For what cricket brings to the table, it is considered to be more than a sport. Be it the beauty, the body or the brutality, cricket helps forge these elements into its being. Cricket is a sport that never sleeps and hence the undying passion and ardour.
But what about the fire that goes unnoticed?
More often than not, the world goes gaga about New Zealand cricketers not getting the amount of fame that they deserve. Be it the timezone issue or the fact that the nation’s population is lesser than that of any Indian metropolitan city, their cricket has always been overlooked. But there’s a difference between underrated and under talked. Let’s take the example of Trent Boult. He might have been under talked about in the past but underrated?- Never. Williamson?- Neither.
Unless one is completely ignorant, they would know who Boult is and what value he adds to the team.
Amidst all this, Neil Wagner walks in. Just to put everything into context, he’s currently the third-ranked bowler in Tests.
There’s beauty, there’s body, there’s brutality - all fashioned into a man as fierce as fire and as underrated as, guess what, him. But his celebration speaks a different story.
He halts mid-pitch with knees somewhat bowed, and roars like a lion. When the umpire does give me the good signal, the eventuality hardly has any competition when compared to usual Kiwi celebrations. Wagner cares about every wicket he takes as much as Gollum craves for the ring, his “precious”.
The good old fiery roar burst out at the scene again, at the Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui, as Wagner cleaned the last man standing for England. As Stuart Broad made his walk back to the pavilion, the roar kept echoing strong enough to erase the difficult memories of the World Cup. After all, the Kiwis were able to clean up the tourists for an innings and 65 runs deficit. Wagner spearheaded New Zealand’s bowling attack with his signature bouncers on a flat Mount Maunganui pitch. The ground is bound to hold this memory with it as it was the first-ever Test held there. But for Wagner, this was yet another citation of a class-apart performance. Something he has been doing for years. Doing for cricket, for himself, for the team.
Sure the team that sports a Boult or a Tim Southee have set their priorities. Wagner might just be seen as a value addition to the already structured setup. But when Southee’s pace, hence his numbers, take a dip or when New Zealand needs to take significant slack off Boult’s shoulder there’s our man. Toiling through, reaping and yielding even in barren conditions, even when there’s no backing from the team.
It all started when, after a four-year stand down period to be eligible for New Zealand, South Africa-born Wagner, had struggled to become a regular in the Test side. Wagner, a red-ball specialist, made his Test debut in 2012 but it was only after his 8 for 126 against India at Auckland in February 2014 that Wagner became a familiar face. On flat Eden Park surface, wherein the two teams had collectively scored more than 1000 runs, Wagner had yielded match-winning wickets for his team. New Zealand had found their new toiling, wicket-taking hero.
And since 2016, Wagner has taken more wickets than Boult and at a better average.
His heroics continued in Christchurch against Australia in 2016, Brendon McCullum’s farewell series at home. The hosts were completely battered by the Aussies, but there was Wagner fighting his way through a broken knuckle on the ring finger of his left hand. He emerged with career-best figures of 6 for 106 in Australia's first innings and eventually became New Zealand’s most successful Test bowler statistically in 2016 claiming 32 wickets at 21 from seven matches.
In all these games, he produced wickets at flat tracks and it’s fair to call him a flat-track bully. Not a great tag for a batsman, isn’t it? But for a bowler, it means outstanding. Wagner’s exploits on the flat track are what makes him special in home conditions and on pitches where batsmen tend to score plenty of runs.
But how does he do it?
According to CricViz, Wagner's wicket ball to Joe Denly, in England’s second innings pitched 31cm fuller than the previous ball but bounced 50cm higher by the time it reached the stumps. That’s the versatility of his short balls.
Take all six of his deliveries from an over, all pitched extremely close each other, yet the bounce takes it all levels and areas. The unpredictability is what sets him apart from everyone else. What makes it even better is that Wagner does it on all sorts of pitches.
Coming to the recently-concluded first Test, where Boult barely bowled and Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad failed terribly. But Wagner didn’t fail to put on a show. That’s where a work-horse comes in. He isn’t fast but he’s definitely furious. While BJ Watling’s double hundred was what set the tone of the game in New Zealand’s favour, it was Wagner who turned it into a bowler’s game. That’s the beauty of him. A pure piece of beauty in the form of a raging warrior.
After years and years of producing these wonders, Wagner is enjoying all that he has reaped in the form of numbers. He became the second-fastest New Zealand bowler to 100 wickets early in 2019, only behind Sir Richard Hadlee. His incredible form this year, having claimed 24 wickets in 6 innings, is only testimony to the great abilities of the outstanding bowler and the coming is only the reward for it.
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