Ryan plays the game in a very distinctive way…a very instinctive way. Supreme competitiveness with the ball and relentless positivity with the bat are coupled with great skill and an understanding of game situations. Where had these characteristics first emerged?
Aged just thirteen Higgo emigrated from Zimbabwe to Berkshire. Then later, having just started to settle in the Middlesex first team, he moved counties to Gloucestershire. Writing as someone who has predominantly lived in London, only played for Middlesex and still lives ten minutes from their parents, I am unfamiliar with such shifts in surroundings, people or culture. I wondered how much weight Ryan gave these experiences in moulding who he is today. Whilst briefly on loan at Gloucester in 2019 I witnessed his leadership and drive to succeed first hand. He has an almost talismanic quality within that side. Was he the same away from the cricket field?
As a route into his formative years I referenced the Australian rugby player David Pocock. Himself a Zimbabwean native, Pocock spoke often of feeling acutely ‘different’, so I asked Ryan whether he recognised this in himself. “As a kid, you ride hardship like it’s just fun….you just have to score runs or take wickets”. This response initially surprised me, but it was soon clear that some considerable self-reflection on that period of his life had taken place, as if he recognised now some things that he had not been conscious of as a teenager. His answer made more sense now, he was describing a growth. “I suppose it was always difficult being different, but I never felt that at the time”. A picture of Ryan away from cricket began to emerge; one separate to the single minded, driven and focussed ‘Higgo’ we are more familiar with.
That ‘competitive’ or ‘cricket’ side of Ryan is central to any understanding of him. I wondered whether these attributes were born out of what he overcame as a young person, by the change and the uncertainty he encountered.
On arriving in England, Higgo trained in his freezing garage with his dad before Julian Wood of Bradfield College recognised and nurtured his talent. It seems there was a very real possibility that things might not have followed the path that Ryan had dreamed of and he acknowledges this; ““I thought…everything was going to carry on the way it was…I owe so much to that man (Wood)”. Was the fear of losing his dream the source of the competitiveness with which Ryan plays? He is not sure. Perhaps it’s a Zimbabwean trait. He admits, though, that he knew having moved to England he “the route (to professional cricket) would be a bit longer”. That the word “Fiery” is one of the more gentle descriptions I have heard used to describe Ryan on the field is evidence that an attitude of fight still remains. “I suppose it comes across in the way I am…that I am always trying to prove something” he says.
However, despite his undeniable success over recent years Higgo does not feel his struggle is over. Media portrayals often make his “Successes almost feel like failures…” and many seem reluctant to recognise his achievements objectively; “I’m doing well but I feel like I’m fighting a battle that’s tough to fight”, he says. With the effect of public perception and the media such a prescient topic, I asked Ryan about how this made him feel. I expected a bullish response in line with the personality outlined above, but a more contemplative side to his character was revealed. “I try and block out as much as I can….in terms of how other people see me… I still genuinely believe I can achieve the things I want to achieve.” The absolute commitment to progress that is so often associated with Ryan is still very present, but there was also a different quality to his answers from this point, a real weight and consideration. I am not sure what I had expected. Perhaps a more frustrated, even angry response to my question about public perception? It would have been justified.
Instead however, a picture emerges of someone who is incredibly comfortable both in himself and in his ambitions. He speaks about viewing himself how he wants to, not how others do and describes a vision based approach to his career. This is a move away from a previous focus on outcome driven goal setting which allows him to work towards a larger ambition without becoming bogged down by a career ‘to do’ list.“(When I was younger) I was like I want to do this and that…and I now realise that some of this stuff is out of your control” he says, “Goals now ….are not a big thing…I have what I want to achieve and I know that if I put everything towards that I will probably be content…probably”.
Real contentment for Ryan must extend beyond the boundary ropes and training grounds, it seems, and there has of course been plenty to juggle. A new county, then a husband, now a father…have these experiences and developments have clarified some things for Higgo?
I ask what mental wellbeing and health mean to him, and almost without thinking he says ‘it means being happy in my life away from cricket…trying to have a balanced life as much as we can’. As a sportsperson myself this struck me as unusual, not only the immediate focus on something other than his sport, but particularly the use of the word ‘we’, which I assumed referred to his wife, Vicki. Selfishness is a common and often necessary trait in athletes, and one that I imagined might be present in someone as dedicated and successful as Ryan, but I was moved by the ease with which he said ‘we’. I’m not sure if it was conscious or deliberate (I almost hope it wasn’t, as that seems more romantic). It seemed to be a necessary foundation of who he really is.
I asked how he maintained his ‘balance’ and what it looked like. He started by talking about how he has been in the past; ‘during the cricket season…I become very unpresent in the room…all you’re thinking about is cricket cricket cricket…you forget about the conversation you’re having’. All this time I am nodding…it’s an experience I know all too well. I question how Ryan has overcome this, whether he employs any particular methods or techniques? He does not, but he has come to ‘remember that it’s not all about that (cricket)’. Initially this made me quite jealous. I wish I could do this…just employ perspective when I needed it. Then, however, Higgo eluded to something which may have been, at least in part, the catalyst for this wonderfully stable outlook; his son, Elliot.
‘Having Elliot made me want to have that balance…I had never thought about it before. The first month or so I felt differently about games of cricket, they had a different meaning…it’s hard to describe that feeling’.
My young and uncultured journalism will struggle to convey to you any more than those words do. I imagine that any parents reading this can resonate, whilst those of us without children may simply wonder. I struggle to envisage cricket meaning something different to me but, as Ryan says, I suppose it just happens.
I thought for a moment that Higgo was admitting that his appetite for cricket had diminished since Elliot’s birth, but that was far too simplistic a conclusion. ‘When I go onto a cricket field I feel at my most comfortable…my mindset changes’. Once again there appeared to be a clear separation between the ‘playing’ and the ‘thinking’ Ryan, between Ryan the husband, father and friend, and Ryan the competitor. When we spoke about confidence and self-doubt I had assumed that someone with the bullish energy of Higgo would never doubt themselves.
Predictably, I was wrong. ‘Self–doubt is massively present…I’ve got lots of self–doubt and worries when I’m not on the field, but when I’m on the field most of it tends to go’. In a way it was quite reassuring to hear that doubts seem commonplace, but also that belief and practise can enable someone to overcome them. ‘I think it comes from being in similar situations more often…my thoughts go to what I can do not what I can’t do’.
Professor Damian Hughes of the High Performance podcast often talks about the importance of evidence and finding ‘clues’ in the past. They give us the confidence to know that we can succeed in the future. From sunny Zimbabwe to a freezing garage in Berkshire, and now from the hallowed turf of Lords to Bristol, Ryan has left himself plenty of evidence that has allowed him to be comfortable in himself and his vocation. I feel very fortunate to have learnt about aspects of Ryan that I was unfamiliar with, and to have listened to considered insight into areas of both cricket and the mind which I had not expected to play such a part in our conversation. Thank you.