New Zealander hadn’t opened in T20s before this week, now he’s put India on the brink
Twenty of the 22 players involved in India vs New Zealand in Dubai have played in the world’s premier franchise league but the highest-scoring batter’s overseas T20 experience extends to half a season in the Vitality Blast for Middlesex.
Until a week ago, Daryl Mitchell had never opened the batting in T20 cricket, but he was the only man to overcome a slow Dubai surface, making 49 off 35 balls to set up New Zealand’s cruise to victory and ensuring that their destiny in the T20 World Cup remains in their own hands.
Nobody had expected Mitchell to open in this tournament, not least the man himself after a career spent scrapping in the middle order in this format. “I pride my ability to be able to adapt to whatever position that I have to bat at – No. 3-4 or in the middle or late overs,” he told ESPNcricinfo in the build-up to the World Cup. “Especially in international cricket, you need to be able to adjust to different situations and different scenarios at any batting position from No. 1 to 7. It’s never the same every innings.”
New Zealand had not planned for this either. They spent the vast majority of the five-and-a-half years between World Cups using Colin Munro as Martin Guptill’s partner, with Tim Seifert replacing him a year ago after his contract stand-off with NZC, and Rachin Ravindra, Tom Blundell and Finn Allen all trialled in the role in the last eight months.
But their management saw something in Mitchell’s straightforward technique and ability to hit sixes – no-one has hit more in their domestic tournament, the Super Smash, since the start of 2016 – and recognised that exploiting the fielding restrictions would be crucial on slow pitches. After a brief trial in the warm-up games, he was backed to open against Pakistan in Sharjah and showed enough signs in an innings of 27 off 20 balls – featuring sixes off Hasan Ali and Imad Wasim – to keep his place ahead of Seifert when New Zealand opted to bring in an extra batter.
His innings was one of calculated aggression. At first, he let Guptill take the majority of the strike and attack India’s new-ball bowlers, Varun Chakravarthy and Jasprit Bumrah, pushing his way to 5 off nine balls. But when Ravindra Jadeja came on to bowl the final powerplay over, he lofted his second ball over mid-on for six, then latched onto him when he dragged his length back, carving him through midwicket then cutting him through the gap at cover-point.
Within the space of three shots, any pretence of scoring pressure had been removed. The rest of the innings was a cruise, and he seized upon Mohammed Shami and Shardul Thakur when they erred in length, both too short and too full. He fell one short of a first T20I half-century, foxed by Bumrah’s cutter, but had effectively sealed the win long before; that he hit more sixes in 35 balls than India did in 120 told the story of the game.
“I think it’s phenomenal,” Ish Sodhi, adjudged player of the match after removing Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, said afterwards. “Just speaking to him then, it was his second game opening the batting in Twenty20 professional cricket, facing one of the best bowling attacks in the world.
“It’s a huge testament to his character, and the backing he’s receiving from our camp, who believe in his ability immensely. It was never going to be an easy chase – they were always going to come out, be aggressive with the ball. The conditions, we didn’t quite know how they were going to play, [but] the way that he played that game was definitely the icing on the cake.”
Few players epitomise New Zealand cricket better than Mitchell, a 30-year-old allrounder who adds plenty of value to his teams but who must rarely be stopped on the street for photos or autographs. His main claim to fame before tonight was that his father John played rugby for the All Blacks, and until recently, searching his name on ESPNcricinfo returned the profile of Worcestershire’s former opening batter.
Mitchell’s promotion to open the batting in this tournament was a calculated gamble, but appears to be paying off: if he can lead New Zealand into the semi-finals at India’s expense, it will begin to look like a masterstroke.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98