"It's pretty unreal!"
Phillips played 11 T20Is between 2017 and 2018 before he was dropped from the side. In particular, Phillips was uncomfortable against short balls at his hips - and the upper body - and was asked by the team management to expand his game before he could get another crack at New Zealand's T20I line-up.
It was at the CPL that Phillips transformed himself into a more versatile batter and won his T20I spot back at the start of New Zealand's home summer. By the end of the summer, Phillips had made it his own.
In the Caribbean, Phillips worked on his strike-rotation against spin with the assistance of former Jamaica Tallawahs assistant coach Ramnaresh Sarwan and also became more adept at muscling the ball down the ground against the seamers. Along the way, Phillips honed his ramps and switch-hits, which have served him well in the shortest format. In both CPL 2019 and 2020, he was the top-scorer for the Tallawahs, tallying 374 and 316 respectively.
Those runs came at the top of the order for the Tallawahs, but there would be no opening in that role for New Zealand. So, Phillips slotted into the middle order, dislodged Ross Taylor from the T20I side, and aced that challenge. He featured in all the 14 T20Is New Zealand played over the summer, in which he also contributed with his fastish offbreaks and electric fielding.
The highlight of his summer, though, was his blazing 46-ball century against West Indies at Bay Oval - the fastest by a New Zealander in T20I cricket. All up, Phillips hit 366 runs at an average of 40.66 and strike rate of just under 185.
"I didn't see it [the central contract] coming," Phillips says. "So, when I got the call it was very much a surprise as opposed to anything else. I was pretty dumbfounded. I had no idea what to say to be fair.
"It was a pretty unreal season in the end, wasn't it? To be able to go out there and perform at the highest stage and highest level for the Black Caps - it was pretty incredible. To be able to trust my game at that level and that the coaching staff and all the boys in the team all had my back and believed in me the whole time really made a massive difference. I think that was a big contributing factor in how I went this season, which is cool."
Phillips prides himself on being an entertainer. His 'sniper' celebration, borrowed from the Call of Duty videogame franchise, thrills crowds, and he continues to thrill them with his all-round skills. Phillips believes focusing on entertaining the spectators helps ease his nervous energy and brings the best out of him.
"When I was over in the Caribbean for the first time (2017), I had to learn that every time I started to focus on myself, things actually went the opposite way that I wanted them to go," Phillips says. So, when I realised I'm part of an entertainment complex and regardless of whether I have a good or bad game, it's part of the entertainment as a whole thing for the crowd. Being able to see it that way allowed me to have a bit more freedom, especially when Steady [New Zealand coach Gary Stead] goes out there and says: 'Do what you do best.' It allows me to go out there and have fun and try to be as entertaining as possible for everyone around."
Having established himself as a permanent member of the New Zealand T20I side, Phillips has now set his sights on the T20 World Cup, scheduled for October-November later this year, and an ODI spot.
"Ideally, the T20 World Cup firstly [is my aspiration]. I'd love to get into the one-day side," he says. "It's an incredibly strong side, but I'll keep pushing my case and doing the best I can to put results on the board?"
For Phillips, one-day cricket is the "pinnacle" - he is still uncapped in ODIs - but he also hopes to be ready for Test action. He was a surprise call-up for the Sydney Test in 2020 after five key players, including captain Kane Williamson, went down with injury or illness. Phillips made 52 and 0 at the SCG and hasn't played Test cricket since.
"I think one-day cricket for me is probably the pinnacle, but Test cricket is definitely one thing I'm still trying to strive towards," he says. I enjoy my four-day cricket and I've started knowing my game better as well. So, I think, if I can keep putting numbers on the board, when that opportunity does come again I'm ready."