When Mark Waugh criticised Mitchell Santner for his poor showing in the MCG Test, the line to mark the premature end of the ‘S’ experiment in Tests, there was criticism from the other end that he is still New Zealand’s best spinner in Tests.
In a country of 48 lakh people, roughly half of what Mumbai’s population is, New Zealand have struggled to find loads of players who are ready to step up for the International challenge. Despite all the odds favouring against them, they have got one of the best sides in the Test format, ranked fourth amidst all the mess. Largely, it has been due to their batting unit - Ross Taylor, Kane Williamson, BJ Watling and their bowling unit. Despite the gaga over their bowling unit, their spin department has always lacked a character and a leader since the bearded days of Daniel Vettori. With Vettori, not only did New Zealand have a character, a leader, they had an able bowler, a handy batsman and a witty personality.
Vettori made his Test debut in 1997 and never looked back until 2014 when age came calling for the still-young left-arm spinner. A jump, shimmy and 362 wickets was what New Zealand was looking for as his replacement. Moreso, until then, they paid less head to Vettori’s batting exploits, with the veteran scoring 4531 runs in his time at the crease, mostly at No.6 and 7. Yet his impact on the team was surreal, the way he batted was not less than any top-order batsman. New Zealand have always been known for their pace bowlers and that seemed to have changed when Vettori stepped in. However, it was back to square one when he took the leave and then stepped in Mitchell Santner.
Well, for starters, a left-arm spinner, a decent batsman should have ticked two of the most important boxes for New Zealand. However, Santner and New Zealand’s experiment with the spinner in the longest format did not tick. Neither did Santner pick up wickets nor did he solidify the lower order, he brought all of his skills and mixed it like a messed up cake mix. And, the result was a cake that was not edible, leaving sour aftertaste like a cola cake. In his debut year, a young Santner picked up six wickets in three games and by the time he hit his peak in 2016, he was with 27 against his name.
However, is 27 wickets enough for a long two years in the Test format? Trying to build upon his reputation, Santner was picked in the side in 2017 and from there it went all backwards. Confidence-less Santner continued to march on in the series against Australia, where his returns were marginal in contrast to Colin de Grandhomme. There, we reckoned that New Zealand’s test experiment was a failure and there is no one else to blame but Santner, himself.
June 9, 2015, Santner made his debut for New Zealand in the ODI format in Birmingham, the same ground where the Indian spinners struggled. And, he too, is human after all as he struggled in his debut against England. However, it was his T20I debut in Manchester which gave New Zealand the hope, the spring in life. Both of them resulted in a loss for New Zealand, however, they were victorious with the emergence of Santner. His craft of bowling with the new ball, combined with his variations with the ball made him a lethal weapon in the limited-overs format. Slowly yet steadily, he went on to make a name for himself in the T20 format, becoming the No.1 bowler in the process.
In 43 innings, he picked up 52 wickets, with 35 coming in familiar conditions. However, ask all the spinners on how it is to bowl in New Zealand and they will all utter unanimously ‘tough,’ and it is exactly that. In a country where the boundaries are as big as the inner-circle in other countries, being a spinner is next to bowling with a wet ball in India. He excelled, and moreso, became one of the best spinners in the limited-overs format, including ODIs where he picked up 69 wickets.
All the glory and glitz is restricted to the limited-overs format, while in Test he laid the ordinary eggs, unlike the golden ones. It was not the first time New Zealand mixed formats and it will not be the last time they do, but it isn’t their fault for the country is half of Mumbai and talent - a quarter of the city. Their hands restricted much against their own will, playing Santner in the Test series against Australia.
Since then, he’s played five games in the T20 format, where he has picked three wickets at an economy rate of 8.4, conceding nearly 168 runs in his 20 overs. In ODIs, he’s gone wicketless in the two games against India, not only risking his confidence but also leading to doubts about his influence on the team. And finally, with that, the door has been shown the right direction, kicked open to send the spinner fleetingly away to get back in form.
Meanwhile, "a spinning top" was still on the table and New Zealand fans were itching to see Daniel Vettori play in the series against India in 2020.