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Mitchell Santner becomes New Zealand’s T20I trump card

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The ultra-short boundaries at Eden Park, known as the postage stamp, are mean to the bowlers. They can be even meaner when rain cuts a 20-over series decider into 11 overs. After England’s bowlers suffer at the hands of Martin Guptill and Colin Munro, Eoin Morgan launches the visitors’ chase with a hat-trick of boundaries. Sam Curran then goes one better, clubbing Scott Kuggeleijn for four boundaries in a row. Jonny Bairstow, too, joins the carnage as England rack up 52 in just three overs. Bairstow has now nicked off for 47, but England are fairly well-placed at 100 for 4 in seven overs.

Captain Tim Southee turns to Mitchell Santner in search of a wicket. The left-arm spinner delivers a double blow, but then the match goes into another Super Over and we all know how that unfolds. However, Santner’s strikes and composure under pressure showed why he’s New Zealand’s MVP heading into the T20 World Cup across the Tasman Sea next year. Once he saw Sam Curran advance down the track, he speared a back-of-a-length slider well past the tramline and had the batsman stumped off an off-side wide for 24 off 11 balls. Wicketkeeper Tim Seifert, who was mic’d up, suggested that Santner probably knew that the batsman was coming at him.

Santner then made a rare error, looping a non-turning half-volley, which Lewis Gregory muscled over long-on for six. But he wasn’t flustered and bravely floated the next one up at 85kph, and got it to turn away, daring Gregory to manufacture pace for himself. Gregory swung hard, but Santner’s clever change-up defeated him as he could only scoop it as far as extra-cover. He conceded only singles off the next four balls to finish an excellent 11-run over. Earlier, in his first over, the fourth of the chase, Santner had given away only nine runs. In daunting defence against a power-packed line-up on flat track, Santner came away with the two most economical overs. What might have been had Santner been handed another over?

While Santner doesn’t quite demand the attention that Sunil Narine or wristspinners do these days, there’s no denying his class and control. It was on bright display during the 50-over World Cup in the UK earlier this year and also during this T20I series against England. Santner ended the series as the top wicket-taker with 11 wickets at an economy rate of 7.83 and strike rate of 9.8. Ish Sodhi and Adil Rashid, the purveyors of the more glamorous variety of spin – wristspin – managed only three wickets each while proving more expensive. Sodhi went at 11.73 an over while Rashid fared somewhat better, conceding at 9.54.

Meanwhile, left-arm seamer Sam Curran, who had the benefit of bowling as many overs as Santner did (18), picked up six wickets at an economy rate of 8.50. It’s no secret these days that Santner bowls one over in the powerplay and then works his way through the middle overs. Yet, batsmen haven’t been able to line him up as he hits the hard length in the early exchanges and then, when the batsman is desperately searching for the big hits, Santner slows up his pace. He also thrives by shifting his lines wide of off, challenging the batsmen to fetch the ball and then slog it. More than 80% of Santner’s success this series is down to hanging the ball up outside off or even wider. According to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball data, he has bowled 62 balls around that line, grabbing nine wickets and conceding 81 runs.

Santner’s wiles, in particular, were key to New Zealand pinning England down at the Westpac Stadium in the second T20I. Chris Jordan had shellacked Sodhi for four successive sixes and then cracked Lockie Ferguson over mid-off for four, threatening a late jailbreak. England were needing 49 off 30 balls when Southee tossed the ball over to his main man Santner. After his first ball was sent over extra-cover for four, Santner responded strongly by having Jordan holing out with a nifty drop in pace. Game over for England.

“Chris Jordan was hitting it pretty well there at the end,” Santner said at the post-match press conference. “When you bowl slow as a spinner, I guess you’ve quite a fine margin – you can be swept square or pulled square. You try to hit a couple in the [block]hole and mix it up. You try not to be too predictable and it was nice to get that wicket and go from there.”

Speaking to Radio Sport, Santner said that the wickets of big-hitters like Morgan and Jordan gave him extra pleasure. “They’re one of the best T20 sides at the moment and the way they like to play T20 cricket is to come pretty hard and that’s what they do whether you’re taking wickets or not. It’s one of things that even if you get a wicket, you’ve got to be on top of your game because the English can come hard and put you under pressure. And the best way to stall momentum is to take wickets throughout.”

All told, Santner has bagged 20 T20I wickets in 2019 – the most among bowlers from Full Member nations in the shortest format. This time last year, Santner was recovering from a knee surgery, wondering if he could prove his fitness in time for the World Cup. He, ultimately, made it to the UK and almost helped New Zealand win the tournament. Then, he almost helped New Zealand win the T20I series against England. If he keeps up his form, Santner could prove more effective on the larger grounds in Australia by this time next year and could (actually) help New Zealand win a World Cup.



