Matches (18)
IND v AUS (1)
Asian Games (W) (2)
Malaysia Tri (1)
County DIV1 (5)
County DIV2 (3)
Gulf T20I (3)
CPL 2023 (1)
BAN v NZ (1)
RHF Trophy (1)

Mitchell Santner is flying the flag for fingerspin

The New Zealand left-armer talks about his new ball - the Claw - bowling to lefties, and how his time at Chennai Super Kings will help him in the World Cup

Deivarayan Muthu
In 14 ODIs in the subcontinent, Mitchell Santner has taken ten wickets at an economy of 4.64  •  Hannah Peters/Getty Images

In 14 ODIs in the subcontinent, Mitchell Santner has taken ten wickets at an economy of 4.64  •  Hannah Peters/Getty Images

In this age of mystery spin and quick wristspin, there are still some capable fingerspinners who are fighting the tide. Among them, Mitchell Santner stands out for his remarkable control, despite having spent most of his career on the easy-paced bash-through-the-line pitches on small grounds in New Zealand.
Mohammad Nabi (4.29), Shakib Al Hasan (4.44) and Mehidy Hasan Miraz (4.70) all have better career economy rates than Santner (4.87) in ODI cricket, but they've all been bred on spin-friendly tracks in the subcontinent. That Santner is keeping pace with these fingerspinners - and even some wristspinners - is a credit to his defensive skills.
So what's on Santner's mind when he is at the top of his mark, preparing to bowl to big hitters in ODI cricket?
"I guess in recent times in one-day cricket, everyone is coming out quite hot with the bat," he says. "We've seen some bigger scores, and it can be quite challenging at times for bowling. Our recent [bilateral] series in India was an example of that - where scores were 350-plus, and it makes a massive difference only having four men out vs five [between overs 11-40].
"One [extra] guy you've got to have up [in the circle] and it's usually a cow [midwicket] to the right-hander or mid-off to a left-hander. We know that the bowling style isn't too different between T20 cricket and ODI cricket at the moment. You get a couple of dots, and you know the batsman wants to try some stuff and you try to build the pressure the same way.
Santner says the strategy changes depending on the pitch he is bowling on. "You're going to get a few more dots in one-day cricket, depending upon the surface. But if there's a little bit there, you can probably be a bit more attacking. If it is a very flat wicket, like it could be in some of the World Cup games [in India], you have to be a bit more defensive and try to get wickets through false shots."
Santner used to be a left-arm seamer until he was about 15. Inspired by Daniel Vettori, he belatedly switched to left-arm fingerspin. When he was 17 or so, he suffered a back injury and he returned to action with a stiff non-bowling arm. The little pause in his bowling action and the effort he puts into reading the batter's intention have helped him gain an advantage, though he isn't a big turner of the ball.
"If you talk to some of the other bowlers, they try to probably look at some spot on the pitch. I try to watch the batter the whole time. The little delay [in my action] helps me if they're going to charge at me or try something… At times, especially when it's flat or if I think the batsman is going to do something, I watch him even harder. And at times, if it's spinning, I might just bowl my best ball - the one that spins - and see what happens."
It has become increasingly difficult for left-arm fingerspinners to operate against left-hand batters in white-ball cricket. Colin Munro, a former New Zealand team-mate of Santner's and currently a freelancer, recently spoke about playing Bazball-style cricket against left-arm fingerspinners. He talked about how Brendon McCullum, who was a mentor of sorts to him, spoke about picking match-ups. "If the left-arm spinner comes on to a left-hand batter, take him down. Don't just get ten runs in the over; if you can get 18, it accelerates the game."
These days, even right-hand batters are switching into left-handers to spook left-arm spinners. For instance, in his first full season at Wellington Firebirds, Finn Allen switched his stance and monstered Santner into the grass banks beyond midwicket at the Basin Reserve. Santner says in these situations he tries to watch the batter's feet and movements even more carefully than usual, and to vary his pace even more.
"With the nature of these pitches being flatter and a lot of T20 cricket [being played], people are being very aggressive in ODI cricket. [As a bowler] there are times to attack and there will be times to defend as well, so being able to watch the batter is massive… see when the guy is going to switch [-hit] or run down.
"With the lefties, you have to try and vary your pace [more] and maybe bowl a few variations to try to keep it away [from them]. Being a left-hand batter, if a left-arm spinner comes on, I try to take him down as well. So, it's obviously vice-versa when I'm bowling."
Santner is also planning to use his version of the carrom ball, "the Claw", to counter left-hand batters on particularly placid pitches in the World Cup. He recently flicked it out during his T20 stint with Worcestershire Rapids in the Blast in England.
"I think it's definitely an option to some left-handers. Something that just goes away from the left-hander has been so effective. I know [R] Ashwin uses it a lot against right-handers as well, so just some variation outside of the natural stuff to keep the batsmen guessing, especially when the pitches are flat."
Santner usually dovetails beautifully with legspinner Ish Sodhi, and their partnership will once again be crucial to New Zealand's success in India. They combined spectacularly to spin India out for 79 in Nagpur in the T20 World Cup in 2016 and have both grown in stature since. New Zealand also have other options in Rachin Ravindra (another left-arm spinner) and Glenn Phillips (part-time offspinner).
"Me and Ish have done it for a very long time," Santner says. "We have a very good relationship, so we talk about different roles between each of us. It might be on me to tie up one end and he can be more aggressive at the other. If it's spinning, we could do it [attack] together and at times we might both have to defend, depending upon the conditions.
"In New Zealand, you might just go for one spinner every now and then, but in the World Cup in India, you might see at least two."
Michael Bracewell's injury has stripped New Zealand of batting depth, but Santner's improved power-hitting could help make up for that. Some of that power was on display when he cracked 64 off 46 balls at No. 3 for Worcestershire against Derbyshire in July.
"Yeah, it's been nice to get some opportunities [to bat up the order]. When you're playing a lot for New Zealand, you're kind of coming at the end. With our top order and middle order, we've got quite a good line-up, so you don't get that much opportunity. It's nice to go back and play for ND [Northern Districts] and get some more batting opportunities and then with Worcestershire. Michael Bracewell got injured, which wasn't ideal for us, but it was an opportunity for me to go from No. 5 to No. 3, which was nice. Batting in the powerplay is definitely different to batting at the end. The more I can bank those experiences, and have good opportunities with the bat, the better."
"I think we've seen in one-day cricket, but especially in T20 cricket, power-hitting at the end of an innings - or even throughout the innings - is so important. We had Albie Morkel [assistant coach] with the Texas Super Kings [in MLC, the US-based T20 league] who was a very good exponent of that in his time. It was nice to work with him for a little bit as well."
More recently, on his Hundred debut for Southern Brave in August, Santner made an immediate impact, taking the new ball and giving away only 20 runs in his four sets, handcuffing Jos Buttler and Phil Salt with his subtle variations.
Santner also fronted up to take the newish ball in MLC. He could perhaps do a similar job for New Zealand in their two World Cup games in Chennai, which is also his home base in the IPL.
"The nature of playing leagues is, you come up against some of the best players and you're likely to play them in these World Cups coming up. You get more of an understanding about each person playing and the conditions.
"The IPL has been so good for that. You play a lot of games in India on some pretty good pitches - some slightly slower and some that can go through. Having that understanding of what you think batters are going to do and pitches are going to do is a massive one. Adapting on the day might be slightly different and you have to keep your options open when you're out there."
Santner's first introduction to the World Cup was through footage of the 1992 edition, when New Zealand bossed their way to the semi-final. Dipak Patel was New Zealand's trump card at the time with his cagey fingerspin on small grounds with fielding restrictions in place. After that Vettori did that job for New Zealand, and though the landscape of the game has changed vastly since, Santner has taken over and continues to show the way for fingerspinners.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo