Nine years after he made his debut for Northern Districts, Canterbury wicketkeeper-batter Cam Fletcher has been called up as part of the New Zealand squad to England, his second Test call-up after the South Africa tour earlier this year, but this time he's hoping for his maiden Test cap.
Fletcher was raised in Auckland and went to Kelson Boys' High School, one of the top rugby schools in New Zealand, but then moved to Northern Districts and then to Canterbury to build a cricketing career. After grinding it out in domestic cricket for almost a decade, he's now also on the radar of New Zealand's white-ball sides.
Fletcher, now 29, made his first-class debut for Northern Districts in 2013, but only had a peripheral role, with BJ Watling being the frontline keeper there. Gary Stead, the then-Canterbury coach, invited him to shift south to Canterbury the next season, which turned out to be a career-defining move for Fletcher. Eight years later, he now finds himself in the New Zealand side, once again coached by Stead.
"It is [coming full circle]. I've talked about it a couple of times recently [with Stead]," Fletcher tells ESPNcricinfo. "It's quite funny (laughs). When I first moved down to Canterbury, Gary didn't really know me that well and he hadn't seen me play much. I had only played a handful of first-class games at that point, but he gave me that opportunity and that's something I'm extremely grateful for.
"Someone like Gary now understands quite well what I do, but also I had to work to get on his good side. For him to be able to tap me on the shoulder and be like 'this is your opportunity', it's a pretty cool feeling."
It has been an eventful few weeks for Fletcher on the personal front as well. He married his partner Isabelle in April, at the end of New Zealand's domestic home summer.
"It was a long summer back home in New Zealand and there was plenty that happened. By the back end of the season I knew that I was getting up to the wedding and I was pretty excited for that," Fletcher recalls. "And all of a sudden this [tour of England] came up as well and I was like: 'Man! It's pretty incredible'
"Getting married to my wife was probably the best day of my life, and then to be able to experience something that I always wanted to do [be part of the New Zealand side] is incredible really."
Fletcher had scored 364 runs in 12 innings at an average of 40.44 in the Plunket Shield and was the fourth highest run scorer in the 2021-22 Super Smash. Although Canterbury lost to Northern Districts in the final, Fletcher's middle-order power-hitting in the tournament - he struck a chart-topping 23 sixes - was impossible to ignore.
When he started out, Fletcher was primarily a wicketkeeper who could bat a bit, but he has now transformed himself into a dynamic batter who does the tough job of finishing an innings. He puts his recent success down to his improved fitness and gym work. He was so passionate about his fitness he even did a stint as strength and conditioning co-coach at North Harbour Cricket in Auckland.
"When I was younger I tried to bowl a bit, tried to bat a bit, but not that well," Fletcher says. "I loved wicketkeeping and it became the thing that was unique - only one person could become the keeper. I had quite good hands and that really worked for me. I really enjoyed being in the game, being able to move around, and take catches and stumpings.
"As I got more opportunities to play, it became pretty clear that in the modern day you need to be able to bat as well. It took me a long time really to figure out the kind of player I wanted to be and the skills that were required, especially in first-class cricket.
"[Gym] helped me with that mental side of my game but also the confidence - I felt that if I was able to be fast and strong, I would be confident in taking that out to the middle. Whether at training or at the game, I could hit boundaries or clear the rope. It's a great feeling when you do that, especially when the field is on the boundary and you know if you get this off the middle, it's going over. I think gym helped me with that from a mental point of view as well as the physical side."
New Zealand already have Devon Conway, Tim Seifert and Finn Allen in their white-ball keepers' mix, but Fletcher hopes to break into the team in a T20 World Cup year.
"At the moment, I'm pretty grateful to be here [in England] and to be playing, but, it's definitely a goal of mine to keep pushing for that [T20] kind of cricket," Fletcher says. "I've really enjoyed T20 cricket in the last few years, my kind of role in the middle order - try to hit the ball as hard as I can, see if I can finish games, or help the team in some way. I feel that when the time is right, I can bat anywhere in the order, but I've enjoyed batting in that middle-order position for Canterbury in the last few years. If opportunities are there, you always want to take them."