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Dom Bess feeling ‘really dangerous’ and keen to spin series England’s way

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He may have gone wicketless during the fourth innings as England fell to a bruising defeat in the first Test, but Dom Bess isn’t the sort of cricketer whose confidence is easily dented. England’s offspinner, still only five matches into his Test career, has declared that he is feeling “really dangerous” and said he was keen to get back into the thick of it when the teams resume their behind-closed-doors contest at Emirates Old Trafford this week.

Bess is used to playing with a burden of expectation of his shoulders, having developed at Somerset where the Taunton surfaces are often tailored to suit himself and Jack Leach, the other spinner in England’s 21-man party. Ben Stokes, standing in as captain during the first Test, had partly based his decision at the toss on the theory the Ageas Bowl pitch would take spin in the fourth innings, but while Bess was unable to make a decisive contribution he seems in no way cowed by the experience.

In fact, had a tight review for lbw against Roston Chase gone his way – it came back as umpire’s call despite Hawk-Eye suggesting the ball would have hit the top of middle stump – West Indies would have been 31 for 4 and the eventual outcome of the game might well have been different.

ALSO READ: Denly facing final curtain as England prepare to bounce back

“Personally I was really happy with how it came out, it’s just the opportunities that went missing in that last innings,” Bess said via video conference from Manchester. “It would have been nice to have that lbw shout, it could have potentially got us on a roll to have them four down. It’s coming out really nicely and if I get picked, hopefully we’ll get a big score and I can spin a couple out.

“I know I went wicketless [in the second innings], but like I said it could have turned… And actually, the thing I’m focused on is how well it’s coming out at the moment, I do feel really dangerous and that’s a great place to be. I think as a spinner, some will go your way some days, some won’t. That’s cricket. I don’t look too much into that. I want to contribute with bat, ball and in the field, and when opportunities come I just want to make sure I take them.”

Old Trafford has traditionally been viewed as a ground on which spinners can thrive, largely due to the extra bounce. Recently that advantage has been less pronounced, with spin in first-class games averaging 37.95 over the last five years – higher than at all of England’s Test grounds bar Cardiff and The Oval – which might suggest Bess, who has never previously played in Manchester, will asked to fulfil more of a holding role.

Even so, he will not be fazed if asked to try and win the game in the fourth innings again (a cause that would be helped by England’s batsmen putting up a few more runs), comparing the scenario to that of quick bowlers being presented with seaming conditions.

“I’m used to bowling on spinning wickets,” he said. “People talk about this pressure of it being on me, the last day… I’ve spoken a lot with Leachy about it, this pressure that people put on us. I actually flip it around, it’s a great opportunity – it’s like saying to a seamer, it’s a green one today, are you worried about getting them out? Course you’re not, you’re excited because it’s probably in your favour a little bit more. And that’s how I look at it, certainly the last couple of days and hopefully when it spins, it’s my time to shine and stand up.”

As for his own form, the encouraging signs are simple: bounce and spin. “I feel like I am attacking both edges of the bat. My consistency and accuracy within where I am landing it is dangerous. That comes through training, getting that feel, that rhythm. I’m very big on my rhythm, getting into it. It’s just a feeling, I guess and that’s certainly what I think I have got at the moment.”

The Southampton Test was Bess’s first at home since his debut in 2018, having come back from a period in the wilderness to dislodge Leach, his county team-mate, as No. 1 spinner. Bess, who is out of contract with Somerset at the end of the summer, may have to move in order to secure more regular cricket but suggested that as far as he was concerned there was no rivalry with England.

“I am playing at the moment but I am not taking it for granted. I know Leachy is behind me and I know how much he is working. I’ve had to fight for my spot for a long time I guess, always being behind. Potentially it’s a little bit different at the moment, the feeling. But it’s about making sure that I focus on what I can control. I know it’s a big cliché but it is as simple as that. I’ve got to make sure I am doing what I can do, day in and day out. There is no rivalry with it. We are helping each other to be as best we can for the England side. That’s a great place to be.”

Bess’s other noteworthy role in Southampton was to contribute to the ball-shining process. “Being a very sweaty man out on the field, I took a little bit of responsibility,” he said. Sky’s cameras even picked him up collecting sweat from his back – England might need such a combination of inspiration and perspiration if they are to level the series this week.



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West Indies must consign Ageas Bowl win to ‘history’ – Phil Simmons

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Phil Simmons, West Indies’ coach, has challenged his players to consign the events of the first Test at the Ageas Bowl to “history”, as they look to guard against complacency and close out their first overseas series win against a leading Test nation in more than a quarter of a century.

Speaking after his team’s return to Emirates Old Trafford ahead of Thursday’s Test, Simmons praised the resolve of his players in Sunday’s four-wicket win in Southampton – in particular Jermaine Blackwood for his decisive 95 on the final day of the contest, and Shannon Gabriel, whose haul of nine wickets across the two innings demonstrated his return to full fitness following ankle surgery.

The result means that West Indies have now won four of last six Tests against England – dating back to their famous run-chase at Headingley in 2017, and encompassing their 2-1 series win in the Caribbean in early 2019. However, they have not won a series in England since 1988, and Simmons acknowledged that it would be their duty to start from scratch in the coming days.

“For me it was a great win because I think that it signified a lot of hard work being done by the players over the last four or five weeks,” he said. “But you don’t come to England and just win a Test match. It was a top-class Test match, with good cricket played by both teams, and even coming down to the last hour, it could have gone either way.

“To come out on top. It’s been great for us, and it was important because you don’t want to have to chase England in England. So the chasing is from their point of view now. But you guard against complacency by just trying to do the same things you did before the first Test. Right now that Test match is history. We’ve got to be thinking about what we do from Thursday to Monday.”

West Indies successfully backed up their first-Test victory in Barbados last year with an equally impressive win in Antigua, but the challenge of replicating that form in an overseas campaign is rather harder.

Leaving aside their tours of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, they have only taken the lead in the first Test of an away series on three occasions since 1995. In that year’s tour of England, they were pegged back to a 2-2 draw after a crushing win at Headingley, and were then overturned 3-1 on their next visit to England in 2000, and 2-1 in South Africa in 2007-08.

ALSO READ: ‘When he crosses the line he gives his all’ – Holder on Blackwood

However, the circumstances of the current England tour are different in a number of key respects – firstly, the absence of a home crowd, which England arguably noticed during a flat day in the field in West Indies’ first innings, but perhaps more significantly, the extended preparation period, which may have been forced on the tourists by the Covid-19 outbreak, but which Simmons said harked back to his own playing days in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I think that has been the biggest influence on the performance,” he said. “I think the fact that we’ve been here for that period of time, we’ve had quality bowling in the nets because we’ve had nearly 11 seamers here, you can’t put a price on that.

“I think that’s something that we have to look at. I don’t like to go back into my [playing] days, but we would come to England and play something like three or four proper warm-up games before the first Test, and we would also have three-day or four-day games in between the Test matches. So I think that period of training goes a long way to how we performed in that first Test.”

One of the key beneficiaries of the lead-up time was Gabriel, who had not originally been named in West Indies’ first-choice 14, but was added to the squad after proving his fitness in both the nets and the intra-squad contests at Old Trafford. His hostility in both England innings echoed his crucial contributions to the win in the Caribbean last year, and Simmons took particular pleasure in his two-wicket burst on the pivotal fourth evening of the match.

“The hardest time for bowlers, after bowling from the morning, is that last session,” Simmons said. “To see him and Alzarri [Joseph] come up trumps in that session is so pleasing to us. With him coming back from that ankle surgery and working as hard he has worked since we’ve been here, it was a joy to see him successful in that period.”

Blackwood also proved his mettle, and not for the first time against England, against whom he now averages 55.00 in seven Tests. He withstood intense pressure on the final day – both from the scoreboard, which read 27 for 3 with John Campbell retired hurt, and from England’s fielders, with Ben Stokes in his ear from the outset as they attempted to goad him into a rush of blood.

“I think he must be commended because he has worked very hard on trying to get that temperament right for each part of his innings,” Simmons said. “As we saw in the first innings, it was still there a bit, but in the second he controlled it a lot better. And that helped him to bring home the game for us.”

Blackwood himself conceded that England’s words were “nothing bad, just cricket” and Simmons accepted that it was all part and parcel of the Test match battle.

“It’s what I would have done too,” he said. “Try to get him irrational, but I think he held his own. He looked at the situation and played it as well as he could have. So that shows that his mindset is improving, and that’s all you can ask for.”



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Mashrafe Mortaza recovers from Covid-19

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Former Bangladesh captain Mashrafe Mortaza confirmed on Tuesday that he is Covid-19 negative. His wife Sumona Haque, however, continues to test positive.

Mortaza, who is also a Member of Parliament representing the ruling Awami League party, was diagnosed with the virus three weeks ago, on June 20.

“I heard the results of the test this evening, which is negative,” Mortaza wrote on his Facebook page. “I am thankful to everyone who prayed for me, was beside us and showed concern during this time. But my wife is still Covid-19 positive after two weeks of being diagnosed. She is doing well. Keep her in your prayers.

“I got treatment at home. To those who are affected, stay positive. Keep faith in Allah and abide by the rules. Together we will keep fighting the virus.”

Nafees Iqbal and Nazmul Islam, who also tested positive three weeks ago, have also recovered after undergoing treatment at home.



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