Left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner has evolved to become a central part of New Zealand's white-ball set-up and continues to thrive as a fingerspinner in an era dominated by wristspinners. The 28-year old opens up to ESPNcricinfo about what makes him tick, the IPL experience, and working his way back into red-ball cricket.
You've had a terrific run in white-ball cricket in the past couple of years. How do you look back on that?
I guess it's an interesting one. Some of the pitches in New Zealand are quite flat and boundaries are quite short, so you have to vary your pace and try to read the batsman quickly. The IPL [last year] was a cool experience as well. It was the first time for me playing at a ground where it spins more, in Chennai, which is nice because you don't have to do too much. You try and fire it into the wicket and let the wicket do the rest. I guess, for me, it's about trying to adapt to the conditions as early as possible and find what will be the most attacking ball on each surface.
You had a fairly lean run in the Champions Trophy in 2017 in England - just a solitary wicket in three games at an economy rate of 5.61. How did you adapt so well in the World Cup two years later?
It has been a work in progress for me in the last few years. Once you get a little bit tighter to the stumps and use the crease a little bit more - you try to create different angles. I just tried to bowl a lot of stock balls with the odd variation and tried to read the batsman. With the World Cup, there were a couple of wickets that had some turn, which is always nice. You can be more attacking. When the wicket is much flatter, you still want to be attacking, but in slightly different ways. The batsman may come harder at you, so you try to keep it to ones or dots there.
Can you outline the challenges for a spinner while bowling in venues with awkward dimensions like Eden Park?
Eden Park is a very strange ground with a short straight [boundary], and, I guess, the square is slightly bigger, but not massive. So every team that turns up at Eden Park tries to hit the ball straight. As a spinner, you try to pull your length back and try to hit the top of the stumps and try to get it squarer. I tend to throw it wider if the batsman is looking to go straight. It's a difficult ground to play on, but we always get good crowds there and it's a great spectacle.
You have even taken the new ball in T20 cricket. How have you adapted to that role?
In T20 cricket, it can be challenging; you have only two [fielders] out [in the powerplay]. When the ball is new, it tends to swing, so I throw up my arm ball and see if it does swing. Otherwise, you try and skid it into the middle of the wicket. I remember doing it for a couple of games in India as well. There's a little bit more in the wicket there and you get more turn as a fingerspinner. But it's just reading the batsman and the wicket, especially in the top six they tend to come pretty hard. I guess that creates opportunities for wickets as well.
Can you recall any example of how you read a batsman and dismissed him?
It's probably more when I have a feeling that a batsman may charge or run down at me, I throw one wider so that they try to reach it. Even in that Eden Park game, I had a feeling Sam Curran would run [at me], so I almost threw one off the pitch, much wider. Especially in grounds like Eden Park, where they look to hit straight a lot more, you have to be inventive. Then at the SCG, in the recent series against Australia - it was a bigger ground and there was some turn, so you can throw the odd one up and try to get it to spin more. They can't really muscle it for six. If they half-hit it in New Zealand, it can go ten rows back.
Wristspin seems to be the flavour of the season in T20 cricket. How do fingerspinners stay in the game?
A good wristspinner is very hard to hit. I guess, for me, on wickets that turn, you can bowl fast into the wicket and it can be difficult to hit. When it's flat, the subtle variations of a wristspinner can be quite challenging for the batsmen whereas the fingerspinners have to use their pace a bit more, flight, and the crease. Especially in white-ball cricket, you try to use these or cross-seam - anything in your favour. But still, fingerspinners and wristspinners have shown good results, and if you look at the rankings, there are a lot of spinners in the top ten.
Against Fakhar Zaman a couple of years ago, you unleashed the Claw - the left-arm spinner's carrom ball. How did that come about?
I remember we were in India for the Test series in 2016, and [R] Ashwin bowled a few carrom balls and I think he got [Neil] Wagner out with a couple. I just felt like in New Zealand, when a left-hander comes in, you need to be able to make the ball go the other way - something different. I thought I could bring that out and it actually worked pretty well at that time.
But you've managed to keep that variation a mystery since then?
