It’s the Auckland Test of 2014. Virat Kohli, yet to take a quantum leap as a run machine in the long format, with Shikhar Dhawan is threatening to chase down the improbable 407-run target set by New Zealand. Neil Wagner, back into the attack, bowls wide and full and Kohli slams a characteristic cover drive for four. The left-arm pacer is yet to evolve into a short-ball specialist capable of bowling long spells.
Wagner still shows he has that delivery as he pushes Kohli on the back foot with a bouncer, following it up with a stare. The next ball is short too, but wide. Kohli chases it, and an awkward pull results in an under-edge to the waiting gloves of BJ Watling. The next 13.4 overs brings only 22 runs before Wagner dismisses Dhawan, the centurion caught behind trying to evade a rising ball. The hosts win by 41 runs and Wagner claims a match haul of eight wickets.
“Virat is a very good player of the short ball, so to be able to get him out like that was a huge bonus,” Wagner recalls, speaking over phone from his London hotel room. “The bouncer can play with the batsmen’s ego sometimes. It also makes the fuller ball effective. When a guy is sitting on the back foot thinking of the short one, you pitch it up.”
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Wagner is 35, but still does that a lot, more than anyone in Tests. Almost half of his deliveries in international cricket are short-pitched. More than 60% of his wickets have come from bouncers. He didn’t do that when he first got a break for New Zealand in 2012, after a four-year qualifying period being a South African. Like any left-armer, he too would look to swing the ball. But being a tireless bowler, bowling short made him a perfect foil to the swing of Trent Boult and Tim Southee. “If there is bounce in the wicket, or the ball is not swinging and it gets flat, it becomes a mode of attack to try and pick up wickets,” he says.
Wagner, who has 219 wickets from 51 Tests in a nine-year career, loves it when batsmen counterattack. “A lot of people want to take it on, and that gives you an opportunity to get a wicket as soon as it goes in the air. The main thing is to see what mind frame (of mind) the batsmen are in; I just have to put it in the right areas.”
India vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane took on Wagner in the Christchurch Test early last year and finished second best. “I look at Ajinkya as a key part of their team and an extremely good batter. It was quite pleasing to get a false stroke out of him. It was a very important wicket in context of the match,” recalls Wagner.
Kohli and Rahane will again face him in the World Test Championship final, which starts at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl on June 18. “They are quality players…. That’s the whole thing about Test cricket, the beauty of it is that you get to test your skills at every level.”
There are also batsmen who will endure pain of bruised ribs but not risk their wicket by counter-punching. One such showdown was Wagner versus Matthew Wade at Perth in 2019. “It was a pretty exciting contest with Wadey,” he says. “It was a pretty tough period for him, and I didn’t get him out. I’ve got to give him credit …. So, it all depends on batsmen’s patience and what mode (approach) they are going to take.”
NEVER BOWL TO HURT
Wagner bowls bouncers for a living, though he doesn’t relish any injury to batsmen. “It’s never to hurt them, to be honest … It’s not a nice sight,” he says. “People who say they feel good about it, lie …. It’s never the intention. It’s purely to unsettle his footwork and create a false shot to get him out.”
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Unlike the yorker specialist who practices that delivery for hours with cones on the pitch, Wagner can’t overdo it in training. “Number one, it takes a lot of energy and is extremely hard on your body. I only bowl one or two in the nets … you don’t want to injure one of your batters.
“It’s different in the nets where it isn’t as easy to pick up. The last thing you want to do is injure someone like Kane Williamson in the nets before a Test.”
So, what’s the secret to his endurance? “What’s helped is I just play the Test format currently. I play a bit of white-ball cricket domestically but not as much as the other bowlers do. So, in some ways you stay fresh. Besides, the short ball is something that I have always bowled during the course of my career, the body is used to doing that.”
MISS IPL CONTRACTS
Focus on Tests and identifying his wicket-taking method has propelled Wagner to No.3 in the ICC Test bowling charts, though he admits to missing glory in white-ball cricket, and IPL contracts. “That is one of the hardest things I have come to realise, it probably won’t happen for me ever. I have a lot of pride and passion for white-ball cricket. I haven’t had a lot of opportunities … and that is frustrating.
“In my whole career, it’s my biggest disappointment that I have never been able to crack into a white-ball team,” he says. “But in hindsight, it’s given me opportunities to play Test cricket and in some ways I am grateful for what I have at the moment.”
BOWLING WITH BROKEN BONES
Part of Wagner’s appeal is his fighting spirit, which he showed bowling extended spells with a broken finger against Australia at Christchurch in 2016, and with fractured toes against Pakistan at Bay Oval, Mount Maunganui last year. He played it down. “It comes down to not getting too many opportunities to play. We only play seven or around Tests a year,” he says. “There is a lot of drive in there to be able to succeed and be a part of it even when there is an injury …. That’s how much it means to me to play for that team.”
There is a good chance New Zealand will field a four-pronged pace attack—Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Kyle Jamieson are the others—in the WTC final. “We know as a team if we bowl for each other, everyone’s day will come. That’s the whole way we have been … we don’t get caught up in personal stats and accolades.”
PINNACLE OF CRICKET
For Wagner, it is like a World Cup final. “I have never come close to a T20 or ODI World Cup …. Personally, to be able to play a one-off final against one of the best teams in the world and to be able to test yourself in the ultimate format is for me the biggest prize… It’s the very pinnacle of the game I think.”
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FACING INDIA IN WTC FINAL
“It’s more a case of not getting ahead of yourself, or overconfident. It’s about just backing your ability. Both teams have played some really good cricket over a two-year period… India are a formidable team, they have showed that through a number of years with every format. The way they have been playing Test cricket at home and away shows why they are in the final, and why they are at the top. The nice thing for us is we get an opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the world … and a chance to knock arguably one of the best teams out. It’s an exciting time and a huge moment in the lives and careers of a lot of guys. It’s something as a kid, growing up you want to be a part of. It’s something to be proud of and to savour.”
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