The magic of Mitchell Santner
While wristspinners have drawn all the attention in the recent past, a quiet figure from New Zealand has made his name as a creative fingerspinner, especially on Indian soil. He has collected wickets, he has been stingy and he has contained one of the biggest names in the history of ODI cricket.
When one thinks of Mitchell Santner's best performances with the white ball, the most obvious one to come to mind would be his match-winning 4 for 11 against India in Nagpur at the World T20 last year. He doesn't often collect a bagful of wickets, which is why memory can give away for his second-best performance in the country.
He is a left-arm spinner, isn't a big turner of the ball and doesn't give it too much flight either. Nevertheless, his forte has been his ability to stem the flow of runs when he is introduced towards the end or just after the first Powerplay, and in the middle overs. Santner himself says he does not try to bowl any "miracle" balls.
"As a fingerspinner, you obviously don't turn it as much as a wristspinner. So our main threat is control," he had said in Mumbai before the ODI series against India began. "If we can control one end, tie up one end and hope for a big shot and get a wicket that way…obviously depending on the surface. If it's spinning, it's obviously an asset."
Rewind to October 2016 and a sluggish surface in Delhi. India are 139 for 5 chasing 243, their hopes resting on the shoulders of MS Dhoni, who is batting at No. 5. Santner is brought back for a second spell in the 26th over but gives up 24 runs in his two overs - six off Dhoni's bat, 18 off Kedar Jadhav's. The required rate mellows a bit from 5.84 to 5.45 and Williamson is forced to take his spinner off.
As soon as New Zealand dismiss Jadhav, however, they turn to Santner again. He sticks to tight lines while bowling at Dhoni from wide of the crease, with a fairly packed off-side field. Dhoni, on 26 off 37 until then, struggles against a spinner at home. He tries to score by going back in the crease, then by coming on the front foot. He attempts to pierce the gap by cutting or by lunging forward to work the ball past midwicket. Nothing works.
Santner bowls 13 of his next 18 deliveries to Dhoni and concedes only seven runs in all. The pressure mounts and Dhoni falls soon after for a 65-ball 39. Santner ends with figures of 10-0-49-1 and India lose by six runs.
Six days later, India are chasing 260 in Ranchi, another slow track. They have a slightly better start this time and Williamson brings Santner on as soon as the first Powerplay ends. Santner knows the pitch is to his liking and he slows down some of the deliveries, makes the ball turn, and pulls off a spell of 4-0-16-0 against Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane.
Dhoni promotes himself to No. 4 this time but struggles to get going again. In the first over of Santner's second spell, he delivers five consecutive dot balls to Dhoni. In his next, he tosses one up, darting a couple in, extracts some turn and stymies Dhoni again. Five balls, three runs.
The pressure builds again and Rahane and Dhoni fall in alternate overs. The wickets go to Jimmy Neesham but Santner's figures read 6-0-20-0 and eventually 10-0-38-1 as India fall short by 19 runs.
After the match, Dhoni called the middle-order slide a repeat of the Delhi loss because "the bowlers tend to bowl in the right areas so it becomes a bit difficult to freely rotate [the strike]". This is one of the best middle-order batsmen India have produced and Santner has had the unenvious job of bowling to him in almost every match between these two teams. His record against Dhoni is envious, though.
Santner has bowled a total of 95 balls to Dhoni in ODIs, 58 of those dots. He has conceded only only 54 runs, including two fours and two sixes; that's a boundary after every 24 balls. Among bowlers who have sent down at least 10 overs to Dhoni in ODIs, he has struggled the most against Devendra Bishoo (42 off 81 balls) and then Santner.
While he has learnt a lot from Daniel Vettori on how to tie up batsmen and "wait for them to make a mistake", Santner also researches India's bowlers to do well in subcontinent conditions. "Especially on wickets that do a little bit [for the spinners], I watch a lot of Axar Patel and [Ravindra] Jadeja, they just try to bowl very consistent and very good areas and then try and spin it and then wait for batsmen to play a big shot and get out or run past one."
On this tour, Santner was preferred over Ish Sodhi for the three ODIs and he showed why. He took only four wickets, but his economy rate of 4.56 was better than anyone's in the series. He bowled 33 dot balls in his 10 overs in Mumbai, 30 more in Pune, and another 24 in the high-scoring match in Kanpur, by far the most economical New Zealand bowler on the day with a minimum of two overs bowled.
Even in T20s, it is his ability to contain that enables Sodhi to bowl more aggressive lines and lengths. Among bowlers with minimum 10 wickets in T20Is in India, Santner has the best dot-ball percentage of 51.13, followed by R Ashwin (45.45%) and Yuzvendra Chahal (43.26%). His only weakness there lies in the fact that after he sends down those dots, he also tends to give away boundaries. But he has managed to keep his economy rate under 6.50 in the format in India.
Even so, his economy rate in the shortest format in India is under 6.5, and if he can put a check on batsmen going for big hits in Rajkot, he may well be able to show up Axar and Jadeja on their home turf.
Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo