Santner keeps fingerspin flag flying in the land of wristspin

The left-arm spinner speaks about reading batters' intentions and using ground dimensions to his advantage

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
One of the trends in T20 cricket in the last year or so has been the return of fingerspinners. They have worked hard on their variations, on their defensive skills with the ball, on their power-hitting with the bat, and consequently they are relevant again, but conditions in Australia haven't exactly been conducive to their style of bowling. It's still wristspinners ruling the charts at the T20 World Cup. Among spinners who have bowled at least 10 overs in the Super 12s, five of the six most economical have been wristspinners. Nine of the top 11 are either wristspinners or mystery spinners.
At No. 3 on economy rates and No. 2 on wickets sits a fingerspinner with no mystery to him. He flirted with a carrom ball in 2018 but now just operates with the standard variations of a fingerspinner. Mitchell Santner has been key to New Zealand's progress, bowling 16 overs for 103 runs and eight wickets. Seven of his victims have been batters in the top seven. Three of his overs have come inside the powerplay.
It starts with the scouting work done with both data and video analysis. There are subtle changes in the field depending on how the batter plays, and his preparedness to play with lines and lengths.
"We scout all the players and what their strengths and weaknesses are but for me it's more 'do they lap [sweep]?', 'do they reverse sweep?'," Santner says. "You might have a midwicket rather than the 45 guy [short fine leg] if a guy doesn't lap. If you can squeeze the batsman, what's their bailout? They're going to come charging down the wicket, are they going to walk across and try the slog-sweep and stuff like that because as a spinner, your lengths and lines don't change a hell of a lot depending on who you're bowling to."
A good example of all this coming together in this tournament came from another fingerspinner, R Ashwin, when he was bowling to Shakib Al Hasan and Afif Hossain. After Shakib took a single, Ashwin asked his deep cover to move squarer to deep point. You could tell immediately that Ashwin knew Afif likes the reverse-sweep. Ashwin deliberately bowled slower, and Afif played the reverse-sweep only to mis-hit it.
Williamson also mentions another of Santner's skills: changes of pace with the same arm speed. Santner doesn't want to give it all away. "Slower at the crease, shorter delivery strides, the way I kind of cock my wrist but the key when you try to bowl it slower is still trying to rip it," he says. "If you slow your arm speed down, it kind of just floats out with nothing on it. So you still need to be able to get it to go up and down and spin."
One of Santner's striking performances at this T20 World Cup was against Ireland, when Paul Stirling and Andy Balbirnie gave New Zealand a scare by peppering the short square boundaries at the Adelaide Oval. Santner saw Stirling back away and did what he usually does: follow the batter with a flat delivery. Stirling, though, managed to sweep him for a flat six. Twenty-nine came off the first two overs of spin, but Santner immediately slowed his pace down and started going full and wide, making the batters hit down the ground, and came out with figures of 4-0-26-2. He likes having one short boundary.
"During the first game in Sydney where there was a very small boundary square, I guess it made my thinking a bit easier: bowl a bit wider, tried to slow it up, take it off them, and they're obviously always going to go to the shorter side. When there are options like that to try, you know, play to the dimensions a bit more and try and get into the batter's head. It makes the thinking and the understanding a little bit clearer when there is a shorter side. What you have to do and what the batters are going to try to, so you know, you can do what you can to try and keep it off them and take it off."
The whole team's planning has, as usual, been excellent: Santner has got away with bowling just seven balls to left-hand batters. When he has a right-left combination, he is good at bowling into the hip and getting the left-hand batter off strike. "Into the hip" features a lot in our conversation. It is the stock delivery. He is not one to be seduced by the flawed idea of "wicket-taking deliveries". You bowl according to the situation in T20 cricket, and in partnerships.
At scouting meetings, New Zealand don't judge their bowlers by the number of wickets they take. They assess the whole unit and how they bowled in partnerships. "Yeah, it's been it's been pretty good I guess," Santner says when asked to assess his T20 World Cup so far. "Obviously, bowled probably a couple of bad balls in the last game, but I bowled a couple of tough overs against England in the powerplay and then there was the same again at the Gabba where there was quite a short boundary to long-on. So I was just trying to follow a bit wider and keep it off them. I think as a unit you know, we've been adapting very well. Not just the spinners but the seamers as well. If there's a bit of swing Tim [Southee] and Trent [Boult] are the best in the world. And then if it is a bit slow, the guys bowl change-ups and stuff. It's been good to watch so far as a bowling unit."
Santner now goes into his sixth knockout match at World Cups, but he is yet to get his hands on a trophy. As they often do, he and New Zealand have once again put themselves in touching distance. "It's hard not to just approach it as another game but I guess it is."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo