Cricket: Mitchell Santner overtakes Ajaz Patel, Ish Sodhi as Blackcaps' first-choice spinner to face South Africa

 It's not easy bowling spin in test cricket in New Zealand, especially for the Blackcaps.

Since the retirement of Daniel Vettori in 2015, the Blackcaps have been through a host of options in test cricket, but none have been able to seize the role outright.  

Mark Craig (50 wickets in 15 tests), Ish Sodhi (57 in 20), Ajaz Patel (62 in 16) and even Todd Astle (seven in five) have all been used as frontline options, albeit with little success in Kiwi conditions.

Mitchell Santner celebrates a wicket.
Mitchell Santner celebrates a wicket. Photo credit: Photosport

In the post-Vettori years, though, the Blackcaps have risen to the heights of being one of the world's premier test sides, built largely around their ability to take wickets with seam and swing bowling.  

While spinners have struggled to be Blackcaps regulars, the fast bowling quartet of Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and Kyle Jamieson were mainstays of the side that won the World Test Championship in 2021.  

But with Boult's test future uncertain given his decision to pursue opportunities as a freelance Twenty20 gun for hire, the possibility of playing a spinner in a home test could have increased.  

With South Africa already in New Zealand for a two-test series at the start of next month, Mitchell Santner has been picked as the sole spinner in the Blackcaps' 14-man squad.  

That selection comes ahead of Patel - who famously took test cricket's third 10-wicket haul - and Sodhi, who marked his return to the side at the start of 2023 with a career-best showing against Pakistan.   

But despite being a world-class option for the Blackcaps in white ball cricket, the 31-year-old's test returns with the ball hardly leap off the page.  

In 25 games, Santner has taken just 47 wickets at an average of more than 42. 

Mitchell Santner is yet to replicate his white ball success in test cricket.
Mitchell Santner is yet to replicate his white ball success in test cricket. Photo credit: Photosport

However, if his last outing for the Blackcaps, in which he returned career-best match figures of 6/116 and shared a game-clinching 70-run partnership with Glenn Phillips, Santner is clearly better than those numbers suggest.  

Helping Santner's cause is the fact the two tests against South Africa will be played at Mt Maunganui's Bay Oval, and Hamilton's Seddon Park - grounds known to assist spinners in the latter stages of test matches.   

And while the Blackcaps haven't played a specialist spinner at home since February 2021, excluding all-rounders, Santner is now at the front of the queue to face the Proteas.   

"Mitch Santner, in our opinion right now, is the best spinner in New Zealand," said coach Gary Stead. "He's been bowling beautifully.  

"Certainly in New Zealand conditions as well, [he] provides the options of knowing how to hold, and how to attack.  

"We're going to need that through this series."  

However, should Stead and selectors want to continue with the tried and tested approach of a four-pronged pace attack, Santner could also find himself running drinks.  

Phillips' displays against Bangladesh in particular, in which he scored a series-leading 181 runs at an average of over 60, and took eight wickets at 16.37 have shown his ability to fill in as a part-time spinner if needed.  

What's more, Rachin Ravindra's inclusion over Henry Nicholls as a middle-order batter also opens the door for not one, but two, part-timers and allow the Blackcaps to double down on a seam attack.   

"It depends on the situation," Stead continued. "What both of those guys provide is a little bit of a spin option - if required.

"It hasn't always been the way we've done thing in New Zealand, because the pitches haven't always leant that way.  

"But they are options there, if required."  

And with conditions in New Zealand that lean towards seam over spin by default, the Blackcaps will have difficult choices to make over their bowling line-up come the first test on February 4.