Better late than ever, Daryl Mitchell is on the up and up

Jos Buttler watches Daryl Mitchell dispatch a ball into the stands Gareth Copley / © ECB via Getty Images

When New Zealand played England in the 2019 World Cup final, Daryl Mitchell was on the other side of the world. He had won his first three international caps in a T20I series earlier that year but was not in contention for ODI selection. He was 28 years old, eight months into fatherhood, and still had hair on top of his head.

"I remember sitting on the sofa watching it - just like the other five million New Zealanders who were watching it at home," Mitchell says, speaking for this story in mid-September. "I would get up in the early morning and watch the boys." It was just after 6.30am in Hamilton when Jos Buttler whipped the bails off with Martin Guptill short of his ground.

On Thursday, the 2023 World Cup launches with a rematch of that epic final. Mitchell, now 32, bald, and a father to two daughters, is among the first names on New Zealand's team sheet. He has represented his country more than 100 times across formats, hitting nine hundreds, and will likely walk out in front of over 100,000 people in Ahmedabad next week.

It has been a remarkable rise for a player who admits that, in his mid-20s, he doubted if he would ever fulfil his ambition to represent his country: "Everyone believes they'll be good enough to get the chance, but there was a time when I thought, 'If it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be.'" Mitchell is New Zealand's answer to Mike Hussey: a late bloomer who waited nearly a decade for a chance in international cricket that he then seized.

His father, John, played rugby union for Waikato and the All Blacks - though he never officially won a Test cap, having only appeared in six tour matches in England in 1993. He moved into coaching, and his jobs - including two years as New Zealand coach - took the family around the world. "It was part of my upbringing," Daryl recalls. "Every four years, you'd move to a new spot with dad."

Spending his teenage years in Perth while his dad was coaching Western Force, Mitchell became an accomplished player of fast bowling. He developed his trademark high-backlift stance, and has characterised himself as an early developer who used his physical advantages to dominate at junior levels.

He developed a close relationship with Neil "Noddy" Holder, the renowned batting mentor, and in grade cricket his Scarborough team-mates included Marcus Harris, Justin Langer and Marcus Stoinis. He completed a sports-science degree, giving himself a back-up plan in case cricket didn't work out, then signed a contract with Northern Districts to play domestic cricket.

As a young player, Mitchell was "an abrasive personality" who "rubbed quite a few guys up the wrong way", recalls Peter Fulton, an opponent in domestic cricket who would later become Mitchell's coach when he moved to Christchurch and joined Canterbury. "He's always been a very good player of fast bowling - but the book on him was that you could tie him down with spin early on. He would always eat up 10-15 balls."

Mitchell performed well enough in domestic cricket to tour India and Sri Lanka in 2013 with New Zealand A, but those struggles against spin meant he had little success with the bat. Another A-team tour followed a year later, to England, but he was a peripheral figure.

When he returned to the New Zealand A set-up four years later, Mitchell had a fresh outlook. "That's the thing with being domestically contracted in New Zealand," he says. "You're on contract for seven months of the year, so a lot of guys have to get jobs in the winter." In his own case, he worked with Waikato Rugby as a strength and conditioning coach: "It gives you good balance, and puts things into perspective."

After an impressive Super Smash season in 2018-19, he earned a maiden international call-up at the age of 27 for a T20I series against India. "I remember getting that first call and it was pretty exciting," he says. "Doing it a little bit later than most guys, I didn't put too much pressure on myself. I just enjoyed the experience of representing our country, singing the national anthem."

When Colin de Grandhomme went down injured the following summer, Mitchell was the obvious replacement as an allrounder and made 73 against England on Test debut. But his real breakthrough came in 2020-21, after he signed for Canterbury and relocated to Christchurch, his wife Amy's hometown.

"For the majority of his career, he was playing for Northern Districts, who had five to seven Black Caps in the team, and he didn't get much opportunity," says Fulton, who arrived at Canterbury at the same time as Mitchell. "He used to bat No. 5 or 6 but started batting at No. 3 in white-ball cricket and had a great season with bat and ball."

After maiden Test and ODI hundreds against Pakistan and Bangladesh in early 2021, Mitchell was a surprise choice to open the batting alongside Martin Guptill at the T20 World Cup in the UAE. "That was a real turning point for him," says Trent Boult, "and he's never looked back since."

He made 49 in New Zealand's demolition of India in Dubai, but it was against England down the road in Abu Dhabi that he made his mark on the tournament. Anchoring a semi-final run score, Mitchell had scored 46 off 40 with New Zealand still needing 57 off the final four overs; it only took them three, as he took down Adil Rashid and Chris Woakes to finish on 72 off 47, tidying up after Jimmy Neesham's cameo.

Since then, Mitchell has made himself indispensable across formats: having spent most of his professional career as an allrounder, he has developed into one of the world's most destructive batters. "I look back now and think that in many ways, it was a blessing that I didn't have a crack too early," he says.

"That allowed me to learn my game at the domestic level back home for a period of time; to have some good years but also some bad years; and to work out not only how I wanted to play cricket but the type of person I want to be off the field. Having kids and a family probably put my life in balance a bit better as well. It's been a lot of hard yards to get here, which makes you grateful for when you do get opportunities."

New Zealand's relatively small pool of professional players lends itself to the consistency of selection across formats from which Mitchell has benefited. "In the last few years, it's been easier to stay in the team than get out of it - and I say that in a good way," says Fulton. "That's been one of the successes of the team: players realise that they're going to be given a pretty long rope, and not having to worry about selection brings the best out of most players."

Mitchell toured England in 2022, scoring hundreds in three consecutive Tests, and has been back this year, gearing up for his first - and at 32, possibly only - crack at a 50-over World Cup. After going unsold at the IPL auction, he signed up for a three-month stint at Lancashire and spent August playing for London Spirit in the Hundred.

That has given him a rare chance to spend time with his young daughters, Addison and Lily, as well as his father, who lives in London. "It's not often, as an international cricketer, that you get to spend four months with your family," Mitchell says. "It's been nice to be a dad, as well as play some cricket."

He arrives at the World Cup on the back of three hundreds in his last eight ODI innings, and could even bat at No. 3 until Kane Williamson returns from injury. "One of my strengths is my ability to adapt to different positions. It just comes down to getting into the contest and competing: whether that's opening or No. 7, it doesn't worry me as long as I'm getting stuck in, trying to win games for our country."

Mitchell's team-mates consider him invaluable. "He's incredibly hungry, driven to succeed, and desperate for runs," Boult says. "When you combine those attributes, you get quite a good player. He's experienced India and subcontinental conditions as well, which is always a big bonus because it's so different to what we're used to. He's a great asset to this side."

After his T20 and Test exploits against them, not to mention an ODI hundred last month, England's players and supporters will be particularly wary of Mitchell. Heading into Thursday's curtain-raiser, he is determined not to be overawed: "I won't make it bigger than what it is.

"It'll be an amazing experience - but at the same time, it's just a game of cricket. We'll be given roles to do and if we win a couple of little moments then, cool, we'll win that game and move onto the next one. The strength of this group is that we don't make anything too big and just try and get the job done."