If Test cricket is professional wrestling, Neil Wagner is an ECW guy. ECW was aggressive, it was extreme, it was chaotic, it was “hardcore”. Traditional rules and grammar don’t apply to hardcore wrestling. There are no disqualifications, it is not confined to a ring, foreign objects are allowed.
Wagner doesn’t follow the tradition of fast bowling in Tests. His “top of off” is the batsman’s shoulder. His seam is all over the place. He looks for swing only for a little while. He bowls away from the stumps. He creates weird angles by going, say, extremely around the wicket to a left-handed batsman. “Caught others” is Wagner’s dominant mode of dismissal, whereas others look for bowleds and lbws and nicks to the keeper or the cordon. If you think you can patiently see him off, he just goes on and on to bowl extremely long spells. Sometimes they seem to be comprised of nothing but bouncers. He just doesn’t go away.
Hardcore wrestling was ridiculed by mainstream promotions before they assimilated it as part of their shows for its shock value. Promotions such as ECW end up either being bought over by mainstream companies or remain extremely niche.
Wagner was noticed by the mainstream about three years ago when he became only the 14th man, and the second-fastest among them, to take 100 Test wickets for New Zealand. He is no longer niche, though. Three years on, and he has steadfastly refused to die as a novelty act whose shock value has worn off. He is still bowling those long spells full of bouncers to help New Zealand find a way past their flat pitches.
And now, at No. 3 in the latest ICC rankings, he is properly mainstream. With a wicket every 52 balls, he is in the top 20 strike rates of all time. Among those who have taken 150 wickets, only one New Zealand bowler has been quicker to a wicket than him: Sir Richard Hadlee. Wagner will soon become only the seventh New Zealand bowler to 200 wickets.
But these are just mainstream stats. The real #WagnerStats, the ones that make him hardcore, are the length of his spells and the shortness of his deliveries. Wagner has bowled a staggering 34.62% of his deliveries in spells of seven overs or more, not counting those that were broken by session breaks or the end of a day’s play. Since Wagner made his debut, the only pace bowlers who come close to this number are typically gentler bowlers without the body of work that Wagner has. Colin de Grandhomme, Tim Murtagh, Darren Sammy and Hardik Pandya are a few.
Among those closer to Wagner’s potency and a body of work (say 500 overs), Bhuvneshwar Kumar has bowled 25.57% of his deliveries in spells of seven overs or more; James Anderson, Kagiso Rabada and Ben Stokes just under 20.
Since Wagner’s debut, Anderson has managed to bowl three more seven-or-more-over spells than Wagner’s 68, but Anderson has played a lot more Test cricket than Wagner, the first half of whose career was played only on flat unhelpful tracks. At first, he would to lose out to Doug Bracewell or Matt Henry or Adam Milne the moment there was some movement to be extracted, but soon his longevity and unusual mode of attack began to outweigh the utility of a traditional bowler with the new ball.
If you want to see Wagner’s real utility, look at his spells of 10 overs or more. He has bowled 10 of this ilk. Only Anderson comes close with six. Imagine the luxury for a captain and fellow bowlers. The match is slipping away, the new ball is 20 overs away, you want control and perhaps a wicket or two and you want your two swing bowlers fresh for the new ball.
Wagner turns up from overs 61 to 79, into the wind, for the wickets of Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan for 26 runs in a tense chase by India in Auckland in 2013-14. On a spinner’s track, in an even more tense chase, how about an absolute nerveless 13-4-27-2 to help Aiaz Patel seal a historic four-run win in Abu Dhabi in 2018-19? Or 12-5-27-3 (two overs before tea) on the final evening to get rid of the stubborn Stokes and Chris Woakes and carry New Zealand a win at Auckland in 2017-18, despite two days lost to rain.
Last week in Mount Maunganui, Wagner was in his ninth straight over when he himself ended England’s resistance, which had begun to look prickly on the final day. This spell is a good example of what he does as a bowler. A wicket with a wide short ball, a wicket with a wide knuckle-ball full toss, another with a short ball into the ribs, before sealing the match with a full toss from the edge of the crease to a left-handed batsman, a swinging yorker that the batsman couldn’t lay a bat on. There is no pattern. Some of these might even look like fluke wickets, but you don’t reach 182 wickets at a strike rate of 52 by fluke. It is really difficult to prepare for Wagner because nobody bowls like him. He messes with batsmen’s balance and footwork.
Over the years Wagner has upskilled himself – that knuckle-ball is an example, his improved wrist position after a stint at Lancashire is another – but the short ball remains the bedrock of his bowling. Since his debut, nobody has bowled more short balls or taken more wickets with it than Wagner has. He has to work harder than most. Kagiso Rabada gets a wicket every 22 short balls, Morne Morkel took only 19, but Wagner gets a wicket after bowling 30 short balls on an average. That is indicative of the gentle pace of the pitches that Wagner bowls on, but he has figured out that – especially in New Zealand, especially on the third day onwards – a full ball is worse than a good short ball. That his average with the short ball is better than Rabada or Morkel tells you of his control with his favourite weapon.
Since 2014, only Lahiru Kumara has bowled a higher percentage of deliveries short or short of a length than Wagner’s 49.09 percent. Eighty-five of his 132 wickets in this period have come with these deliveries, a percentage nobody comes close to. Pat Cummins, with higher pace and more tools at his disposal, is a more complete bowler, but he too prefers the Wagner-type of length.
The only other bowlers that come close to this mode of operation are Wahab Riaz and Mark Wood, but it takes a toll on their bodies and increasingly both men are becoming shorter-formats-only bowlers. Mitchell Johnson and Morkel would also drag their lengths back from time to time, but neither them nor Cummins did so with the frequency that Wagner does.
For the extra effort that is required, Wagner trains like a madman. New Zealand Herald described a typical Wagner pre-season training session thus: “He sprints 100m, 200m, 300m and 400m with just a minute’s rest in between. Four times. After a quick rest and refuel, it’s off to the gym for 90 minutes of further torture.”
Wagner remains thankful he has had an international career, having failed during his South Africa days to get into a Titans side behind Dale Steyn, Andre Nel, the Morkel brothers and Alfonso Thomas. Mike Hesson, who was instrumental in bringing him to New Zealand, has a nice little story about how that came about. He was looking for a quick bowler for Otago, and was shown footage of Wagner giving it his all even though his side had all but lost. When Hesson offered him the job, Wagner said yes without discussing the money.
That principle still remains true. This year, the only non-first-class cricket that Wagner has played is five T20s. New Zealand is not in the financial health to compensate Test players the way India does Cheteshwar Pujara and Ishant Sharma, and nor do they play as much Test cricket as India. Is it any surprise that he puts everything into every Test spell as if everything depends on it?
In the larger scheme of cricket, Wagner remains niche. At the most, he tends to be in the spotlight for five weeks or so a year. If there ever was a season for him to go fully mainstream, it is this: No. 2 New Zealand will be playing against the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 sides in the same summer. He has already taken a five-for against – and twice removed the captain of – the No. 3 side. By the time New Zealand go to Australia, the hosts will likely be No. 4. The big one will be the dominant Indian side touring New Zealand early next year.
Wagner will be ready with his square leg and short leg slightly in front of square, and a fine leg and a leg gully (or two fine legs) waiting round the corner. The umpires will check his wickets for back-foot no-balls because he will exploit every angle he can. It will be extreme cricket. In the mainstream.