Truth: Neil Wagner loves to celebrate his wickets as much as anyone else © AFP
Truth: Neil Wagner loves to celebrate his wickets as much as anyone else © AFP

Born in Pretoria, South Africa, Neil Wagner is now ‘a fully converted Kiwi’. An addition to New Zealand‘s pace bowling pair of Trent Boult and Tim Southee, 30-year-old Wagner has taken big strides in Test cricket. You could term his growth, as in leaps and bounds. A story that started with an impactful First-class career with Northerns in South Africa, turned, to produce an excellent prospect, but for New Zealand Cricket. The quota issues in South African cricket, made him leave the country, and settle in Dunedin, New Zealand. The move —  coupe de maitre: a masterstroke. Memories of watching Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, bowl at Centurion, and feeling his love for the game ooze out then, came to his mind, when the left-arm fast bowler, represented the Black Caps, in the second Test, last month. That, was his homecoming. He could not hide his emotions then.

Wagner, is an important and interesting element of New Zealand’s pace jigsaw. And he, has fit into the side as time has gone, since he received his first Test call-up in 2012, for a tour of West Indies. He, by now has played in 23 Tests, has 94 wickets, and maintains a bowling average of 29.13. His best came against Zimbabwe recently when New Zealand romped the hosts, playing in whites after a long gap, by an innings and 117-run margin in the first of a two-match Test series. Wagner, then claimed 8 for 103 at Bulawayo. New Zealand went on to win the series 0-2. READ: India vs New Zealand: Tim Southee set for test of character and skill

But they had a tougher challenge ahead to follow. Kane Williamson’s men had Faf du Plessis‘ re-building Test team (South Africa) to face. A wet outfield at Kingsmead washed out the first Test. The two-match series then, went into a winner-takes-all Test at Centurion, once Wagner’s home. His family was there, for the first time to watch him play. “Some of them have seen me play before but they don’t all travel so this was the first time I’ve had all of my family and friends that I grew up with sit next to a field and watch a Test match,” Wagner said on Day One of the Centurion Test. READ: India vs New Zealand: Trent Boult’s golden opportunity to stem an impact in the subcontinent

Wagner picked up the first wicket that day. That of Quinton de Kock. That too with a short ball. (One of Wagner’s strengths that we will discuss later) Nevertheless, while South Africa’s top-four registered half-centuries that day, Wagner supported his captain’s decision to bowl first. But on Day Two, he would see one of his friends, since primary school, notch up a patient, determined hundred. du Plessis, captaining his team in the Test series, played backyard cricket with Wagner when they were both children. What’s even more interesting of the saga, is that both of them, were high-school teammates with AB de Villiers at the Afrikaans Seuns Hoerskool.

He could not get du Plessis out but he did take 5 for 86 in the first innings. However, a certain Dale Steyn: denied a chance to make a comeback at Kingsmead, Durban — turned on the style at Centurion. Steyn lead South Africa to a 204-run win. The Proteas won the series 1-0.

Wagner though, was again terrific. In five Tests that he has played in 2016, Wagner has scalped 27 wickets, that, at 18.66. He has not only made the third seamer’s role his own, but has been a go-to for Williamson. Kiwi coach Mike Hesson, realises what he brings to the table. “In the last six months since the Test against Australia at the Hagley Oval, he has gone from strength to strength and has established himself as the third seamer,” Hesson said. “He keeps running in and picks up top-order wickets – it’s critical for us,” he said recently.

While Southee, not-so-effective on the tour of South Africa, relies on pace and out-swing deliveries and left-armer Boult, relies on that lateral movement in the air that he gets on his swinging deliveries; Wagner is a mix. He isn’t very quick. He can swing it both ways, can reverse-swing it too. But what New Zealand’s last two tours, of Zimbabwe and South Africa respectively, have shown, is that he loves to bowl bouncers. He used the short ball to full effect against South Africa at Centurion. He did extract that extra bounce off the pitch at SuperSport Park. What he also thrives on is the fact that he loves to intimidate his opponent: the batsman. Call him a perfect definition of a fast bowler, Wagner would not shy away from giving a mouthful to the batsman, the moment he gets the better of him, or if he wants to distract his focus.

No wonder, Hesson said, “He (Wagner) is a combative character. That’s a big part of who he is but he plays the game in good spirits. No quarter given and no quarter asked for.”

The pitches in Bulawayo, Durban and Centurion might have yielded plenty of opportunities for Wagner to really sort of flourish and make a name for himself, India will be a completely different game. First of all, New Zealand will have to see the balance of the side. Conditions are expected to favour spin, which means the challenge will be vastly different from what New Zealand saw in their last two tours. Now, Williamson will at least go in with two spinners out of left-armer Mitchell Santner, leg-spinner Ish Sodhi and off-break bowler Mark Craig. Southee and Boult are sure to start. And Wagner will probably win the choice between him, Jimmy Neesham and Doug Bracewell. Why? Because of his capability to take wickets even in conditions that are unhelpful.

But it might just be an interesting battle, that Wagner will have to fight against India’s batsmen, to get through them. We saw him testing the patience of South Africa’s batsmen last month with short deliveries. de Kock was a victim of it, so was Duminy on an occasion. But du Plessis, mid-way into his innings decided to play his short balls head on. Similarly, India’s batting unit too, has some who leave, duck well to short deliveries. While Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have their own ways of dealing with bouncers, Wriddhimann Saha’s approach to short balls is sound too. A Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma though, might even hook it, as and when they get settled at the crease. So Wagner, will have to think well. He picked 8 wickets against India, in 2014, when MS Dhoni’s team paid a visit to New Zealand. That will give him that psychological boost for sure.

Well, whether he shines for New Zealand or not will be seen when the Test series gets underway. One thing is certain though, he is sure to have plenty of face-offs with India’s batsmen throughout the series. And if he wants to have the last laugh, then, the hardworking pumped-up raging bull that Wagner is, will have to play out of his skin, and be exemplary.

(Karan Dewana reporter with CricketCountry, loves following and playing sports. He is a Team India fan and loves winning. Follow him on his twitter handle @karan13dewan)