The accidental opener: Daryl Mitchell is relishing his role at the top

Out of the shadow of his father John Mitchell, the former All Black player, he is carving his own identity at the T20 World Cup

Deivarayan Muthu
Daryl Mitchell scored 49 against India to take his side to the brink of victory  •  Getty Images

Daryl Mitchell scored 49 against India to take his side to the brink of victory  •  Getty Images

"Who would've thought this would be happening!" Daryl Mitchell told his wife as he prepared to open the batting for New Zealand. The 30-year-old was meant to be a finisher along with James Neesham but the team management took a punt on him at the top of the order in the warm-up games ahead of the T20 World Cup firstly because Tim Seifert had joined their bubble late, having been part of Kolkata Knight Riders who made the IPL final, and then the wicketkeeper-batter sustained an abdominal strain.
Mitchell cracked 33* off 22 balls against Australia at Tolerance Oval before retiring. Head coach Gary Stead and captain Kane Williamson liked what Mitchell brought to his new role - muscle - and pushed Seifert down the order since he is more comfortable tackling spin than high pace.
Mitchell managed only 2 in New Zealand's second warm-up against England but then was the team's joint-highest scorer in their opening game against Pakistan. The experiment was neither a success nor a failure. So he was given another go at the top, against India on Sunday, and this turned out to be a huge success, as he struck 49 off 35 balls. Mitchell's four fours and three sixes rushed New Zealand to victory in their slim chase of 111. In contrast, the entire India line-up had managed just two sixes.
"He's got a lot of really strong attributes that we like," Stead said. "We love his competitiveness and the way he takes on teams as well...I think sometimes you do have to be brave, and you run with what feels right at the time, and it felt right, and we've given Daryl that opportunity, and he's repaid us in spades."
Mitchell had played much of his cricket in the shadow of his father John, the former All Black player and coach. As if that wasn't enough, he is occasionally mistaken for Worcestershire's Daryl Mitchell. When Mitchell Santner was playing county cricket under Mitchell's captaincy in 2016, he had joked to New Zealand's Mitchell that the Worcestershire man was the better Daryl Mitchell.
When Colin de Grandhomme missed the entire 2020-21 home summer with injury, Mitchell stepped in as his replacement and made the second allrounder's role his own.
Before this World Cup, Mitchell had played 116 T20s but had never opened in the shortest format but he is embracing the challenge.
"It's something you always prepare for, and something that I pride myself on is the ability to adapt to different situations whether it would be opening or batting wherever in the order," Mitchell said during a virtual media interaction. "And yeah for me, it's just about trying to win games of cricket for my country and doing whatever I can to help us do that.
"Obviously, with Canterbury in the last Super Smash, I was batting at No. 3 for periods of time there, which is effectively the same as opening, you know. You can be out there in the first over and yeah for me, it's taking the same mindset and same intent - being really clear on the role I've got to play and just backing your skills to be able to do it on the day. Whether it's [No.] 1 through to 6 or 7 or whatever, for me it obviously doesn't really change in terms of the way I want to go about things and try to win those small moments."
Mitchell said that he didn't have to make any technical tweaks. He just followed the good ol' see-ball-hit-ball template.
"No technical adjustments as such," he said. "You play Test cricket and red-ball cricket in New Zealand, you understand how to combat that swinging ball. And then for me, it's making sure I've got the right mindset heading into the top six and making sure I'm not searching for balls that I want, knowing that they [bowlers] will miss at times and that's my time to cash in. Absorbing pressure and keep trying to rotate to get Guppy [Martin Guptill] back on strike… so for me, it's not a massive change from batting at No. 3 in domestic cricket in the Super Smash. It's just about trying to be as present as I can and watch the ball and allow my skills to hopefully take over and help us get off to a good start."
Nobody has hit more sixes than Mitchell in the Super Smash in the past five years. So, did having the licence to go over the top in the powerplay, with only two fielders in the outfield, make things easier for him?
"For me, it's not a massive change from batting at No. 3 in domestic cricket in the Super Smash. It's just about trying to be as present as I can and watch the ball and allow my skills to hopefully take over and help us get off to a good start"
Mitchell on the challenge of opening the batting
"I'd never say facing Bumrah is easy (laughs)," Mitchell said. "He's world-class, he's an absolute machine, but, no, obviously in the top six you have less fielders out on the boundary. That means you can chunk it and it'll glance for four instead of being out. As I said earlier, it's just about adapting to different conditions and understanding but there're times to take risks and times to soak up some pressure and keep trying to rotate the strike and just keep trying to take calculated risks and hope they pay off."
It certainly paid off on Sunday as the former Northern Districts man finished a job started by the current Northern Districts men, Santner and Ish Sodhi.
"Yeah, they're obviously two of my best mates," Mitchell said, "And we've been lucky to play cricket with each other for a long time now and it's always something that we remind ourselves when we're out there. But this is pretty cool for a bunch of kids that grew up playing in a park together to suddenly on the world stage against India. So, yeah, pretty special."
Having toppled India, one of the pre-tournament favourites, New Zealand are in with a strong chance to progress to the semi-finals. They will next face Scotland and Namibia before rounding off their group stage with a game against Afghanistan on November 7. Mitchell, however, has warned New Zealand against complacency, reckoning there isn't much to separate the sides in the UAE conditions.
"Obviously, they [Scotland] have had a great qualifying tournament and it's awesome to see them here in the group stages," he said. "They're a very dangerous team - they've got a lot of guys who play county cricket, so they understand the nuances of T20 cricket and especially with the Blast over there, so they're obviously going to be a challenge in the next one. The World Cup is a funny old game, especially in conditions that are here with the pitches that bring everyone close. So, we're going to have to be ready to go from ball one."
After Sunday's game it was mostly Netflix and chill for Mitchell. He surely deserves it after that opening salvo.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo