a challenge for spinners. These factors have oft alienated spinners on pitches heavily suited for seamers.

“It is challenging but you have to find a way to be effective. Growing up, in age-group cricket, spin bowling wasn’t well understood as other formats. A lot of spinners do need their time to get into their spells," said Theo van Woerkom.

"For a lot of them, they get their rewards at the back end for bowling a lot of overs and slowly working down the batsmen. As you get older, you start to see value and benefits of a spin bowler on days third and four of a first-class match."

Theo van Woerkom's New Zealand 'A' stint

Interestingly, not playing the Plunket Shield or the Ford Trophy did not mean he wasn’t playing against quality teams. In his case, one did not preclude the other.

In an unexpected turn of events, with only five first-class appearances and a handful of List A games under his belt, he received a shock call-up to play for New Zealand ‘A’ against the visiting India ‘A’ squad for three unofficial Test matches.

At the time, India ‘A’ featured the likes of Prithvi Shaw, Murali Vijay and Mayank Agarwal, with plenty of batting pedigree and experience.

In the first game, he bowled 27 overs across two innings and prised out both Vijay and Shaw. Incidentally, that would be the most he would deliver in the series. Both the following games were rain-marred allowing only for an innings each to be played.

With 16 overs across those two games, Van Woerkom’s moment of glory came with the bat instead after a collapse. He scored a gritty fifty off 133 deliveries facing the likes of Mohammad Siraj, Vijay Shankar, and Shahbaz Nadeem.

Seeing off a tough period early on, he looked to play the ball and not the bowler. It was one of those innings which was a culmination of all his time spent batting either for Canterbury ‘A’ or his club side Lancaster Park in a bid to add another dimension to his skill-set.

“For me, it was about getting out there and establishing a partnership at the time and slowly put the pressure back on the opposition. India had some really challenging bowlers so it was mainly about focusing on each and every ball rather than focusing too much on the player.

"Once you begin to realise that you can get stuck in and compete, your confidence gradually increases. As a lower order batsman, you can feed off a little bit of their frustration as well and build your innings,” Van Woerkom quipped.

He soon played against a touring Bangladeshi side in a one-day warm-up fixture, bowling to the likes of Liton Das, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah. He became a regular feature against India ‘A’ in warm-up games but his toughest test came against England ahead of their Test tour at Cobham Oval.

For a bowler with limited appearances for his provincial side, it was more about challenging himself against the best players of spin, instead of seeing it as someone thrown in the deep end with a burden of expectations.

Often challenging both sides of the bat, Van Woerkom bowled with little success against Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes, but eventually prised out Ollie Pope who gave him the charge.

Speaking about the experience, Van Woerkom stresses that it was more of a lesson in keeping his calm and applying the knowledge gathered from the side-lines on to the other side of the rope.

“They have a great ability to pick up the length really quickly and are able to move forward and bat effortlessly. They create balls that are maybe just slightly short to short balls or balls that are slightly over-pitched into half volleys.

“As a bowler, then you have got to be really accurate and be patient. It is important to take one ball at a time and hang in there. Sometimes things just happen out of nowhere with chances coming out-of-the-blue as a result of a string of dot balls and building pressure,” Van Woerkom further added.

Except for the months, the conditions and premise of the domestic season in New Zealand often draws familiarity with that in the UK. Pitches are initially as green as a bottle of Chartreuse, supporting the seamers. But at the back end of the season, in the final few rounds, cracks tend to develop and bring more spinners into play.

However, the Plunket Shield often sees Ajaz Patel and Todd Astle among the wickets the same way the likes of Jeetan Patel and Simon Harmer dominate the wicket-taking charts throughout the County Championship.

While that sort of game time has often eluded Theo van Woerkom, even if he has made it into the XI, longer spells have been hard to come by. Being under-bowled or taken off too soon at any stage of the game is a tough pill to swallow for spinners, mainly because of the greater number of overs needed to figure out a batsman’s strengths and weaknesses.

However, Van Woerkom takes it in stride and places higher value in the context of the game.

“It is important to take the context of the game into account at that stage. It is, at times, probably more suited for the seamers. It is frustrating, as a bowler, you would love to bowl as much as you can but the game situation is not always going to allow that,” he says.

A spinner of a classical mould, he often focuses on spinning the ball hard and spinning it over the back of the ball, often generating overspin - an approach similar to the one employed by Nathan Lyon across the ditch.

As a result, Van Woerkom has often made batsmen doubt their defences and has seen them resort to giving him the charge to disturb his rhythm. Instead of being deterred or looking to dart one in quick, he sticks to his strengths while embracing the aggressive approach employed by his counterparts.

“That is certainly an approach that some batsmen take. They think it is important to not let the spinner settle but from a bowling perspective, it is a good thing because it brings some opportunities for me to take wickets and play on the batsman’s ego by setting different fields. You have got to see the aggressive approach in a positive way."

“As for the mind-set, it is about staying one step ahead trying to predict what may come your way. There is a time when bowling quick or yorking the batsmen has its place in terms of getting out of your over without too much damage. In red-ball cricket, it is more of patience and focusing on bowling your best ball on a consistent basis,” he added.

Just before the lockdown was enforced in New Zealand, Van Woerkom was involved in the last Plunket Shield fixture to be played against a strong Northern Districts outfit. He picked up four wickets in helpful conditions- two of those victims being the Blackcaps’ duo of Tim Seifert and Scott Kuggeleijn.

With the final few rounds often putting the spotlight on spinners, it would have provided a glimpse of what the lead spinner’s role looks like for Van Woerkom. If it weren't for the pandemic cutting short the season, he would have been one of 14 men awarded a Canterbury contract in the first round for the 2020-21 season on Monday.

One of the notable changes includes Todd Astle’s retirement from first-class cricket. While it means a senior role for Van Woerkom, he hopes he can continue picking his brains through the shorter formats.

“Todd and I get along really well. He’s an amazing cricketer on the field but off the field, he’s an even better bloke. He’s been a huge influence on my career talking to him about spin bowling. Our conversations revolve around tactics, field placements and how we can go about our bowling in the most effective way given the conditions.

“He’s kept me out of the team at various stages but for me, my mentality is just about getting better as a player each and every day. I trust that later down the track those opportunities to play regular cricket, for Canterbury and hopefully higher honours, will come eventually.

"It’s about being patient and learning as much as I can. In some respect as well, it’s about making the most of the opportunity that Todd’s around and hopefully for quite a few more years,” Van Woerkom said.

With New Zealand having returned to alert level one, normal life has resumed but a clearer picture on cricket in the country will only be likely by the time summer comes around. For now, cricketers have resumed training in a limited capacity and have golf to fill up the time.

Theo van Woerkom is not looking far too ahead and is at peace with his cricket at the moment. A part of his security comes from the fact that cricket is not his be-all end-all. Alongside cricket, he pursued a law and science degree at the University of Canterbury and believes that it has complemented his cricket very well.

“The degree came around at an important time for me. I had gone through my age group and U19 cricket which was an intense and a fantastic experience but I also suffered a little bit from a burnout having worn myself down. Studies provided me a chance to get away from the game and meant that I could come back into the game refreshed and raring to go.

“I haven’t looked back since it has all fallen into place for me. It is great I can play the game and give my all knowing that at the end of the day, when I am finished playing, I have got something to fall back on.”

He believes a lot of principles between law and cricket are interchangeable from a mental sense of things.

“Preparing for an exam is exactly how you prepare for a match. The same way you look at past exams and papers, in cricket, you study the opposition and the conditions on the day and challenges you will face," said Van Woerkom said.

"There’s going to be pressure at certain stages and things may come up unexpected so it tests your ability to be able to think on your feet and keep a cool mind in order to process the kinds of challenges under pressure.

The positive philosophies he lives by leave no room for any insecurity the spirals of the game can sometimes offer unannounced, nor do they let the pressure get to him.

“The insecurity doesn’t bother me but what it does mean that you can’t take nothing for granted. Every opportunity I get to play for Canterbury is a special feeling and you leave everything you’ve got out on the field," Van Woerkom said.

“I don’t play every game as if it’s my last but it’s about having that pride in yourself and giving your all on the field because you do know that it is not going to last forever and making the most of every time you step over the boundary rope,” he concluded.

Edited by Sai Krishna


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