Throughout the World Cup, I had a sore middle finger. It was quite swollen, so I couldn't flick it out and had to put it [the Claw] away. I'm definitely going to bring it out this year. It's one of those where you have to keep bowling it because you're flicking it out. For me, throughout the winter, it's about bowling it the best way I can and try to disguise it better. The way I bowl, my fingers kind of stick up, so it's noticeable for the batsmen. So disguising it better is something I'll work on this winter.
Did the IPL stint with the Chennai Super Kings make you a more rounded white-ball bowler?
Yeah, the IPL, I guess, is the pinnacle of all T20 tournaments and I was pretty excited when I was picked up [in 2018]. There are some world-class spinners in Chennai to talk to and play with - guys like Harbhajan [Singh], who I've watched a lot of, [Ravindra] Jadeja and Imran Tahir as well. When I got injured the first year , I was pretty disappointed, but I was given the opportunity last time around to go and experience it. It's an unbelievable tournament and definitely the best cricket going around in terms of T20 leagues. It was nice to bowl on different pitches to New Zealand.
I've played against MS [Dhoni] a lot, so to share a dressing room with him and talk to him about how he goes about things was awesome. Even guys like Suresh Raina - you watched him from other teams you go with.
You made your IPL debut at Chepauk and struggled to cope with the dew. How did you manage to bounce back from there?
Yeah, that was a tough game. We finished quite late in the New Zealand summer and had to shoot over a day or two before the first game, so we didn't get to experience [the dew] until the game. It was a challenge - we don't have much of it in New Zealand. I felt like I was bowling at almost my toes and it still came out quite full. But after that we trained, putting some water on the ball, putting them in a bucket, and learnt to deal with it. After that, it wasn't probably as bad as that.
Your one-day batting particularly peaked in the home series against England in 2018. Have you focused more on batting in recent years, or is it just the golfer in you turning up and teeing off?
I guess in T20s, you get the golf swing away and hit sixes (laughs). In that series, we lost a few early wickets, so there was actually more time for the guys in the lower order to bat. On a good day, if you're batting at eight, you have only five overs to clear the rope, so it can be tough in that position. Some days, you can get 20 overs to bat and get a decent score and on other days, you get only two overs and try to hit every ball out of the park. You have to adapt to that role and that's how we train.
Do you train differently for T20 batting?
Yes, I think you have to, especially for the difference between red and white ball. Even from one-day cricket to T20 cricket, you still have to hit the gaps from ball one and rotate the strike. And then if you get a bad ball, you try and hit it out of the ground. There's a lot of shape-hitting and power-hitting involved. You try to get yorker practice, slower balls, and stuff like that. For me, it's about having a set, stable base and then reacting from there.
You pulled off a sensational last-ball six off Ben Stokes last year to win a game for the Super Kings in Jaipur. You are called "Flatline" at Northern Districts, but how do you really keep your cool under immense pressure?
It might look like I'm calm on the outside, but definitely not on the inside (laughs). Every time I play a game of that kind of quality, I try to keep it simple. That might come across as I'm really relaxed, which is the way I try to go about my business and keep it level. On bad days, I try and learn from it rather than getting too down about it. That's the thing with international cricket - you are going to have bad days. As long as you are learning from it, you will get better.
What was lockdown life for you like?
Yeah, lockdown has been all right. Things have been pretty quiet. I've been doing some stuff done around the house. Obviously, those [indoor] golf trick shots. I've also been playing a little bit of real golf now, which is nice.
You were recently dropped from the Test side, with the management in favour of a more attacking spin option in Ajaz Patel. Did the omission get to you?
Yeah, it is always a challenge. We played a couple of Tests against England - I got a hundred and a few wickets there. Then we went to Australia, which again is also a challenge. Coming back to New Zealand, I was obviously disappointed [to be dropped against India]. The role of a spinner in Tests in New Zealand has always been to bowl a few overs. I guess they sort of changed the role of a spinner in New Zealand and wanted someone to be really attacking. That's something to work on this winter. I'll try to bowl more overs in red-ball cricket and try to come back that way.
Will your mindset also change when the Plunket Shield begins later this year? Yeah, I think so. Our domestic season will start with the Plunket Shield. I just have to try and be an aggressive bowler. It can be tough at the start because the wicket is usually green. I have to bowl a lot of overs this winter and come into those first few games firing.