It is the morning after New Zealand qualified for the T20 World Cup semi-finals by pipping the pre-tournament favourites, India, to second spot in their Super 12s group, and Mitchell Santner is heading out to play golf. This will surprise nobody who knows him – after all, he describes himself in his Instagram bio as a part-time cricketer and full-time golfer – but perhaps his ability to turn off and switch his attention to a different kind of white ball at this of all moments illustrates how comfortable his team have become with major-tournament success.
They are making a habit of playing their way into the serious end of the sport’s most important competitions. New Zealand have reached the last four of the last four 50-over World Cups – and the last two finals – were 2016 Twenty20 semi-finalists, 2021 World Test champions, and are continuing their run of multiformat form by shining once again in the United Arab Emirates.
“To win the Test stuff was pretty special, our first major trophy, but obviously we don’t want to stop there,” Santner says. “With the current setup and the current team, everyone’s got that belief that we can beat anyone on our day – and we’ve shown that.
“Obviously I think we always go into these tournaments kind of as the underdogs, but we can bank those experiences, keep doing the little things and think about that stuff down the road. We can’t get caught up in that during the tournament, but maybe at some point we’ll think: ‘Shit, that was a pretty good effort, lads.’ The last few years have been pretty good for us in terms of beating big teams in big events so we just keep doing what we’re doing and not try to change a hell of a lot.”
At the last 20-over World Cup, in 2016, Santner had just turned 24 and was new to the New Zealand side: their opening game against India in Nagpur was just his sixth T20 international. He marked it with what remains his finest bowling performance in the format, taking four wickets for just 11 runs with Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni among his victims. The Black Caps went on to lose to England in the last four, and the theme of beating India before losing to England continued at the 50-over World Cup in 2019. They will attempt another repeat when they face Eoin Morgan’s side in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
“I don’t think 2019 will come up much,” he says of the ludicrously dramatic ODI World Cup final at Lord’s. “Obviously it was pretty heartbreaking at the time. Everyone played it pretty well, but inside they were probably feeling different, wanting to show some emotion. In terms of the game itself it was pretty special. We were unfortunate to be on the losing side but we hadn’t made a lot of finals before so it was all new.
“This is a different challenge, a different format, and we bank those experiences and try to be one better. We’ll do our scouting, put all the plans in place, and then just try to execute that as best we can on the day. If it works, outstanding, and if it doesn’t, it is what it is. I think we can’t look too much into the past. This is a different English side on a different surface.”
It is a more different English side than they might have anticipated, with Jofra Archer, Ben Stokes and Jason Roy, who all started that 2019 final, among a string of key players ruled out through injury. “They’ll still be a very good side and tough to beat, no doubt,” Santner says. “Even without some of those guys they’ve come out flying and played some very good cricket. Tymal Mills and now Roy’s a pretty big blow, but they’ll probably just send Jonny Bairstow to the top and look as strong as ever. I think the balance of the English squad at the moment is massive, they bat all the way down and they’ve got the firepower with the bowlers as well. The wicket looks pretty good, so it’s going to be tough.”
Santner was part of the Chennai Super Kings side that won the Indian Premier League in the UAE just before the World Cup started, though he never actually got a game and New Zealand’s final group match, against Afghanistan, was the first time he had played in Abu Dhabi. His two overs cost 27 runs – another experience to bank. “I guess you try to leave it behind and move on,” he says. “I think length is very important in Abu Dhabi, with it skidding on and not being a lot of turn, so as a spin unit you have to be on.”
Right now, however, he is very much off. “Getting away from the game is important,” he says. “Then when it’s time to turn on for the semi-final you can switch on easily. If you’re not up for an ICC world event, well … I guess this is the pinnacle.”
It is one his side have got used to climbing, and they have new peaks in their sights.