Two 27-year-old Hamilton boys who played school cricket together and then pressed onto represent Northern Districts as well as New Zealand have been reunited at Chennai Super Kings in IPL 2019.
Mitchell Santner and Scott Kuggeleijn were both part of the Hamilton Boys' High School first XI that was, incidentally, coached by Scott's father and former New Zealand international Chris Kuggeleijn.
Santner and Kuggeleijn gradually moved up the ranks and established themselves as key members of the Northern Districts side. Much like Super Kings do in the IPL, Northern Districts pride themselves on incredible depth and often play with 11 internationals. At Northern Districts, there are roles for both the high-school buddies. But at Super Kings, they are scrapping for the same spot.
Well, Santner and Kuggeleijn might have just ferried drinks had Super Kings' designated death bowler and middle-order hitter Dwayne Bravo not suffered an injury. Bravo is no longer the gun death bowler he was a few years back, but he still continues to be the vital two-in-one player who lends balance to Super Kings.
After Super Kings were knocked out of IPL 2014, MS Dhoni had highlighted Bravo's injury as one of the major reasons for the team's early exit. Bravo's hamstrings have been creaky since he hurt them in the 2016-17 Big Bash League, and he was subsequently ruled out of PSL 2017 and IPL 2017.
Slowing things down, Kuggelejin finds rhythm
Super Kings are now looking at Santner and Kuggeleijn to fill in the Bravo-sized hole. But, neither are like-for-like replacements for Bravo. Coach Stephen Fleming hadn't met Kuggeleijn until this IPL, and signed him up as a direct replacement for Lungi Ngidi, who impressed with his hit-the-deck bustle last season.
On IPL debut, Kuggeleijn bowled too full and wound up leaking 27 runs in his first two overs. Dhoni and Fleming then asked Kuggeleijn to take pace off the ball and force the Kings XI Punjab batsmen to manufacture it for themselves.
Kuggeleijn dug deep into his reserves and removed both KL Rahul and Sarfaraz Khan with slower cutters to tip the match Super Kings' way. He followed it up with none for 34 in four overs against Kolkata Knight Riders at Chepauk before he was swapped for Santner in Jaipur.
'Flatline' peaks when it matters
According to Fleming, Santner is one of the best spinners going around, particularly when playing in the subcontinent. Santner offers more with the bat than Kuggeleijn does and is known for his unflappable temperament. He is so cool and laidback that he has been nicknamed "Flatline" at Northern Districts.
It was on bright display when he walked into the cauldron of chaos in Jaipur and won the game for Super Kings with a last-ball six. In the last over of Super Kings' 152 chase, Dhoni, who had just been dismissed, walked into the field of play to remonstrate with the umpires over a contentious no-ball non-call. With eight needed off the last three balls and new man Santner on strike, Ben Stokes hurled a full-toss, which was first deemed a no-ball for height by umpire Ulhas Gandhe, but his square-leg colleague Bruce Oxenford eventually overruled it.
Dhoni stormed into the field and was involved in a heated argument with the two umpires. Then, with six required off the last ball, Santner, however, kept his cool and provided a blockbuster finish with a hit over long-on. He anticipated a full, wide ball from Stokes, and shuffled across off to cleanly launch it down the ground. The secret behind that hit was a stable base when he met the ball.
It was that stable base that helped him become New Zealand's finisher against England in early 2018. But a knee surgery then sidelined him for nine months. He had missed the entire IPL 2018, but Fleming still retained Santner for this season.
On his IPL debut, against Rajasthan Royals at Chepauk, Santner struggled to grip the ball in dewy conditions and conceded 26 runs from two overs. In the return fixture in Jaipur, he took the new ball and gave away 14 in his first over. Having been punished for offering width, Santner tightened up and threatened the stumps, coming away with 1 for 11 in his last three overs.
Such constricting lines and lengths had seen him have the best economy rate (6.88) among bowlers who had bowled at least 15 overs in the 2018-19 Super Smash, New Zealand's domestic 20-over competition. And most of these games were played on easy-paced hit-through-the-line pitches.
Santner is no longer the left-arm spinner in the classical mould. He bowled several darts in the Super Smash, and he unfurled the "Claw" - the left-arm fingerspinner's version of the carrom ball - last year. It did not make an appearance in the Super Smash and it hasn't made an appearance in the IPL yet, but such variations have made Santner an attacking bowler who can bowl at different phases.
The more experienced pair of Harbhajan Singh and Imran Tahir are used to bowling in dewy conditions. Can Santner adapt to them too? If he can, he could pip Kuggeleijn and become Dhoni's go-to two-in-one player until Bravo becomes available.