A rare New Zealand spin conundrum hinging on William Somerville's experience
William Somerville, the Blackcaps off-spinner, could have been one of the firsts to celebrate the New Year had he been home in Auckland. But he would have little to complain about having been called up to the New Zealand Test squad ahead of the New Year’s Test at the SCG.
Kickstarting 2020, three things are certain; Neil Wagner’s short-ball barrage to Matthew Wade, Tim Paine’s inveterate chatter behind the stumps and Steve Smith’s exaggerated post-impact shenanigans. However, with the scene at the SCG set to belong to the sedulous yet the secondary contingent of every team- the spinners- Somerville’s inclusion in New Zealand playing XI is also more or less certain.
Somerville will be seen as a senior spin bowler, despite only three Test appearances so far, largely due to his vast experience playing here for New South Wales. It is a rare occurrence when a visiting team’s player knows the conditions better than a few of the home side.
A little over three years ago on December 27th 2016, he picked his first Big Bash wicket playing for the Sydney Sixers in front of a packed SCG crowd. Notably, he played 12 first-class matches for New South Wales including five at the SCG where he took 23 wickets at 20.69.
Having played and trained alongside Somerville, Nathan Lyon firmly believes he could be a force to reckon with given his admirable skill-set and familiarity with the conditions on offer. "He's a lovely guy, he goes up the back of the ball," he said in a media interaction. "I've trained with him a fair bit being part of the NSW squad together for a few years there. He'll be a big challenge for us. He gets a fair amount of bounce, has a great record at the SCG, he loves bowling there. He'll be a different challenge for us and good one for our batters."
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On the opposite side, Australia will be led by Nathan Lyon with Queensland leggie Mitchell Swepson in line for a Test debut. Interestingly, if he does play, it will be at the venue where his mentor, a certain Shane Warne, made his first and last bow in Test cricket.
In the Kiwi camp, as Somerville prepares to send down deliveries from the Paddington End, the question lingers over who will share the spin-bowling duties with him in tandem from the Randwick End should the conditions demand two spinners in action.
Half of the Twitterati squalor throws up Todd Astle’s name over Mitchell Santner’s for variety’s sake in a sense of lost hope trying to make sense over left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel’s exclusion.
Only Ajaz Patel played all the Tests in UAE and Sri Lanka i.e on spin-conducive tracks. Having picked 22 wickets in seven Tests, he remains their most prolific spinner in the past year in the longest format. Ideally, a Somerville-Patel duo would have made perfect sense at the SCG. However, Santner made promising strides having recovered from a lengthy injury layoff and made significant impact against the visiting English team last month, both with the bat and ball.
Given their current batting woes, as much as New Zealand need runs from the top seven, they also need wickets from their frontline spinners. Santner’s figures of 1-250 across the first two Tests make for attritional viewing against those of Lyon’s 10-227. Hence the talks of Todd Astle’s inclusion is doing the rounds. Either way, the decision comes with its own perils.
Astle, with 330 First Class wickets and over 4300 runs, does seem like a like-for-like replacement should Santner be dropped but averages only 14 with the bat across four sporadic Test appearances. With the series already conceded, it is worth a punt to play Todd Astle, who being a wrist spinner, can look to get maximum purchase off the pitch.
Of course, such a decision would require the management to place trust in the all-round abilities of Somerville and Astle but probably taking a punt can pay dividends as the side cries out for a change in the spin bowling department with Wagner and Southee bearing quite a heavy workload in the series.
Come the morning of the Test, Gary Stead and Kane Williamson will have an interesting toss-up between retaining Santner's experience & accuracy and Astle's wrist spin variety and mystery.
There is something attractive about taking risks. It either pays off or clears a web of doubts.