For a country with a population under five million, New Zealand’s prowess on the sporting stage has always appeared to be disproportionate. The country has produced several Olympic champions in rowing, sailing, canoeing and athletics and is a force in team sports such as rugby and cricket. Mitchell Santner, the New Zealand left-arm spinner, believes the country’s outdoors culture has played a key role in its sporting success.
“I guess we are very fortunate in having a lot of space to run around. We play a lot of sports growing up, which is a culture. I did the same. I tried to play everything I could,” Santner tells The Indian Express.
“Although cricket was my kind of No. 1 sport, I started taking it seriously when I was 16 or 17. I played golf, soccer, tried my hand at rugby, but I was quite small at school, so it didn’t work out well. I was on the swimming team also. Playing different sports at a younger age benefitted me as a professional cricketer.”
WTC win a boost for NZ cricket
In a country where cricket is way behind the All Blacks in terms of popularity, the World Test Championship (WTC) win against India has given the sport a boost.
“Winning the WTC was pretty special for cricket in our country. The conditions in Southampton were in our favour, but it was still an outstanding effort from the boys to win it. It was our first major title. It came after the heartbreaks of making it into the (World Cup) final of 2015, drawing the final of 2019. This time we went on to do one better and finally won the title,” says Santner.
“If you talk to some of the former players from years ago, winning an ICC trophy was never on their radar. But with the kind of depth we have now, winning the title has become our top-most priority.
“We have been close to winning a couple of more titles. Black Caps are one of the best sides in the world now, and it will drive the next generations to pick up cricket. In the past few years, with the kind of results the team is producing, there is a shift in cricket in New Zealand. A lot of people are watching cricket, enjoying cricket; that also comes with the expectation of doing well.”
“The fan culture in New Zealand is nowhere near India or Pakistan. But post the 2019 World Cup final, there is a lot of hype about cricket. People are talking cricket on the streets. Cricket is definitely growing in New Zealand.”
Albeit it comprises just six teams, Santner credits the Kiwi domestic cricket system for the all the talent coming through to the national team. “At the moment, we are fortunate to have some outstanding players in the team; some are waiting in the wings for their opportunities. We have got good depth, and credit goes to the domestic system. Especially in the last 5-6 years, the depth has increased immensely. Lots of good cricketers are trying to make it through,” says Santner.
“The level of competition is very high at the domestic level. So it keeps you on your toes if you are in the team.”
The underdogs tag
Before any ICC tournament, New Zealand have always been called the underdogs. They are never the firm favourites to win world titles, but they often end up having a great run. Santner believes the underdogs tag is one of the reasons behind New Zealand’s consistency in ICC events.
“We kind of like the underdogs tag going into global tournaments. So as a team, we try and stay away from the pre-tournament hype. We try to keep it very simple, back our plans. Our strategy is to take it one game at a time, and it is working in the last few ICC events,” explains Santner.
“I think in the last 5-6 years what has changed is that we focus a lot on preparation and planning before any major tournament. What we have seen in recent ICC events is that different guys are standing up in different matches, which is quite outstanding. We saw that in the (T20 World Cup) semi-final match against England; Daryl Mitchell’s knock and his partnership with James Neesham turned things around for us.
“Our philosophy is always ‘team first.’ We try to take out the selfish side. Everyone plays for the same goal. You can see the results of the last few years, and hopefully it will continue.”
Losing World Cup finals
New Zealand have lost three World Cup finals in the past six years, but Santner feels they are getting closer to winning. “Yes, we have lost a couple of finals in the last few years, but if you are putting yourself in those positions consistently, that itself is a massive achievement too. Hopefully, we will get that coveted trophy at some stage in the near future.”
Playing under Dhoni and Williamson
Apart from his New Zealand captain Kane Williamson, Santner has also played under MS Dhoni for Chennai Super Kings in the IPL. He calls them two of the calmest guys in cricket, but with different leadership styles.
“Dhoni is a very instinctive captain. He has captained in a lot of games. He has been in tricky situations a lot. He just has the knack of knowing what will happen in the game. He will give you pretty good views from behind the stumps. It’s quite awesome to be involved with CSK for the last four years and to play under one of the greatest captains and players of our time.
“On the other hand, Kane is someone who does a lot of planning beforehand. He is very relaxed and calm. It helps you as a player when you are under the pump.”
Leading New Zealand
Santner has been stand-in captain for New Zealand in three T20Is, most recently against India in Kolkata. He says watching the likes of Brendon McCullum, Dhoni and Kane Willamson from close quarters has helped him.
“I have been lucky enough to play under Brendon, Kane and MS over the years. You note down stuff from your captains and try to implement it when you lead the team. If I manage to pick up a few stuffs from their rulebooks, I will do fine as a captain.”
Santner feels exciting times are ahead with New Zealand’s home international cricket to be streamed live on the Amazon Prime Video OTT platform. “Amazon Prime Video is a big company in the global market, and it’s exciting from our point of view. Pretty excited to see how it unfolds,” he signs off.