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Kyle Mills: The unassuming man who scaled No 1 spot in ICC ODI rankings

Kyle Mills has taken 235 wickets at 26.74 in 165 ODIs. He has also taken 44 wickets in 19 Tests at 33.02 © Getty Images
Kyle Mills has taken 235 wickets in 165 ODIs at 26.74. He has also taken 44 wickets in 19 Tests at 33.02 © Getty Images

The perseverant, temperamental, and injury-prone Kyle Mills was born on March 15, 1979. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the finest bowlers in the history of the One-Day Internationals.

Nobody has described Kyle David Mills better than Jarrod Kimber: “[Mills] has the unique ability to be the world’s number one ODI bowler while still being unknown to his closest friends. If you are discussing him with people it is best if you don’t use his name but actually just mention the guy with the hair of a Greek wrestler.”

That is perhaps the most unusual aspect of being Kyle Mills: his quintessential ordinariness. Nothing about his action or his on-field presence reveals anything special. To quote Kimber again, “his bowling action is perhaps the neatest bowling action in world cricket, and it then propels length balls at a moderate pace that swing just a touch.” The safe approach does not really go with a man who loves horse-racing, being “pretty good at picking Melbourne Cup winners.”

It is just that he is the highest-ranked among New Zealand bowlers, placed at 13th in the world. Given Mills’s unbelievable standards over the years, it is, in fact, a low in his career. There are several facts that set Mills a class apart from several fast bowlers who are generally perceived as better:

-          Mills became the top-ranked bowler in the world on January 5, 2009.

-          With 235 wickets, Mills has most wickets for a New Zealand seamer. Of all New Zealand bowlers only Daniel Vettori (276) has more.

-          Of all bowlers with 200 wickets since 2000 Mills ranks seventh in average and sixth in strike rate.

The Test numbers (44 wickets from 19 Tests at 33.02), though not bad, were never good enough to give Mills an extended run at the longest format. In fact, an injury-plagued career meant he could play only 76 First-Class matches with 204 wickets at 29.81. Not a mean batsman by any standards, Mills has scored 2,166 First-Class runs at 26.09.

It is in One-Day Internationals (ODIs), however, that he has ruled the way few have. A career haul of 235 wickets at 26.74, a strike rate of 33.9, and an economy rate of 4.72 in the Twenty20 (T20) era are all hallmarks of a special bowler of the format. Despite his performances he has somehow never been considered among the top ODI bowlers of his era.

There are batsmen, however, who will accept that he has been among the most prodigious bowlers of his times. Ricky Ponting, for example:

Early days

Born in Auckland, Mills made his First-Class debut against Otago at home, scoring 40 and finishing with three for 99. It was, however, in List A cricket that he really made an impression with 12 wickets at 23.33 and an economy rate of 4.28; he went one better next season, with 18 more at 24.50 and an economy of 3.69; and when the Pakistanis came over in 2000-01 he helped New Zealand A bowl them out for 100, contributing with figures of 8-0-14-2.

 

Mills broke into the New Zealand ODI side in 2001 in the ARY Gold Cup at Sharjah. He had the wicket of Imran Nazir in his first match; in the next match he removed Romesh Kaluwitharana, Marvan Atapattu, and Sanath Jayasuriya in his first seven overs, finished with figures of 10-2-30-3, enforced a 79-run victory, and shared the Man of the Match award with Matthew Sinclair.

Test debut

It took Mills a couple of years of consistent bowling in ODIs to earn a Test cap. With Shane Bond and Daryl Tuffey both out of the Test, Mills was drafted in the dead-rubber Test at Trent Bridge. New Zealand had a terrible Test when Chris Martin went down with an injured hamstring after bowling seven balls. Mills joined him after sending down six wicket-less overs.

As a result New Zealand were down to three bowlers (even Mark Richardson had to bowl his left-arm spin). Mills’s only “achievement” from the match was the honour of being the hundredth Test wicket of Matthew Hoggard. He played Tests sporadically after that match, having to restrict himself to ODIs.

He also played in the first ever T20I (at Eden Park), opening bowling with Tuffey. With three for 44, he finished as the best bowler for his side, but New Zealand lost by 44 runs.

The way to number one

Mills first drew attention in the Centurion Test of 2005-06: drafted in as a replacement for Bond, Mills finished with four for 43 as South Africa scored 276 and conceded a 51-run lead. However, set to chase 249 they collapsed spectacularly in the hands of Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn, and lost by 128 runs. Thereafter, he got involved in a spat with Graeme Smith during a match and had to be restrained by Stephen Fleming.

Mills’s ascent started with the 2006 Champions Trophy, where he finished with ten wickets at 11.80 from four matches. Though Jerome Taylor (13 wickets from seven matches), Farveez Maharoof (12 wickets from six), and Lasith Malinga (11 from six) all had more wickets, Mills had significantly less matches and easily the best average. His strike rate (17.1) was also the best, and the economy rate of 4.14 was phenomenal as well.

He started by rocking the South African top-order at Brabourne Stadium: it took him 25 balls to send Boeta Dippenaar, Herschelle Gibbs, and Jacques Kallis back to the pavilion. Mills finished with three for 18, and chasing 196 South Africa were bowled out for 108.

He jolted Australia at Mohali in the semi-final as well, removing Shane Watson and Adam Gilchrist with his first 11 balls. He also removed Ponting and Michael Clarke and finished with four for 38, but the Kiwis collapsed and lost by 34 runs.

Buoyed by his twin performances, Mills pulled off yet another amazing performance two matches later — this time at Kingsmead: he had provided the customary initial breakthroughs, removing Morne van Wyk and Kallis in his first three overs. Then, with South Africa cruising along at 222 for five Mills broke through again, taking three more wickets in ten balls, and it took some frantic hitting from Andre Nel off Mark Gillespie to pull off the match in the last ball. Mills finished with five for 25: it remains his only international five-for.

He was unfortunate to miss out on the 2007 World Cup, but continued to deliver in the ODIs.

When England were set a target of 300 in the Hamilton Test of 2007-08, Mills led the attack and removed Alastair Cook, Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss, and Kevin Pietersen in his first six overs. England never recovered, were bowled out for 110, Mills finished with four for 16 (his best Test figures), and became injured promptly thereafter.

In ODIs, however, where his physique did not have to endure such pressure, Mills thrived. In the Chappell-Hadlee series in Australia that ended in a 2-2 draw, Mills finished with nine wickets at 20.33 and an economy rate of 4.35. Consistent performances against India saw him reach the No 1 spot in the ICC ODI rankings for bowlers. Meanwhile, he also acquired Indian Premier League (IPL) contracts from Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) and Mumbai Indians (MI).

He also flailed his bat around against India at Christchurch on that tour (after removing Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni), scoring his ODI best of 54; he faced just 32 balls, hit six fours and three sixes, and added 83 in 42 balls with Tim Southee for the ninth wicket. It still remains the highest ninth-wicket partnership for New Zealand in ODIs (in fact, he has been a part of three of the top five ninth-wicket partnerships for New Zealand).

More injuries and more consistency

Multiple surgeries followed in 2009, and once the doctors were through with him he has not played another Test. He continued to play ODIs and T20Is, though, bowling mostly in short bursts; it has been a tough ask for him to maintain a spot given the strength of the current crop of New Zealand fast bowlers, but Mills has risen to the occasion.

At Dambulla in 2010, Mills got two for 42 against India and walked out with his side at 52 for seven; the Sri Lankan crowd got a glimpse of the all-rounder he could have been as he romped to a 35-ball 52 with seven fours and three sixes; New Zealand scored a mere 66 during his stay at the crease.

He ambled through to the 2011 World Cup, but somehow managed to conjure another injury after just three matches (in which he picked up six wickets for 74 runs). But he kept bouncing back, often between injuries, but when he did he performed as good as anybody in the side.

Captain of New Zealand, and beyond

A pleasant surprise awaited Mills when he was appointed captain of New Zealand when Brendon McCullum pulled out of four ODIs and two T20Is in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He started off on a low note, being unable to defend 308 against Bangladesh at Fatullah, but did not embarrass himself in subsequent matches.

After a low-key outing against the West Indians Mills was dropped for the first ODI against the Indians at Napier as the selectors preferred Adam Milne. However, he came back after Milne picked up an injury and did a commendable job, especially in the final ODI at Wellington.

As he turns 35, Mills continues to strive for excellence: it will be a tough job keeping the likes of Southee, Trent Boult, Mitchell McClenaghan, Matt Henry, and Milne out of contention for long, but knowing Mills, he is no apparent hurry of giving up his slot. He has earned it the hard way.

 (Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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