With pretty much every T20 league that will be played out from now to a few months before the T20 World Cup next year aiding in carving out a roadmap for national teams in shaping the strongest T20 squad possible, the 15th edition of the Super Smash underway in New Zealand is expected to be no different.
The Blackcaps are more or less a settled T20 unit, with a selection headache imminent for selectors ahead of the global tournament next year. While the Super Smash will look to throw up more prospects, the T20I series against India, Australia, and the West Indies will provide an opportunity to fine-tune the combinations and nail down sufficient backups too.
The race for the keeper’s spot remains to be the most keenly contested berth in the squad and either Glenn Phillips and Tim Seifert will undoubtedly take centre stage in the coming months.
On the spin-bowling front, the spots have been nailed down. Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi are a certainty with Todd Astle being the front-runner as the backup spinner after a strong show in Sri Lanka.
However, barring any injuries, the conditions in Australia would not demand a fourth spinner but if a replacement becomes an absolute need of the hour, given the fast-paced nature of the game, Central Stags’ left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel is quietly chipping away with consistent performances back home.
Despite being pigeonholed as a Test specialist, he is set to throw his hat in the ring being well into his seventh domestic season.
With teams back from a rest following a few taxing rounds of the Plunket Shield and the Ford Trophy fixtures, the Stags started off their title defence against last year’s finalists Northern Knights with a win that saw Ajaz leading the bowling charge with figures of 3-21.
Sportskeeda caught up with Ajaz Patel in an exclusive chat as the 31-year-old speaks about the upcoming title defence, the challenges of the T20 format and a lot more.
The preparation has been good. We have had 2 camps in Napier leading up to the campaign and the boys are well rested after a lengthy break and excited about getting back into some cricket.
His moment of glory came last year on Test debut against Pakistan after he picked a 5-wicket haul to spearhead the Kiwis to a thrilling four-run victory. As New Zealand eventually won the series 2-1, Ajaz finished as their leading wicket-taker with 13 scalps. His Test heroics have overshadowed the fact that his debut for the Kiwis came in the T20I series that preceded it.
While T20 is a different ball game, Ajaz understands what changes both the formats demand and a strong show is bound to get the selectors to ponder over another shot at him in the T20s.
The main change are the lengths that you need to bowl in T20 and also staying ahead of the batsmen. You have to make subtle changes constantly whereas in Test cricket, it is a lot more about patience and bowling your best ball constantly.
The Stags have contested the final twice in the last two seasons but have won only won once. The competition is set to be fierce this year than ever, with a majority of NZ’s white-ball stars available for the entirety of the tournament.
Those away with the Test squad in Australia could return for the playoffs should their team qualify. Ajaz believes that his squad has the talent to clinch the title yet again.
I certainly think we’ve got the team to be able to do it but we just need to take it one game at a time.
With shorter boundaries on offer, having a settled bowling depth is paramount to a team’s success and the Stags are well-known to round it off with a blend of youth and experience. Their fast bowling and medium pace options include Seth Rance, Adam Milne, Willem Ludick, Ben Wheeler, Ryan Watson and Kieran Noema-Barnett.
As for the spinners, Ajaz is their frontline spinner with a rookie spin-twin Jayden Lennox. George Worker can also roll his arm over and he completes a trio of left-arm spinners.
Lennox, with only two List A games under his belt, remains a lesser-known entity but is set for a debut at some point in the tournament. Ajaz is particularly excited to watch him bowl and has gone on to hail him as “the one to look out for.”
On the batting front, Tom Bruce and George Worker lend International experience with Christian Leopard, Dane Cleaver and Noema-Barnett expected to bolster the batting order.
The Super Smash has often competed with the Big Bash League in terms of viewership and overseas players availability, it is mildly surprising that the former will have no overseas players in this edition as opposed to the BBL having big names like Dale Steyn, Rashid Khan, AB de Villiers and Alex Hales on show.
The Super Smash has signed big names in the past seasons namely Chris Jordan, Sam Curran, James Vince and Ben Laughlin. The move not to sign any this year might raise a few eyebrows and may lead one to wonder as to how it can affect the local players who might miss out on gaining valuable time learning from them in sharing the dressing room.
However, Ajaz sees a silver lining and quips that it may allow the fresh faces to get some game time.
I think it’s an initiative from the teams to give their local players more experience in the format. I think it can be good as the biggest learning come from playing the game itself. But no doubt having a good pro makes a big difference too with the experience they add.
Then again, there are also lot of white ball players available this year, so there will be quite a strong competition for all the spots in the side.
With senior pros Colin Munro, Martin Guptill, Ish Sodhi, Daryl Mitchell, Corey Anderson and Tim Seifert available for the whole tournament, the stakes are high as ever.
With short boundaries and flat pitches, their presence could certainly help gain traction in a busy cricketing period. So what sets the new season of the Super Smash apart from its competitors?
Ajaz has the answer.
It’s quite fast-paced and the greatest thing about this competition is all teams have strong players capable of changing the game so it’s about being on your game every game of the tournament. Should be an exciting competition.