It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The West Indies were expected to be too weak for Trent Boult’s banana swing on the green-tinged wicket at Basin In Wellington. But 17 overs into day 1 of the first Test of West Indies’ New Zealand tour, the visitors had 35 on the board and Kraigg Brathwaite and Kieron Powell looked fairly comfortable and settled in.
With Tim Southee missing the Test expecting the birth of his child, New Zealand had called upon Matt Henry and alongside Trent Boult, he was expected to ruffle a few West Indian feathers at the top of the order.
But after 17 overs, Williamson was made to rethink his choice to bowl first, and barely a leaf had turned in the hour. It was only after the Colin de Grandhomme experiment too fell off that Williamson called upon Neil Wagner.
Wagner isn’t your everyday cup of tea among fast bowlers. He wouldn’t sit waiting for the new ball or keep the shine intact on one side to aid swing. His forte is pace and bounce and being unwavering in his approach.
He can’t be faulted. The Black Caps have always had a rich stream of swing bowlers but a workhorse rarely comes their way. Wagner is South African. He switched allegiance to New Zealand after a dearth of opportunities in his home country. Wagner knew that he had to bring different skill sets to put himself in a better position for national selection.
That he did. Rather than going the easy route and becoming a swing bowler, Wagner practised bowling long, tireless spells. He banged in hard on the wicket, brought out the effort ball often and did the hard yards.
“Wagner epitomises everything we want to be known for as a team, how aggressive he is, how hostile he is when he has got the ball in hand and how big his heart is as well. He bowled 10 overs into the wind late on day four [of the 2014 Eden Park Test against India] which is no easy feat and it allowed Tim (Southee) and Trent (Boult) to have some decent downtime leading into that new ball”, his former skipper Brendon McCullum says of the left-armer.
That kind of attitude is difficult to find in modern day cricket. At Basin Reserve on Friday, Wagner bowled a harmless two overs, trying to pitch it up, searching for swing and finding none.
He had a chat with his skipper and realised that the plot had to be changed a bit. The short leg came in and Brathwaite was caught hopping with a threatening bumper. Boult sent Powell on his way and Shimron Hetmyer followed soon, as he tried to leave a delivery from Wagner angled across him, only for it to slip back into the batsman and find an edge en route to the cordon.
At 79/3, West Indies had lost the solid platform that their openers had set for them. But it wasn’t game over. Some of their most prolific batsmen in recent times, Shai Hope, Roston Chase and Shane Dowrich were still left to come in and Jason Holder had more often than not showed stomach for a fight with the bat.
But it was one of those days when everything went Wagner’s way. “At the start, I didn’t really feel like I had a great rhythm. I obviously first tried to pitch the ball up to see if there was any swing or movement and adjust my lengths a little bit. I struggled for a bit of rhythm and felt I had to try and find a way of adapting pretty fast. So myself and Kane [Williamson] spoke in the middle and I tried to work that wind, when there was a bit of a stiff breeze and eventually worked towards the plan and it came off. It was just one of those bizarre days when things sort of happen your way. I think I’ve bowled a lot better on other days and not get a wicket and then you get days like this. I guess it’s cricket”, Wagner said after the day’s play.
Shai Hope was caught hooking down the leg-side, Sunil Ambris, on his debut and facing his first ball, stepped onto the stumps off a Wagner delivery and all of a sudden, West Indies had slipped into the abyss and Wagner had four to his name.
If Roston Chase and Jason Holder thought they could pull things together and rally a fight, they didn’t take into account the kind of Friday Wagner was enjoying. Chase was undone by a snorter of a bouncer, the inside edge was taken at leg slip and Holder received a corker of a yorker first up. Six of the first seven wickets to go fell to Neil Wagner.
He snapped up the final wicket to walk off after bowling 14.4 overs unchanged from one end since he came into bowl. He had conceded a mere 39 runs and plucked out seven wickets. It was his fourth five-for in Tests since 2016. All of the other New Zealand bowlers combined have three. Only James Anderson and Kagiso Rabada among fast bowlers have more five-wicket hauls than Wagner in Tests since 2016.
Yet, the Kiwi seamer is rarely talked about in the same breath as Boult or Southee. Since 2016, he has 70 wickets in the format at an average and strike rate much better than any of the Kiwi bowlers. To put things into perspective, the next best bowler, Trent Boult, has 50 wickets.
He was on a hat-trick twice in the game but those trivial things do not matter for him as long as he has helped his team do the best. It is that kind of attitude and energy that has made Wagner an indispensable part of the Kiwi Test side.