Cricket: Ace of cool has desire to perform well

By David Leggat

No-fuss talent just getting on with his game, writes David Leggat.
Mitchell Santner
Mitchell Santner

The question was asked the night of New Zealand's defeat in the first day-night cricket test in Adelaide in December.

How are allrounders Corey Anderson and Jimmy Neesham coming along? Both were getting over back injuries, Anderson's suffered in England six months earlier; Neesham's during the first test at Brisbane a fortnight before.

Both had just returned to cricket, but only as batsmen. How did the skipper see the pecking order?

Brendon McCullum's answer threw light on how the hierarchy viewed the allrounder situation. Yes they were progressing, albeit some way off full engagement.

"[But] Jeez it's pretty hard to ignore Mitchell Santner as well," he added.

And so it's proved. The Northern Districts player has been all but ever-present since that Adelaide test, missing only a solitary T20 match against Sri Lanka at Mt Maunganui and an ODI against Pakistan and the two home tests against Australia because of a foot injury.

Santner is a tall, left-arm spinner and highly capable left-hand batsman. Incidentally he was also a scratch golfer a couple of years ago and still plays to about a 2 handicap.

Anderson and Neesham are both left-hand batsmen too, but both medium pace. There's a point of difference.

However, had Santner developed physically at a quicker rate as a teenager this story might not have been written.

"I only started bowling spin at 15," he said. "I used to bowl little mediums but was far too short to gather any pace."

It raises the question that had Santner - the older brother to Olivia and Elliot - found success with his "little mediums" nine years ago, would he be where he is today?

He reckons he first picked up a bat aged six. There were the Friday night games for youngsters at Seddon Park to be enjoyed and at 12, Santner was in ND's under-14 team. But as he put it, "I wasn't really one of those schoolboy superstars".

Indeed he was not a regular through the age groups for ND. Small issues such as having his appendix out interrupted that.

He spent three years in the Hamilton Boys High first XI alongside school contemporary Scott Kuggeleijn.

The coach then is still deferentially referred to as "Mr Kuggeleijn", aka Chris, briefly a New Zealand international in the last 1980s.

"He made the team gel. We had quite a handy team under his guidance and he was always big on playing cricket, having fun and just enjoying yourself," Santner said.

Another solid influence on Santner was former ND left arm spinner Cliff Dickeson, who took 282 wickets in 90 first-class games for the province at a distinctly handy average of 29.

"I still do work on a little bit of stuff with him when I get the chance."

Santner is a good example of a player who might not get a look in at a higher level if judgments were solely made on statistics.

Even now, his first-class marks from 29 matches are a batting average of 29.34 and 31 wickets at 52.64, not exactly eye-popping numbers.

But New Zealand coach Mike Hesson had tabs on the young man with a demeanour so laid back it earned him the nickname "Flatline" from ND teammates.

Hesson noticed his bowling about two-and-a-half years ago during a net session.

"I certainly liked the revolutions he put on the ball, got good shape and looked to dip the ball. That was something that alerted us," Hesson said.

"Then I saw him play a Plunket Shield match in Dunedin on a tough wicket. The way he scored off the back foot, in tough times, and adapted to the conditions certainly showed he had plenty of skill."

There was a trip to England last year for limited-overs internationals before the big break, a debut in the third, memorable test against Australia in Adelaide, the game's first pink-ball test.

Santner nervelessly dispatched his first ball to the point boundary off Peter Siddle. He struck five other boundaries in a confident display, getting to 31, then following it with 45 in a lowscoring test.

He was second top, then top scorer for New Zealand in the match.

Add in a couple of wickets - on the debit side a bad miss of a skier to mid wicket - and this was a highly encouraging debut.

He had an early taste of Australian hospitality, getting a gobful from Mitchell Starc after dismissing him in the first innings.

Offspinner Nathan Lyon greeted him with "are you nervous?".

"I was like 'yeah', and that kind of stopped the convo."

The dream was fulfilled and since then there has been a cementing of his place within the setup.

Santner acknowledged the importance, certainly psychologically, of those first runs and wickets at Adelaide. They brought with them a sense of belonging, knowledge that he can foot it with the best.

Forget that drop in Adelaide; there is an athleticism to Santner in the field and an ease of movement. The air of cool about that movement masks a deep desire to do well.

"I still get nerves and I'm sure everyone does, but you try not to show it," he says.

"I try and keep it pretty simple with what I'm trying to do. That relaxed demeanour, it's something I've always done I guess and try to stick to."

He doesn't really buy into the allrounder debate.

His philosophy might best be summed up as: do your best and see how the chips fall.

"If the results go your way, if you're scoring runs and taking wickets that's good. There's no real rivalry

"Obviously you want to be playing and I guess I'm a little different because I'm bowling spin."

Hesson reckons from his first ball in test cricket "he looked like he belonged".

"We're lucky we've got a few [allrounders]. It's really important for Mitch to keep developing both aspects. [In batting] he's still got plenty of growth in all forms.

"One-day cricket he's certainly nailed; test cricket he's still got to find his feet and find a tempo that suits the way he's played."

Off the park, when he's wearing his glasses, Santner gives off a studious appearance, perhaps befitting a young man a handful of papers away from completing his degree in mechanical engineering.

That requires a problem-solving mind, a way to make things work. So it should be no surprise that Hesson describes Santner as "very analytical".

That manifests itself in terms of feedback in the team room - "Don't give too much. You make sure you've thought about what you say, otherwise you could possibly over-analyse.

"He's a quick learner and that's why he's adapted so quickly to the game. He's worked out key things that are important, and one of them's trusting his game."

Where others in the dressing may be more overt in their body language or their actions, Santner "just goes about his work rather than make too much fuss", Hesson added.

You get the feeling Hesson likes that too.

- NZ Herald

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