Apart from Stead, current Canterbury head coach Peter Fulton has had a big influence on Fletcher's game and Canterbury's overall. Under Fulton, Canterbury won the Plunket Shield and Ford Trophy in 2020-21 and then finished runners-up in Plunket Shield and Super Smash next season. Having also played alongside Fulton in his early years, Fletcher was all praise for his tactical sharpness.
"He seems like quite an intimidating guy at the start - big, tall guy - but he's quite traditional with the way he does things. I'm a keeper and a bit chirpy. Having him at first slip, I've looked at a lot of him over the years - how to keep my game and not overcomplicate things too much. I definitely did that during some points of my career, but over the last two seasons especially, since Fulton has come back in as head coach, he has definitely simplified Canterbury's cricket.
"He's big on the tactical side of things - game-awareness and game plans - but he's also allowed players time to focus on things outside of cricket. There's an expectation when you come back into the environment, cricket is No. 1, but when you leave training and the game, that's your time. He's been massive for my game, definitely, in the last couple of years."
Over in England, Fletcher could come up against Ben Stokes, his one-time team-mate at Canterbury and now England's new captain. Fletcher played six white-ball games alongside Stokes in 2017, when the allrounder had originally arrived to visit family.
"He's world-class, and for us first-class cricketers at that point, it was awesome to have his presence around," Fletcher says of Stokes. "He was extremely gifted and was quite firm when he needed to be. There were a couple of games where we didn't perform well and he had a few words, saying we should've done better, and it was quite cool to hear that."
Fletcher is also looking forward to reuniting with his mates at Sandwich Town, a club he represented in the Kent Premier League in 2019. He was lined up for a return to the club in 2020 before the pandemic intervened. Fletcher reckons that the spell with Sandwich Town helped him rekindle his enthusiasm for cricket and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
"I'd finished my university and with my wife, I went to experience English club cricket and also travel a bit," Fletcher recalls. "It took time for me [to adapt] - the wickets were a lot lower and the Dukes ball did a bit. Over the course of the season, you're always learning, though you're not playing as much cricket as you're used to [in New Zealand].
"I enjoyed the cricket for what it was. It's a game and it's not just [about] performance in those environments; people want to come together and enjoy playing cricket after working all week. I used to be quite serious and performance-driven, so it was a nice opportunity to push it to the side and have a lot of fun. It helped me move forward in my game as well."
"The atmosphere was incredible," Fletcher said of his first experience of watching the Ashes live. "You kind of visualise yourself out in the middle one day… the thought of being out there [at international level] and experiencing it is hard to explain.
"Marnus played a number of years before I did for Sandwich Town. He developed big friendships at the club, something that I did as well. He has a great network of people - it's actually a family kind of environment at Sandwich. He even came back for a friend's wedding during that period. I got to meet him and have a few chats with him. That's how he ended up passing tickets for the Edgbaston Test."
Ian Smith, the former New Zealand keeper and now commentator, recently reminded Fletcher of Smith's own debut, when they spoke on the Mornings with Ian Smith podcast, and urged Fletcher to be ready. The incumbent Warren Lees hurt his hamstring during warm-ups, ahead of the Gabba Test in 1980 and Smith had 40 minutes' notice to prepare for his Test debut. Fletcher says he's well prepared if he gets the job at some point on tour.
"I've played for a long time, and it [playing for New Zealand] is something I want to do. All the preparation isn't just the last week, it's the last ten years of your career. The ups and downs and the not-so-good days give you the best chance to go out there and contribute for your team. I hope the opportunity comes at some point and if it's on this tour, I want to go out there and give it everything. There's no guarantee for performance, but I will put everything out there for the team."