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Analysis

How do New Zealand's spinners stack up for the India challenge?

Ajaz Patel holds promise, and there's hope Mitchell Santner can step up

Himanshu Agrawal
24-Nov-2021
Kane Williamson, Ajaz Patel, Mitchell Santner, Will Somerville, Ross Taylor and BJ Watling celebrate a wicket, Sri Lanka v New Zealand, 1st Test, Galle, 5th day, August 18, 2019

Galle 2019: Ajaz Patel six wickets, Will Somerville four, Mitchell Santner none  •  Tharaka Basnayaka/Getty Images

Of their seven away Tests in the second cycle of the World Test Championship, title-holders New Zealand will play four in Asia: two in India over the next fortnight and two in Pakistan in 2022.
Quality spinners are key to success in the subcontinent, and New Zealand have missed an impactful one after Daniel Vettori retired in 2014. They have tried out seven front-line spinners since, including Mitchell Santner, Ajaz Patel and Will Somerville, who all feature in a spin-heavy squad for their India tour that also includes two other spin-bowling options, Rachin Ravindra and Glenn Phillips, although with Devon Conway now injured, Phillips will be seen as a back-up keeper to Tom Blundell.
Spinners from overseas find themselves having to adapt to not just the conditions in Asia but also a change of role: they need to bowl much more in the subcontinent than they typically do elsewhere, and attack to use the largely helpful conditions. They also need to bowl quicker, since Asian pitches are usually slower than those in the southern hemisphere and in England. And the heat offers a stark contrast to the cool and windy conditions of New Zealand.
New Zealand's spinners haven't had much success in Asia in recent times. Since 2015, their average of 39 and strike rate of 76 is the worst among all visiting sides to have played at least eight Tests in the region. While there is no quick fix in finding a replacement for Vettori, who averaged 34 despite playing 57 of his 113 Tests at home, New Zealand now have reason to have high expectations of Ajaz as a potentially wicket-taking option, and Santner as one to keep things tight.
Ajaz has come a long way since his first-class debut in 2012-13, having taken up spin bowling only when in his 20s. Heinrich Malan, his coach at domestic side Central Districts when he started out, says working with Ajaz was never too much about technique despite that late start.
"It was about slowing him down through the crease and about subtly coming wide of the crease, being really specific in terms of where he needs fielders, and being smart about getting into his spell," Malan says.
Injuries in the side forced Ajaz to bowl a lot, which went a long way towards ensuring he learned on the job and developed quicker than he might otherwise have done. Ajaz topped the Plunket Shield charts for three seasons in a row, starting 2015-16.
"He bowled in every situation and scenario," Malan says. "Bowling over the wicket to right-handed batters in four-day cricket and buying into a six-three field to challenge them to do things differently worked. So he mastered his understanding of four-day cricket."
Ajaz did not experience subcontinental conditions until his Test debut, against Pakistan in the UAE in 2018. However, leading up to that tour, he was part of New Zealand Cricket's winter training squad, which aimed to help players counter pitches of the sort found in Asia by having them play in indoor nets, protected from the rain and harsh weather outside.
"They were similar to what you would expect in Asia - crumbly, slow and low," Ajaz says. "I was there for about six weeks just working on those conditions and [figuring out] how to bowl on those surfaces. That was very valuable."
His Test debut came partly because Santner was out injured and because New Zealand had to play two spinners in their XI in the UAE. Two years ago in Sri Lanka he took 5 for 89 in a losing cause in Galle. His biggest breakthrough was perhaps the Edgbaston Test against England earlier this year, where he took a match haul of 4 for 59 while Santner was missing again, all but cementing his status as New Zealand's lead spinner for their Asian tours of 2021 and 2022.
Former New Zealand offspinner Dipak Patel, Ajaz's coach in his early days, says the late start has not hampered Ajaz. "If you look at his record in Test-match cricket, it's pretty impressive. He has produced the results. He's not a defensive spinner. He's very street-smart. When you put all those ingredients together, it is a pretty successful recipe."
"It's about adapting to the surface you have in front you," Ajaz says about his game plan for Asia. "Because sometimes a surface can be slow, and you have to bowl a touch fuller to draw a batsman in. Otherwise, they can just play off the back foot, even if it is turning two feet. But other times where there's not as much assistance or turn, you may just need to stick to one kind of area, and be really boring and consistent."
The surfaces for New Zealand's recent T20I series in Bangladesh were somewhat at the other end of the spectrum - underprepared, dry and sticky, they produced unpredictable turn. In the five T20Is there, Ajaz bagged ten wickets, the most by a bowler from either side, at an economy rate of 3.65 and an average of 7.30, both again the best among all bowlers on show.
Ajaz took a lot more from the tour than the wickets and the experience. Among the opposition's coaching staff were none other than Vettori, and former Sri Lanka left-arm spinner Rangana Herath. During the tour Ajaz expressed his desire to speak to Vettori, and he finally managed to do so.
"In conditions like that, where there was so much on offer, Dan said, 'Go back to bowling the ball in a good area in for long periods of time - and that is only four overs in this case'," Ajaz says. "So that played into my field of expertise when it comes to Test cricket."
He picked Herath's brains too, "about a few things that I am currently working on [as to] how I can look to improve that. He was brilliant."
On the India tour, Ajaz is aware that the hosts' top five could be all right-handers, giving his left-arm spin an advantage. The series will also be a homecoming of sorts. The second Test will be played in Mumbai, where he was born and lived till he was six.
"Mumbai has two different kinds of clay - so when you are playing on red clay, you are going to have to play differently to when you play on black clay," he says. "Being my first tour [to India], I am going to make sure I question a lot of people and get a lot of feedback from guys who have been there numerous times."

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Santner scored 31 and 45, and had match figures of 2 for 62 on Test debut against Australia in the first day-night Test, in Adelaide in 2015. It was the kind of performance that gave fans hope he could provide New Zealand exactly what Vettori did: accuracy with the ball and handy runs with the bat in the lower middle order.
But six years and 24 Tests into his career, Santner stands at a crossroads: he averages 45 with the ball and 24 with the bat, and has been in and out of the side lately. In his four Tests in Asia he has managed ten wickets at 59.
Still, those numbers might not look so disappointing when you consider he was drafted into the Test side after just 22 first-class matches, asked to fill Vettori's shoes, and expected to be a key wicket-taker outside New Zealand - in contrast to the holding role he played at home.
"The role of the spinner in New Zealand is defensive," Mike Hesson, the former New Zealand coach under whom Santner made his international debut across formats in 2015, says. "Therefore, through our history, for a spinner, an average of 40 is not too bad because it's more about if they can [go for] two an over or less."
Of the seven spinners New Zealand have tried since Vettori's final Test, Santner has more or less fulfilled the requirement of holding an end up and doing it cheaply. His economy rate of 2.78 is the third best among that group of seven - by a fraction: Somerville sits just above with 2.77, and Ajaz leads with 2.69.
Former New Zealand bowler Graeme Aldridge, Santner's coach at Northern Districts, thinks Santner's bowling is still a work in progress. "He was relatively inexperienced going into Test cricket, especially making his debut in Australia," he says. "Rightly or wrongly, he is trying to learn how to bowl at the highest level on the run. So there's obviously a lot of progress to be made, definitely."
One of the areas calling for progress would seem to be control of lines and lengths. According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, only 400 of Santner's 4037 balls in Tests have landed full and on the stumps or just outside off. When he does manage this, he averages 27.75 and concedes only 1.66 runs an over.
This ties in to the amount of white-ball cricket he plays, where, as Hesson says, he has been able to understand defensive options. "He's able to go for ones, which in the shorter forms is a nice thing. He's able to adjust the seam position to get overspin and sidespin, and is able to bowl slow and wide when he knows guys are going after him."
Santner's last first-class game for Northern Districts came in March 2020, and Hesson believes a lack of long-form cricket has a fair amount to do with Santner's unflattering record in Tests.
The challenges of modern scheduling, particularly in the wake of Covid-19, have played a part. New Zealand play a lot more limited-overs cricket than they do Tests, and Santner's active involvement in white-ball cricket has meant he has not been available to play as much first-class cricket as he might have liked to have done to strengthen his red-ball skills.
"If you look around, there's not a whole lot of spinners that actually do all three formats really well," Aldridge says. "It depends on how he works out the balance between the white ball and the red ball, and how much opportunity he gets with the red ball."

