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The rise of Santner the Batsman

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Mitchell_Santner_New_Zealand_Cricket_all-rounderWhat happens when a legend retires from international Cricket?

They leave behind a void which is enormous, in terms of the skills, balance and experience they used to offer to the team. More importantly, their influence and the impact of their presence goes missing.

When a legend like Daniel Vettori retired from international cricket, he left behind a big void to fill in the New Zealand team. Surprisingly, the Kiwis had a like-for-like replacement ready in Mitchell Santner.

Santner was similar in almost every respect to Vettori—a tall and wily lad who batted left handed and bowled left arm orthodox. The only differences between them were the bespectacled appearance, the curly blonde hair and Vettori’s vast experience. Pundits had already started touting Santner as a player with the potential to be greater than Vettori, thanks to his better batting and ability to turn the ball more than his predecessor.

Vettori had improved his batting as his career with New Zealand progressed. Although his value as a batsman was tremendous in Test cricket, he was always a bowler first when playing in the limited overs formats.

But the Kiwi selectors were extremely confident of Santner’s superior batting abilities from the very beginning. That was the main reason why he started off his career with New Zealand playing as an all-rounder batting mostly at numbers six and seven.

He made an impact with the bat immediately, playing some useful cameos in his debut ODI series against England. His innings of 44 off just 19 deliveries in the fourth ODI at Nottingham gave a glimpse of his big hitting abilities for the first time. He was particularly lethal against the spinners, as he picked up all their variations and smashed them all around the park.

He went on to make his Test debut the same year in November at Adelaide against Australia. Although he couldn’t produce big scores, he showed promise with the bat once again, scoring 31 and 45 in his debut Test, batting at number six once again. It looked like Santner the batsman had made his arrival at the big stage when he played a fighting knock of 71 off 179 deliveries against a rampant Indian spin attack at Kanpur in September 2016, during the seventh Test of his career.

After that, he could not produce any meaningful performances in the middle order as he kept getting dismissed cheaply both in ODIs and Tests, and he was pushed down to number eight in order to strengthen the middle order with specialist batsmen. He managed an innings of 73 against Bangladesh at Wellington in 2017 batting at number eight. But that turned out to be a one off batting performance once again.

It had started looking like Santner was only going to end up as only a bowler, as he was continuously impressive with his bowling, but failed to make it count when it came to performing with the bat.

However, the ongoing ODI series between New Zealand and England has shown that the 26-year old has matured a lot as a batsman. His scores in the series read 45*, 63* and 41 at an average of 149 and a strike rate of 112.03. He batted at number eight on each of those occasions when New Zealand were in trouble. He won them the first ODI almost single handedly as he smashed an unbeaten 45 off just 27 deliveries. It looked impossible for the Kiwis to win that match as all their recognized batsmen were back in the hut, but it was Santner’s fabulous innings that got them through.

The Kiwi middle order once again failed to click in the second ODI and it was Santner’s unbeaten knock of 63 that once again helped New Zealand post a respectable total of 223 on the board. And when the middle order disappointed in their run chase of 235 in the third ODI, it was Santner once again who provided Williamson able support at the other end, stitching together a stand of 96 runs for the eighth wicket.

He contributed 41 in that partnership and looked like taking the game away from England, clubbing the ball to the boundary whenever the required run rate crept up. Unfortunately, he was run out as Mark Wood managed to deflect a straight drive from Williamson onto the wicket at the non-striker’s end, catching Santner short of his crease. New Zealand fell short of the target by just 5 runs as the task proved to be too much for Williamson alone.

Santner showed a calm and composed approach in all those three innings. He looked at his best as far as his game awareness was concerned. While most of the Kiwi middle order batsmen looked uncomfortable against the English spinners, he read them to perfection and wasn’t troubled by their variations at all. He showed his batting prowess against the spinners and simultaneously showed a significant improvement in the way he played the pacers. His improved technique against the quicks has given him the edge that his batting always needed.

It is now time for the Kiwi think tank to recognize his improved batting and use him as the all-round option they always wanted him to be. He is already the leader of New Zealand’s spin attack in all formats. His batting average of 20.00 at number six and seven positions combined may not speak in favour of him as compared to his average of 35.46 at number eight. But his statistics higher up the order are a thing of the past now.

New Zealand should really think about giving him an extended run in the middle order once again if they want to turn him into a world class player. And, hopefully, a legend as well.

 

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Prasenjit, a techie by profession and Sports writer by passion, hails from the 'City of Joy'-Kolkat...

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