The ultra-short boundaries at Eden Park, known as the postage stamp, are mean to the bowlers. They can be even meaner when rain cuts a 20-over series decider into 11 overs. After England’s bowlers suffer at the hands of Martin Guptill and Colin Munro, Eoin Morgan launches the visitors’ chase with a hat-trick of boundaries. Sam Curran then goes one better, clubbing Scott Kuggeleijn for four boundaries in a row. Jonny Bairstow, too, joins the carnage as England rack up 52 in just three overs. Bairstow has now nicked off for 47, but England are fairly well-placed at 100 for 4 in seven overs.
Captain Tim Southee turns to Mitchell Santner in search of a wicket. The left-arm spinner delivers a double blow, but then the match goes into another Super Over and we all know how that unfolds. However, Santner’s strikes and composure under pressure showed why he’s New Zealand’s MVP heading into the T20 World Cup across the Tasman Sea next year. Once he saw Sam Curran advance down the track, he speared a back-of-a-length slider well past the tramline and had the batsman stumped off an off-side wide for 24 off 11 balls. Wicketkeeper Tim Seifert, who was mic’d up, suggested that Santner probably knew that the batsman was coming at him.
Santner then made a rare error, looping a non-turning half-volley, which Lewis Gregory muscled over long-on for six. But he wasn’t flustered and bravely floated the next one up at 85kph, and got it to turn away, daring Gregory to manufacture pace for himself. Gregory swung hard, but Santner’s clever change-up defeated him as he could only scoop it as far as extra-cover. He conceded only singles off the next four balls to finish an excellent 11-run over. Earlier, in his first over, the fourth of the chase, Santner had given away only nine runs. In daunting defence against a power-packed line-up on flat track, Santner came away with the two most economical overs. What might have been had Santner been handed another over?
While Santner doesn’t quite demand the attention that Sunil Narine or wristspinners do these days, there’s no denying his class and control. It was on bright display during the 50-over World Cup in the UK earlier this year and also during this T20I series against England. Santner ended the series as the top wicket-taker with 11 wickets at an economy rate of 7.83 and strike rate of 9.8. Ish Sodhi and Adil Rashid, the purveyors of the more glamorous variety of spin – wristspin – managed only three wickets each while proving more expensive. Sodhi went at 11.73 an over while Rashid fared somewhat better, conceding at 9.54.
Meanwhile, left-arm seamer Sam Curran, who had the benefit of bowling as many overs as Santner did (18), picked up six wickets at an economy rate of 8.50. It’s no secret these days that Santner bowls one over in the powerplay and then works his way through the middle overs. Yet, batsmen haven’t been able to line him up as he hits the hard length in the early exchanges and then, when the batsman is desperately searching for the big hits, Santner slows up his pace. He also thrives by shifting his lines wide of off, challenging the batsmen to fetch the ball and then slog it. More than 80% of Santner’s success this series is down to hanging the ball up outside off or even wider. According to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball data, he has bowled 62 balls around that line, grabbing nine wickets and conceding 81 runs.
Santner’s wiles, in particular, were key to New Zealand pinning England down at the Westpac Stadium in the second T20I. Chris Jordan had shellacked Sodhi for four successive sixes and then cracked Lockie Ferguson over mid-off for four, threatening a late jailbreak. England were needing 49 off 30 balls when Southee tossed the ball over to his main man Santner. After his first ball was sent over extra-cover for four, Santner responded strongly by having Jordan holing out with a nifty drop in pace. Game over for England.
“Chris Jordan was hitting it pretty well there at the end,” Santner said at the post-match press conference. “When you bowl slow as a spinner, I guess you’ve quite a fine margin – you can be swept square or pulled square. You try to hit a couple in the [block]hole and mix it up. You try not to be too predictable and it was nice to get that wicket and go from there.”
Speaking to Radio Sport, Santner said that the wickets of big-hitters like Morgan and Jordan gave him extra pleasure. “They’re one of the best T20 sides at the moment and the way they like to play T20 cricket is to come pretty hard and that’s what they do whether you’re taking wickets or not. It’s one of things that even if you get a wicket, you’ve got to be on top of your game because the English can come hard and put you under pressure. And the best way to stall momentum is to take wickets throughout.”
All told, Santner has bagged 20 T20I wickets in 2019 – the most among bowlers from Full Member nations in the shortest format. This time last year, Santner was recovering from a knee surgery, wondering if he could prove his fitness in time for the World Cup. He, ultimately, made it to the UK and almost helped New Zealand win the tournament. Then, he almost helped New Zealand win the T20I series against England. If he keeps up his form, Santner could prove more effective on the larger grounds in Australia by this time next year and could (actually) help New Zealand win a World Cup.