Mitchell Santner - CSK's carefully concealed ace being unfurled at just the right time

Santner could be a key bowler for CSK in what remains of this season (Pic Credits: BCCI)
Santner could be a key bowler for CSK in what remains of this season (Pic Credits: BCCI)

A left-arm spinner with a T20I bowling average of just over 22, an economy rate of 7.11, with 104 wickets to his name in 100 matches, also capable of affecting matches with the bat and in the field – an ace that any team would want to have in their pack.

The IPL, though, is one of its kind. Here, reputations matter little and high-profile players often sit out, either because they do not fit the team, or because of the four-foreigner rule.

Mitchell Santner falls under that category. A case can be made that he is not hyped up as much as some of the others who regularly fail to find a spot in IPL playing elevens, but there is no denying his quality, and what he brings to the table.

The issue for him, though, is that he has been at the Chennai Super Kings (CSK) for years. A franchise that happens to have a player just like Santner. Arguably a little better, and perhaps with more pedigree than the Kiwi (Ravindra Jadeja). Most cricketers, when put into such circumstances, would have sulked and tried to force a move away. Not Santner.

His skill, of course, is top-drawer, but his character is what has endeared him to New Zealand fans and CSK whenever he has stepped onto the pitch wearing yellow.

Mitchell Santner was exceptional in Dharamsala last Sunday

As it happens, the franchise’s faithful got a glimpse of that last Sunday. The five-time champions, playing their 11th game of the season, handed Santner a start. They threw him into the deep end of new-ball bowling, with only a middling total to defend. Not only did the Kiwi swim, but he also ensured that CSK are now afloat, retaining control of their playoff destiny.

His role as a new-ball bowler was particularly interesting, given Deepak Chahar may not feature anymore this season. Matheesha Pathirana and Mustafizur Rahman are also unavailable, and Richard Gleeson has been more effective at the death in various T20 franchise leagues. Simarjeet Singh, who caught the imagination in Dharamsala, also seems more adept without any field restrictions.

Santner, thus, might have to fill in as a new-ball bowler frequently. Knowing this was a possibility, he already seemed to have developed a solid weapon in his arsenal.

Against the Punjab Kings, the left-arm spinner bowled an arm-ball that kept swerving back into the right-handed batters. Prabhsimran Singh, in particular, failed to come to grips with it, while Shashank Singh was also not able to line it up.

Then, to mix things up, he also bowled the conventional delivery, tossing it up and then flattening it out to ensure the batters could not just play through the line.

In the middle overs, when Shashank tried to take Santner down, the CSK spinner was just too good. Despite being hit for a boundary, he threw up the bait outside off, enticing Shashank into a miscue, which led to him being caught at long-on.

While his variations were enterprising to watch, it was his mentality that was just as refreshing (if not more). This was a spinner playing his first game of the season, and yet, it felt like he was waiting for this moment all along.

This also highlights why he has such a tidy record in the IPL, despite only playing 16 matches so far. An economy rate of 6.69 is remarkable, and is, in fact, the second-best among all bowlers who have bowled a minimum of 300 balls since IPL 2019.

Fourteen wickets in 16 matches is not a bad tally either, and he tends to chip in with the bat too, as he showed against the Rajasthan Royals in 2019 – a game that is infamously remembered for MS Dhoni walking onto the pitch to express dissent over a decision.

So, Santner can be a match-winner. New Zealand most definitely know it, and somewhere deep down, CSK know it too. Factors elsewhere, though, have meant that he has, in almost all of his seasons at CSK, been a backup player. An ace CSK have felt comfortable having up their sleeve, but rarely plays that card until it is necessary.

But needs must, and now, CSK need someone like Santner in their line-up, especially with wickets across the country tiring

The spate of injuries is largely why CSK need Santner. It is, however, also down to where the franchise currently finds itself, amid a mid-table logjam and wanting to emerge through it unscathed. In such situations, the skill matters, but it is the character that ultimately clinches it.

Santner, throughout his international career and for CSK in the IPL, has shown that. The mindset to not shirk away from responsibility, and to continuously evolve so that his style of bowling does not become outdated.

Nothing else explains him having the second-best economy rate in the IPL since 2019 (minimum 300 balls bowled), having an impact whenever he plays, and remaining at the franchise even through mega-auctions.

This is the usual Santner season in the IPL. Not playing much, but expected to leave an imprint. The good thing about it all is that Santner knows it too. He is aware of what is required, and there is, more importantly, no hue and cry about his circumstances.

That is what is needed from someone who does not play regularly. And that is what, more than anything else, shows the quality that Santner has, and how he remains capable of shaping an otherwise stop-start CSK campaign.

Like an ace, creatively and craftily concealed, to be unfurled at just the right moment.

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Edited by Samya Majumdar
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