Santner: The one who flew under the radar
The left-arm spinner is sitting on top of the World Cup wicket-takers table with 11 scalps from four matches
In the lead-up to the World Cup, the names of the top bowlers were discussed and debated ad nauseam. Jasprit Bumrah, Shaheen Afridi, Mitchell Starc, Trent Boult, Mark Wood, Kagiso Rabada, Kuldeep Yadav, Rashid Khan, Adil Rashid, Ravindra Jadeja, Tabraiz Shamsi -- and that is a long list -- were all discussed. But how many of us would have spent time discussing the prospects of Mitchell Santner?
Yet, the man sitting at the top of the wickets table in the ICC ODI World Cup 2023, with 11 to his name, is the left-arm spinner from New Zealand. The wickets have come at an impressive economy rate of 4.40 and they once again highlight how under-rated Santner is. He doesn't turn the ball much but his control is impressive.
The 31-year-old has been around for a while, having made his international debut in 2015 just after Daniel Vettori retired. Given that Santner could bat as well, he was seen as a like-for-like replacement but he hasn't always looked the part, especially in Test cricket where he averages 45.63. The white-ball game, however, was kinder to him.
His bowling average (36.04 in ODIs and 22.06 in T20Is) is better and his batting (28.77 in ODIs and 16.25 in T20Is with a S/R of 124.23) gives his all-round credentials a boost as well. Nothing earth-shattering though and that has caused him to go under the radar but he has had his moments.
In 2018, the left-hander smashed an unbeaten 45 off 27 balls to help New Zealand go past England's 284-8 at Seddon Park. It gave notice of his batting talent and of how smartly he thinks about the game.
IPL fans might remember how he won a match for Chennai Super Kings by hitting a six off the last ball against Rajasthan in 2019. Later in the season, he took 2/13 from four overs in the IPL final against Mumbai Indians, including the prize wicket of Rohit Sharma. Despite that, he has played only 13 matches for CSK in four seasons.
A tight spell (10-2-34-2) in the 2019 World Cup semi-final win over India helped NZ secure a spot in the final against England.
Again in 2019, he hit his maiden Test century during an epic partnership with BJ Watling. The 261 they added was New Zealand's highest seventh wicket stand and helped their side to 615/9, their highest Test total against England. The three wickets he claimed in England's second innings also constituted his Test-best figures and helped New Zealand to a crushing innings victory.
So, he can do it. But often the criticism would be that he wasn't consistent enough -- not with the line nor with the amount of turn he extracted. Given that he was coming into the side to do the job that Vettori did successfully for so many years, the expectations were high.
However, the pitches in India have worked to his advantage and the time spent with CSK allied with his stints at CPL (Barbados Tridents) and T20 Blast (Worcestershire) has given him the knowledge needed to make the most of the conditions.
"Every time you come up and play on different surfaces and different conditions, it always helps," Santner had said in January 2023 ahead of the T20I series against India. "Playing in the IPL is no different. We play at a lot of different grounds, lot of different venues and a lot of different surfaces. So, getting a base understanding of each ground helps. Then obviously taking that experience into the game and see what works and what doesn't."
In this tournament, he has found the right balance between playing the holding role he usually does and being enough of a wicket-taking threat. He completes the NZ attack.
"It's obviously nice to come here and see the ball spin a little bit," said Santner after the win over Afghanistan. "You don't really get those in New Zealand. So, yeah, I think as a whole, the bowling, we've been bowling in partnerships, that's what we talk about. I mean, the guys up front today, Boult and Matt Henry, did an exceptional job in getting that run rate up and then it kind of makes them want to play bigger shots against... the kind of the middle. Yeah, I think as a partnership, as a unit, we've been bowling pretty well and I was lucky to chip in today for a few. But I think the way the seam has kind of set that up was massive for us."
It is typically modest talk from a Kiwi cricketer, but knowing when to switch between the attacking and holding roles during the middle phase of the innings is important.
"In the middle phase - the key is to try to take wickets. It's obviously challenging at times when teams use that phase to kind of set up a platform and then have wickets in hand to kind of attack the last 10-15 overs."
He added: "So, I guess it's nice for me when Ferguson's bowling 150 (kph) out of the other end because they might try to take me on a bit more and not face that. I'd do the same if I was batting, to be fair. I think his role in the middle is to be aggressive and take wickets. And on a day if he is potentially going for runs, it might be more my job to kind of hold it. And then flipping and adapting depending on the surfaces."
For many fans, Santner has often been considered a batting back-up if the top-order fails and a bowler who can hold one end up but he's now showing, with much fanfare, that he is perhaps greater than the sum of his parts.
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