Interviews

Michael Bracewell learned to bowl spin on the job, and now he has the World Cup in his sights

The New Zealand offspinner started out as a keeper-batter before turning to slow bowling. Now he's front and centre in his team's attack on the subcontinent

Deivarayan Muthu
16-Jan-2023
Bracewell (at right) with Ish Sodhi: unlike Sodhi and Mitchell Santner, his spin mates in the New Zealand line-up, Bracewell is big on using drift  •  Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

Bracewell (at right) with Ish Sodhi: unlike Sodhi and Mitchell Santner, his spin mates in the New Zealand line-up, Bracewell is big on using drift  •  Marty Melville/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Bracewell was nicknamed "Beast" by Sam Wells, his former team-mate at Otago, because of his intensity during gym workouts, and the name has stuck. His role, however, has kept changing over the years.
Bracewell used to keep wicket and bat at the top for Otago back in the day, but after he stepped out of his comfort zone and moved to Wellington, he got an opportunity to roll his arm over more often. He isn't a big turner of the ball and doesn't have a bagful of variations, but his accurate offspin has seen him emerge as the third prong in New Zealand's spin attack, behind Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi.
On the recent ODI leg of the Pakistan tour, which New Zealand won 2-1, Bracewell gave up just 117 runs in 30 overs for four wickets, his economy rate of 3.90 the best among all bowlers in the series. Bracewell has also contributed with the ball on flat pitches at home, but it is his remarkable control in Pakistan that has encouraged New Zealand to play three spinners, plus part-timer Glenn Phillips, in the lead-up to the ODI World Cup in India later this year.
"Yeah, it has been an interesting process," Bracewell says ahead of the ODI series opener against India. "I got to bowl a lot more in Wellington when Jeetan Patel retired, and I put in a lot of work with him while he was there, and suddenly I was getting more opportunities to bowl because though we had some really good spinners, they were all turning the ball away from the right-hander and turning it into the left-hander.
"So getting the opportunity to bowl in Wellington was cool, and obviously now for New Zealand my role is mainly as a bowler and batting down at No.7. So it has been an interesting transition, but I'm really enjoying it and learning a lot along the way. It's one of those things that being around guys like Mitchell Santner, Ajaz Patel and Ish Sodhi... I'm learning lots about spin bowling and trying to put it into practice as quickly as I can."
While Sodhi often gets the ball to rip and Santner relentlessly attacks the stumps with subtle variations, Bracewell brings something different to New Zealand's spin attack: drift. He is used to working with the breeze for Wellington at the Basin Reserve and also had international success by using the breeze to his advantage. In the series decider in Karachi last Friday, Bracewell fooled Babar Azam with drift and dip, having him stumped for 4 off 13 balls.
"The prevailing wind there is really nice to bowl into," Bracewell says of bowling at Wellington's home ground. "It's probably a bit more challenging for me when there's no breeze. Then I have to work harder to get the ball to drift. But it [drift] is something I've had to deal with pretty quickly in Wellington and it's something I try and use to my advantage."
In Pakistan, Bracewell also fronted up to operate in the powerplay and handcuffed the batters by bowling into the pitch. Bowling in the powerplay is easier than doing the job in the middle overs, he thinks.
"I like to think of batters trying to attack spinners in powerplay," he says. "It makes things nice and simple. You sort of know that the batter is going to come and try to hit you, so you can bowl defensively there. Through the middle, it's a little bit tougher, where you try to weigh up when they're going to take a risk and try and read it as much as you can. In the powerplay certainly, international batters try and put pressure on spinners, so you sort of know how a batsman is going to try and attack you and try and you can defend from there.
"Whereas through the middle you always have to weigh up that balance of attacking and defending. So I think it keeps things simple when you're bowling in the powerplay and you have to try to bowl your best ball as much as you can and not give a batter too much width."
New Zealand have always had a large pool of fast bowlers. Despite the absence of Kyle Jamieson, Adam Milne, Matt Henry and Adam Milne, they tested Pakistan in Pakistan. They are now building similar depth on the spin front too. Santner, Sodhi and Bracewell aside, left-arm wristspinner Michael Rippon and left-arm fingerspinner Rachin Ravindra have been part of the team's white-ball mix in the recent past. Bracewell attributes the overseas success of New Zealand's spinners to their accuracy on the easy-paced bash-through-the-line tracks at home.
"In New Zealand, it's pretty hard to bowl spin. I think you have to be really accurate on grounds that don't offer a lot of assistance to a spin bowler, and also the size of the boundaries [is smaller]," Bracewell says. "You have to be super-accurate and really adaptable, and I think that puts you in good stead when you go around the world, because you can't rely on the pitch to give you the assistance. You really have to try and beat batters in the air, and when you get to conditions that do turn a little bit, it's probably a different style of bowling. You have to probably bowl a little bit quicker and into the surface to get something out of it."
Bracewell also showcased his ball-striking ability when he powered New Zealand's successful chase of 301 from 120 for 5, with an unbeaten 127 off 82 balls against Ireland in Malahide last year. From standing tall in the crease, he has now lowered his stance to generate more power and access more areas in the field. He backs himself to be flexible and grow into his batting role with more opportunities.
"Batting in the lower order, you sort of come out and face a variety of bowling - sometimes spin and sometimes pace," he says. "You have to learn to be adaptable and come out of any situation and try and be effective. For me, I try to keep things as simple as possible and try and keep my head still and watch the ball. Then try and react. Hopefully, the situation will take care of itself. It's certainly something that's a challenge. I'm probably used to batting at the top of the order [for Wellington] and starting against pace, but [batting down the order] is something you have to learn pretty quickly and try and understand what's required of your role at the time.
"I think I'm slowly learning how to bat down the order a little more and I feel it's something I can add a lot of value to the New Zealand side [with] once I get my head around it a little bit more and understand the role a bit better. But I'm really enjoying the role I've been given at the moment and I enjoy being out there in those pressure situations at the end of the game, trying to get us to a decent total or get us over the line while chasing."
Michael isn't the only Bracewell who is pushing for a World Cup spot. His cousin Doug, the Central Districts quick, is also on tour in India, having replaced the injured Henry. With Tim Southee being rested for the series in India and Trent Boult in action in the ILT20 in the Emirates, Doug might get a look-in for New Zealand at some point. Bracewell is looking forward to the prospect of playing together with his cousin.
"We didn't spend a whole lot of time growing up together because I grew up in the bottom of the South Island and he grew up in the North Island, so we used to see each other a couple of times a year and we played both rugby and cricket," he says. "But it's more so in recent years that we've been playing domestic cricket together, and now we've spent more time together at international cricket. So it was certainly an honour to receive my first [ODI] cap from Doug and it's always awesome to take the field with him."
This India tour is a dry run for the ODI World Cup in the country later this year. "With the World Cup being in the subcontinent, these tours [Pakistan and India] are hugely beneficial for us and for guys who haven't played a lot in the subcontinent," Bracewell says. "For the guys who have played more, it's a chance to refine their games and going back to what really works in the subcontinent. It has been hugely beneficial to play against a really strong Pakistan side and it's going to be no different against India.
"They [India] are obviously a really strong side and are coming off a strong performance against Sri Lanka. But it's just about keeping learning and try to improve as a side. We're really looking forward to the challenge of playing against India in India and learning as a group, with that World Cup at the back of our mind. It's something we want to keep striving to get better for."
Bracewell was relegated to the bench during last year's T20 World Cup in Australia, but he could have a bigger role to play, with ball and bat, in the World Cup in India - and also before that.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo