Santner looks to channel Dhoni and Fleming in stern test of leadership skills
Ahead of the first T20I, New Zealand's captain spoke of the importance of keeping the team environment relaxed
Mitchell Santner is cool as when he walks out to bat in Hyderabad with New Zealand 131 for 6 in a chase of 350. He is cool as when some reporters at his press conference in Raipur force him into greeting the locals in traditional fashion. He is cool as when he bowls to Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma in Indore, where the boundaries on all sides are roughly 60m distant.
Santner believes his cool approach, which often mirrors that of his Chennai Super Kings captain MS Dhoni and coach Stephen Fleming, is one of his strengths as a leader. With Kane Williamson and Tim Southee resting ahead of the home Test series against England in February, Santner will be in charge of New Zealand's T20I side in India. Before Friday's game, Santner has led New Zealand in 10 T20Is.
"Yeah, I guess that [being cool] is my nature, and it has been like that for a little while now," Santner said on the eve of the first T20I in Ranchi. "But there's also nerves and [it's] very exciting to captain another series in India - it doesn't get much better than that. So, definitely looking forward to it.
"If you look at both of them [MS Dhoni and Stephen Fleming], they're very calm and very level-headed, which I like. So, I feel like I'm similar [to them] in that respect and working alongside MS has been a pretty cool experience for a few years now. I guess it's nice to be back at his home ground [in Ranchi] as well. And Flem, he's the same, very level-headed and keeps it very relaxed and that's what we try to do in this [New Zealand] set-up as well."
Speaking on ESPNcricinfo's Open Mic during the 2022 T20 World Cup, Fleming revealed that Santner was among those in the Super Kings side who were interested in a leadership camp that the management ran during the IPL. And according to Gary Stead, the New Zealand head coach, who is resting ahead of the England Tests, it was Santner's vast T20 exposure that made him a captaincy candidate.
In addition to playing for CSK in the IPL, Santner has also featured in the CPL (Barbados Tridents) and T20 Blast (Worcestershire). He now wants to tap into all of those experiences during his captaincy stint for New Zealand against India's IPL superstars.
"Every time you come up and play on different surfaces and different conditions, it always helps," Santner said. "You know playing in the IPL is no different. We play at a lot of different grounds, lot of different venues and a lot of different surfaces. So getting a base understanding of each ground helps. Then obviously taking that experience into the game and see what works and what doesn't."
With 2023 being an ODI World Cup year, bilateral T20I series don't carry as much context as they did in 2022 and 2021, which were T20 World Cup years. But Santner feels there could still be some ODI takeaways for New Zealand from this three-match T20I series in India.
"Every time you play for your country is a great honour," Santner said. "So, you want to put out the best that you can and I guess the way the way ODI cricket is going at the moment with high scores, you know it's not too different to T20. So banking the experiences in T20 cricket this year will be similar to what we got in the one-day series, where we saw some high scores and good hitting. I guess trying to bank those experiences from that series…yes, we obviously lost 3-0, but we showed glimpses in games that we want to take forward in this series."
Luke Ronchi, the stand-in head coach for the India tour, echoed Santner's thoughts and said New Zealand still have enough ODI cricket lined up before the World Cup in India in October-November. Plus, the absence of New Zealand's seniors for the Pakistan tour in April-May will give their management another chance to test out fringe players in the lead-up to the World Cup. Williamson and Southee are among the seniors who are set to be given NOCs for IPL 2023, which will directly clash with the Pakistan tour.
"We play a lot of international cricket anyway," Ronchi said. "We have a lot of ODI cricket between now and the World Cup, so I guess it's just part of the scheduling. It's what that has been put in front of us and the guys go out there and give it their all for New Zealand. The fact that there is now T20 cricket isn't a worry or bother or something we sort of think we would be better off being somewhere else."
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo