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‘Perennial back-up’ Daryl Mitchell gets his moment in the sun

Last updated on 03 Jun 2022 | 07:47 PM
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‘Perennial back-up’ Daryl Mitchell gets his moment in the sun

After years of being a standby, the 31-year-old might finally now be looking at an extended run in the first team

Had Henry Nicholls been fit ahead of the series opener, Daryl Mitchell, in all likelihood, would have sat out the first Test at Lord’s. Mitchell did start the two-Test series against South Africa, but that was only because the Blackcaps did not have the services of Kane Williamson. With their skipper successfully recovering from injury, the availability of a fully fit Nicholls would have meant a demotion back to the bench for Mitchell.

Should that have happened, it would have been least surprising. For Mitchell, after all, has been a perennial back-up all through his Test career. He’s 31 and has been playing first-class cricket for a decade, but the right-hander, prior to this ongoing series, had never played more than three Tests on the trot. For the BlackCaps, Mitchell had always been nothing more than a go-to stop-gap. 

A middle-order batter is unavailable? Okay cool, Daryl. You fill in. Colin de Grandhomme is out with injury? Righto Daryl, the No.7 spot is all yours until he comes back. Need an extra bowling option on a really flat wicket? Okay, we’ll give you this one game. 

Essentially, Daryl Mitchell, in Tests, has been the James Milner of New Zealand. The Liverpool version, that is. The difference being he, unlike Milner, is actually someone at his peak. 

Not that it’s New Zealand’s fault that he’s been nothing more than a back-up. The Blackcaps, after all, had Williamson, Taylor and Nicholls operating at 3,4 and 5 for the vast majority of the past half-a-decade, with BJ Watling succeeding the trio. De Grandhomme is technically an all-rounder, yes, but he offers the team more with the ball; that’s what you ideally want from your No.7. It is, therefore, hard to blame the Kiwis for not having turned Mitchell into a starter.

But after nearly three years of being in and out of the side, carrying drinks for the most part, it looks like Mitchell has had enough of being a reserve. 


Up until Friday, what eluded Mitchell in his Test career was a knock of real substance; a knock that showed that he could hang with the big boys when the going gets really tough. He’d showcased his potential on multiple occasions — whether it be the declaration ton against Pakistan, the counter-attacking 60 at the Wankhede or the valiant 60 against South Africa in Christchurch — but ‘thaaat’ knock was missing from his CV. The kind that announces one’s arrival as a force to be reckoned with. 

It’s taken two and a half years, but the wait is finally over. 

The 97* next to Mitchell’s name reads pretty. Unlike some of the runs he scored, which were far from it. There were wild drives that eluded fielders, edges that fell short and several other moments of good fortune (like close plays and misses). Perhaps, in a way, he deserved some luck following the ill-fated dismissal in the first innings. 

But forget how he scored his runs. All that needs to be taken into account for evaluating the quality of Mitchell’s knock is the context of the game. 

When the 31-year-old walked out at the stroke of lunch on the second day, the visitors were staring at a potential two-day defeat. For the second day running, they lost each of their Top 3 for sub-20 scores and were teetering, big time. The Blackcaps, who at that point had a lead of 24, were essentially one decent Anderson/Broad/Potts burst away from being blown away. 

Walking right into the line of fire, Mitchell, playing his first ever Test in England, first diffused the situation and then took the game to England by punishing anything that was remotely bad. By stumps Tom Blundell caught up, but it was the bat of Mitchell that kick-started the Kiwi renaissance on the day; the hosts were in control up until the 30th over, but Mitchell collecting 22 off 13 balls in a three-over phase helped them punch back and keep their opponents honest.

Batting, especially in the longest format, is as much about discipline and smartness as it is about skill. On Friday, Mitchell was not at his disciplinary best as a batter — he was fortuitous on several occasions — but there was no paucity of smartness and clarity. The right-hander picked his targets, and knew exactly what and who he was going to go after.

It was the awkward hard length that troubled the batters at Lord’s, and Mitchell took no risks whatsoever against anything remotely good or back of a length. England’s frontline seamers were metronomic, which meant 95 of the 161 balls Mitchell faced against pace on the day was landed in the 6m-8m region. The 31-year-old completely shut-shop against these deliveries, scoring a strike rate of 18.9 while astonishingly attacking just 2.1% of the good length deliveries.

The balls that were there to be driven or pulled, though, were hammered. In all, off the 52 deliveries that were either too full (2m to 6m) or too short (10 m or more), Mitchell scored 59 runs, smashing 10 boundaries. 

A vast majority of those 59 runs were gifted by Ben Stokes alone. The England skipper, on the day, was either too full or too short, and Mitchell obliterated him, taking 30 off 23 balls. Stokes, post tea, decided to be the ‘enforcer’, but it was a move that ended up backfiring. The 43 runs Stokes conceded off his 8 overs not just helped Mitchell feast on runs, but also significantly assisted the Kiwis in their quest to stretch the lead beyond 200.

Mitchell getting to the three-figure mark in the final over would have been the icing on the cake, but regardless of what unfolds on Day 3, one suspects that the 31-year-old has already done enough to shed the ‘standby’ tag and get an extended run in the side. 

For years, the right-hander has been one of the most prolific batters in the domestic circuit back home. Since 2019, Mitchell has averaged 65 in first-class cricket in New Zealand, a figure bettered by only Devon Conway. But now, he’s shown that he’s fully capable of holding his ground at the highest level. And this might just be what clinches him a spot in the XI, at least for the foreseeable future.

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