A left-arm spinner throwing darts. If it were a cryptic crossword clue, Ravindra Jadeja would fit the description.
However, in New Zealand’s team meeting room at the ITC Maurya in New Delhi on Tuesday— their first working day of the month-and-a-half-long tour during which they play three Tests and five ODIs — the man taking a shy at the real dartboard is Mitchell Santner. Though Jadeja is there, too — No.15 on the whiteboard on the side which has the names of the Indian squad members written on it.
And he is there on Santer’s mind as well. The bespectacled Santner lends his ear as a member of the support staff discusses the threat the Indian poses.
They perhaps are aware he has taken a five-for in a Duleep Trophy match less than 50 kilometer away. They surely know what Jadeja did to South Africa last year: 23 scalps in four matches. Santner focuses and shoots. It’s not evident what his aim is, but he narrowly misses ‘15’ on the dartboard sequence.
For the forthcoming series that begins at the Green Park stadium in Kanpur next week, Santner’s goal, and that of New Zealand spin department’s which includes Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig as well, is clear: to go toe-to-toe with the Indian troika of Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin and Amit Mishra. It’s a daunting task, and given that they have a grand total of 88 Test wickets — nine more than what Ashwin alone has taken since the beginning of 2015.
Not many will give them short odds, but there is a quiet confidence in New Zealand coach Mike Hesson’s words. “In the last couple of years, a number of overseas spinners have done well, so we certainly back our spinning group (which is) young and inexperienced but gifted,” says Hesson.
There is quite a bit of truth in it. In the Test series last year, four South African spinners took six four-wicket hauls against Virat Kohli’s men. When England toured India in 2012, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar flummoxed the Indian batsmen and outbowled the home bowlers.
This recent phenomenon owes as much to the eroding skills of Indian batsmen against spin as it does to the rank turners that have been laid out of late — the latter often virtually reducing it to a game of Russian roulette, as India again discovered earlier this year, against New Zealand no less.
In their World T20 opening match in March, New Zealand first surprised everyone by playing three spinners and in a shock of shocks, bowled India out for 79 — their tweakers claiming nine wickets among them. While it was a vicious wicket in Nagpur, New Zealand’s spinners — which included Santner and Sodhi — continued to impress in the remainder of the tournament.
That was with the white Kookaburra and Hesson hopes his players will quickly adapt to the SG for the Test series.
“The challenge for us is firstly in adjusting to the different ball — the SG Test is going to be completely different to what we have been operating with the Kookaburra. So, there is a little bit of change there, a little bit of changing around seam angles, which are different over here than they are in different parts of the world. Even though we are not going to bowl like sub-continental bowlers, we do have to make sure that we find a way to create opportunities. All those three are keen learners of the game and certainly we are going to put a lot of faith in them over the coming weeks.”
The SG balls plus dry tracks can also mean reverse swing in the hands of an expert paceman. New Zealand have Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner, who all bowl well with the old ball. “Certainly there will be element of reverse swing,” Hesson says. “You need to adapt with tactics and selection. As we get to first Test, we need to see the surface. That will be huge factor. It’s a huge component of playing cricket overseas. In abrasive surfaces where there’s not much seam movement, we need to find another way. We are keen to get reverse in legitimate fashion. We have to work on them in coming days.”
In the end, however, on a tour of India your bowlers — spinners or fast bowlers — are expected to do only so much. It’s in the batting department, where the battle is (more often) lost or (less occasionally) won. Kane Williamson, the young New Zealand captain and one of the world’s top batsmen, knows it well.
“India is a tough place to play, particularly, in more recent years where the pitches have been very tricky,” Williamson says. “I guess (when) you throw in world-class spinners, the challenges are very tough but at the same time we see it as a very exciting opportunity. (The) previous series here, certainly spin played a huge part, and at times batting was difficult. So no doubt it will be bit of a scrap (this time around too). We have three very good spinners as well. Playing India at home is one of the toughest challenges. As a team we are excited to get involved.”