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For a side that often doesn't have cause to play a single spinner at home, including two in the side for an Asia tour can be tricky. The balance of the XI changes with two spinners in the line-up. Should it be four bowlers or five? How to accommodate an allrounder if you play five bowlers and the wicketkeeper bats at No. 6?
Those questions are bound to be more difficult to answer now that New Zealand's all-time-best wicketkeeper-batter BJ Watling has retired. Solid at No. 6 or 7, he often ground out tough runs for the side expertly. Minus the cushion he provided, New Zealand will likely want to include a dependable and relatively experienced batter in the lower middle order; even better if that someone can bowl too. Which means they may be tempted to play Santner to fill that hole, despite his numbers, seeing as how two spinners are still all but mandatory in Asia.
In contrast, they are hardly that in first-class cricket in New Zealand. If they happen to bowl long spells, it usually happens towards the end of the domestic season, when pitches are drier. "It doesn't help when you don't play spinners on your own turf," Dipak Patel says. "Generally, captains in New Zealand have been poor on how to handle spin bowling technically."
While development camps have helped simulate subcontinental pitches, they cannot be held all year round, nor do they provide real match practice in testing times. If young New Zealand cricketers played more in the subcontinent at the lower levels, it would help provide them valuable experience and growth opportunities.
But given travel restrictions in the wake of Covid, particularly in New Zealand, opportunities of that sort are far from being available.
While Ajaz is yet to play a Test in India, Santner played in all three on the India tour in 2016. Inexperienced at the highest level then, he came back home with ten wickets at 52.40. In Sri Lanka three years later, he went wicketless in Galle. On the other hand, Ajaz claimed six in that game, to add to his 13 against Pakistan in the UAE in 2018.
How might Santner go about improving his numbers?
"Mitch is going to need the odd defensive fielder to create pressure," Hesson says. "It's more about coming up with a plan that suits his style rather than expecting him to land it on a spot, which is not his strength in Test cricket at the moment."
"Almost treat it like a one-day game, rather than trying to turn yourself into a really traditional Test spinner or trying to land it in the footholes all the time."
As for Ajaz, he is mindful of the strengths of India's batters against spin, in particular their ability to sweep, and to use their feet.
"If the surface is offering you good pace and you can bowl your natural length, your line will vary depending on the surface, the opposition and the players," he says. "Players in the subcontinent are very good at sweeping, so that may mean that you bring the stumps into play a lot more. Don't give them too much width, because you know that if they miss, you hit."

****

Of the other spinners in the Test squad to face India, Phillips has been selected more for his batting and keeping - he only bowls part-time spin. Offspinner Somerville will be expected to play a part, especially given the other three front-liners, Santner, Ajaz and Ravindra, are left-armers.
Somerville is 37 and Ajaz 33, but New Zealand's spin cupboard does not lack for talent. Ravindra is only 22, and there is enough variety among those who were not selected, who include offspinner Cole McConchie, legspinners Ish Sodhi and Adithya Ashok, left-arm wristspinner Michael Rippon, and slow left-armer Jayden Lennox.
Santner has at least half a decade of cricket left in him, and Hesson hopes he will keep playing Tests.
"He's been a product of the environment in international cricket," he says. "I hope he's still given hope to play Tests, and also time to go away and get better at his core business. He's too good a cricketer not to be involved in the red ball at some stage."
It is all but certain that Santner will be the second spinner in the series starting this week - unless New Zealand opt for Somerville to pair with Ajaz, who they will pin their hopes on as as they seek a maiden Test series win in India .

Himanshu Agrawal is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo