On a raging turner in Nagpur, earlier in March, Mitchell Santner became well-known to cricket fans in India.
Chasing a paltry 126, India, the hosts of the World T20, were bowled out for a mere 76 runs, with the New Zealand left-arm spinner picking 4-11 in his four-over spell and wrecking the Indian line-up.
It wasn’t his first taste of the subcontinent though. “I visited India a few years ago to play the Champions League T20 with Northern Districts, but I played only two games. And I didn’t do much in them,” said Santner, in a freewheeling conversation before the World T20.
Life has changed quickly for the 24-year-old since then. Not only did he lead the Kiwis’ charge to the semi-finals of that tournament with some clever bowling, he has now become their lead spinner in the current three-Test series against India.
Kane Williamson has followed the doctrine of putting spin to the forefront of his bowling plans, and Santner has been the pivot around which it has revolved. If the World T20 was a realisation of the player he could be for New Zealand, the Kanpur Test was a confirmation of the same.
Ravindra Jadeja’s five-wicket haul had stunned New Zealand on day three, and the visitors duly lost their composure when they came out to bowl.
It, however, allowed for some perspective. After the match, skipper Williamson spoke about applying pressure for a longer time, and his words afforded a comparison with the manner in which they had bowled in the first innings.
The Green Park wicket was a proper Indian one, unlike the rank turners rolled out for South Africa last year.
On day one, it was a benign batting beauty. India got off to a good start, first with a speedy knock from KL Rahul, and then, a healthy partnership between Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara. Santner had been introduced into the attack in the ninth over itself, but couldn’t stem the flow of runs.
For a young spinner, playing his first Test in India, it was a passage of play that could crush his confidence. Instead, Santner mainly used his stock deliveries, relying more on the nature of the pitch to help him.
The dismissals of Rahul and Pujara are pertinent in that regard. The opener’s innings was flowing, and the spinner bowled just a tad wide, enough to tempt the batsmen to play a cut. The delivery held its line, and the batsman could only edge it to the keeper.
Pujara’s dismissal reflected the true quality of Santner's efforts, and indeed those of the rest of the New Zealand attack.
While Vijay and Pujara were scoring freely, Santner bowled a consistent line and length and did not let the batsmen run away with the match. Vijay-Pujara started to get the upper hand as the partnership went on, but the Kiwis came right back when Santner dismissed Pujara with a return catch. The impact of the execution of New Zealand's plans could be seen in how the Indian batting collapsed thereafter.
“It was about putting the ball in the proper area for a long period of time. I spoke with Daniel Vettori before the tour, and he told me not to try and do too much, but to let the wicket play its part. Basically it is about finding the pace of the pitch,” said Santner, after picking 3-94 in the first innings.
“He had always been my role model whilst growing up, and I have seen a lot of his videos over the years. As I started playing cricket, there were chances to interact with him, and I never let go of an opportunity to pick his brains. It has helped me build my own game,” he said, before the World T20. Discussions between the two is an on-going process.
To say then that there is a likeness between Santner and Vettori would be stating the obvious. Left-arm spin: check. Left-hand batsman: check. Santner even wears spectacles, though mostly in press conferences, and on rare occasions in practice. Unlike the former left-arm spinner, the youngster prefers to wear contact lenses when on the field.
Beyond these coincidences though, it is remarkable that Santner’s arrival on the international scene almost coincided with Vettori’s departure. The latter played his last international match in the 2015 World Cup, and voila, later that summer in England, Santner made his debut for New Zealand. Barring Santner's relative lack of experience (which will come as the years go by), the Kiwis got a like-for-like replacement.
The effects are there to see, not only in terms of his bowling, but his batting as well. While New Zealand will look to sort out their lower order troubles, they will rest easy in the knowledge that they have a sufficiently good batsman linking the middle order to the tail.
In Kanpur, Santner’s impact with the bat was visible most on the morning of day five, when he built a partnership with Luke Ronchi and defied the Indian bowling. For over an hour, despite the day five turner, the duo raised visions of a heroic fightback.
“He played outstandingly well. It’s his first time in this part of the world playing Test cricket and it was a great step in the right direction for his game. We all know he has got the talent with bat and ball and on the field, to apply himself like he did and bowl a number of overs and be successful was very good against good players of spin. It was a huge positive for us,” said Williamson in Kanpur.
In all probability, the Kiwis will not win this Test series. At best, in Kolkata and Indore, they could hope for a semblance of a fightback. The ODIs could be a more even contest.
However, over the course of the past year, they have discovered a gem of a cricketer in their ranks. Toiling on the dustbowls of the Indian subcontinent twice in the span of six months, bowling across formats, will only help Santner get more polished. That will be a win in itself for the visitors.