Watching Neil Wagner bowl is one of the most visceral cricket experiences out there. He spews his guts out, drags us with him into the heat of the battle, make us feel his pain, his effort, his ceaseless energy, his undying passion- it can all get a bit gut-wrenching at times. No other pacer hurls as many bouncers as him. No one is as accurate as him. It all began with Allan Donald.
Neil Wagner was 12 and living in motherland South Africa when he saw one of the greatest duels between a fast bowler and a batsman: Allan Donald vs Mike Atherton, 1998. Balls of fire vs courage. “There were a lot of stares and glares in the middle of the wicket, and I remember getting absolute goose bumps,” years later Wagner would tell New Zealand Herald, nailing that moment of falling in love with pacy bouncers. He carried drinks for couple of South Africa’s Tests but with competition escalating, he switched to New Zealand.
And it was a game against Sri Lanka in 2016 when Neil Wagner became the bouncer-happy Wagner that the cricketing world watches in awe these days. In the words of Australian Matthew Wade, who was once peppered by a Wagner barrage in Perth, “If you looked at all the bouncers he bowled … he’s always between your shoulder and the top of your peak, or in your armpits. I don’t think anyone in the game has bowled bouncers the way he bowled and been so consistent, and not gotten scored off while also picking up wickets. I’ve never faced a bowler who is so accurate at bowling bouncers.”
WHAT A GAME OF CRICKET
New Zealand have won it by the barest of margins…
This is test cricket at its finest ❤️
— Cricket on BT Sport (@btsportcricket) February 28, 2023
In that game against Sri Lanka at Dunedin, urged by his team-mate Tom Latham, Wagner went for an all-bouncer attack. “It was a 10-over spell, and I just bowled bouncers. People like [Black Caps opener] Tom Latham had often suggested I play to my strength and concentrate on the bouncers. But it was the first time it really fell into place.It got to the point where I had set Mathews up, and Tim Southee came up and said don’t be shy of aiming a yorker at leg stump. I bowled a perfect one. It was an extremely special moment, a team-oriented effort, after a discussion that went around the players. It made me feel part of something bigger.”
And yet things had threatened to go pear-shaped in the second Test against England in the current series. Harry Brook repeatedly backed away from the stumps to thump him all over the park as he bled 101 runs from his 17 overs on the opening day’s play. The game hurtled towards the final day and came in the hands of Wagner, who is a bit of a fourth-innings specialist. When most pacers are running out of gas, Wagner, incredibly, manages to dig deep to fine undying fire.
England were resuscitated from the depths of 80 for 5 by Joe Root and Ben Stokes and reached 201 for 5, needing just 57 more when Tim Southee brought on Wagner. For one last dice roll, for one one final blast. Until then, Stokes, who was battling a dodgy knee, had gone anti-Bazball, dropping anchor to reach 33 from 116 balls.
Off his third ball, Wagner went round the stumps at Stokes and fired a short ball; Stokes swayed away. Next ball came another bouncer and this time Stokes decided to go for it. He backed away and flung his bat at it, but the bottom-hand slipped out, and he skied a catch.
“It’s about summing up the conditions. There is a period of where you go at him, take risks, and see if you can do this (bouncing at Stokes) – and buy a wicket . They needed runs, they also know they can get out,” Wagner would say later. “When you get wickets, it makes hard for the next guy to start. It’s about summing up the conditions in the moment of the game.”
The conditions to be summed up was this: a fifth-day pitch without venom, just 50-odd runs needed, and two set batsmen in. And Wagner stirred.
But Root was still in, and on 95 no less. He knew what was coming from Wagner and so of the first ball next over, he retreated back in the crease and had a higher bat lift. But this Wagner bouncer doesn’t bounce as high and Root’s intended pull goes awry, ballooning up to the man at midwicket. 202 for 7, and Wagner’s New Zealand get ahead.
But Ben Foakes played a superb hand to show why England prefer him over Jos Buttler in Tests. Wondrous behind the stumps, and increasingly nerveless in front of it, these days. But with just seven runs left, Southee’s bouncer induces an out-of-control pull from Foakes, and the ball flies to fine-leg where who else but Wagner stood. “Tim [southee] always gives me stick for not taking catches in my career! He was very happy that I added a couple to tally. It’s a moment you live for; these pressure situations. Put up your hand – I take pride and passion.” And he swallows it.
But with 6 left, when James Anderson crashed a four, even Wagner felt it was over. “I was going for his gloves and last thing I expected him was backing away and getting a big hit at it. And going between Williamson’s legs is not something you see. Especially in the over prior, one edge flew over Blundell (the wicketkeeper). You start thinking, whether that’s it, is this the game?”
Luckily, he refocussed and had one final dart at Anderson with just 2 needed. “Too much went through my head. Gosh! All the things that go at top of mark. What ball to bowl, they needed 2 runs. Should I pitch it and be at his stumps. You just stick to your guns. Keep thinking about getting that glove or catches in play. It just came off.”
There is also a moment when he was very young at backyard cricket in South Africa that probably decided the course of his career for him. An older brother bounced a tennis-ball, wrapped by insulation tape, at him at high pace, right on his ear. He was told not to cry and complain, but harden up. “We played a lot of back yard cricket, and what was supposed to be touch rugby which always ended up with contact. I wouldn’t say I was bullied, but I had to fight for things,” he told NZ Herald.
When he was 13, his parents lost their jobs in real estate business. They lost their home. It took five years for their parents to reestablish themselves, with catering and gardening business. Neil’s resolve to make something of his life grew.
Till date, his pre-season training is quite something. He sprints 100m, 200m,300m, 400m with just a minute’s rest in between. Three minutes of rest, basically. Then he rushes to the gym to pound his body for 90 minutes.
“You feel like you want to spew your guts out.” On field, he does spew his guts out; so do the batsmen.