Over the last five days, Wellington’s weather has not been hospitable to the visitors from Bangladesh. But the inhospitality of the weather was nothing compared to the treatment they got from Neil Wagner. The New Zealand fast bowler unleashed a torrent of quick, short pitched deliveries to the Bangladeshi batsmen and their resistance drained away almost as quickly as the rainwater cleared off the outfield. Wagner ended with figures of 9/73 in the match.
New Zealand had less than three days to try and secure a win, but Wagner’s heroics meant that they had two full sessions left after wrapping up the match by an innings and 12 runs.
Wagner moved to New Zealand a number of years ago, but he really started to come to the public’s attention in 2011.
Queenstown is a beautiful place. There's a lake with light blue water and mountain ranges on either side of it. The mountains are called the Remarkables, and they live up to the name. At the bottom of one of the mountains is Ray Davies Oval.
Queenstown is a popular place for a holiday, but Ray Davies Oval was not much of a holiday for the Wellington team in early April 2011. Otago's South African import bowler was steaming in and he looked angry. Wagner had picked up 42 wickets in the first nine matches that season. He had decided to move to New Zealand, rather than remaining an import, and some people had started to get excited at the prospect of him wearing the cream pullover with the silver fern.
Otago scored an imposing 414. Things weren't going particularly well for Wellington at 163/4, but they weren't a disaster. Yet.
Wagner's first ball was a lifting delivery outside off stump that took the edge of Stewart Rhodes’ bat and flew to the slips. That was the last time he would need a fielder in that over. The next three balls all cannoned into the base of the stumps leaving bewildered batsman walking back to the pavilion each time. Mark Gillespie managed to avoid being number five in five, but next ball his stumps were wrecked too.
Wagner had 5 wickets in 6 balls.
Just over a year later he became eligible for New Zealand, and quickly made his debut, but the reality did not initially match the hype.
He looked insipid on the tour of the West Indies in 2012, and even worse in South Africa in 2013. The South African players took great delight at telling him in Afrikaans (his native tongue) that he wasn't fast enough to play international cricket and he shouldn't be bowling bouncers because he'd get much worse back.
After three Tests he had only five wickets, costing close to 70 runs each. His next nine matches were better, but not much better. He took 34 wickets at 33.4 runs per wicket, but he was running into a rather unusual problem. The other bowlers were complaining about him destroying the ball. He often made the smooth side of the ball hit the pitch quite, roughing it up and denying that the other bowlers the swing they relied on. In a stable of quicks that including Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Chris Martin, all of whom were swing bowlers, this was not ideal.
One of the things that Martin had brought to the New Zealand team was his extraordinary fitness. He was able to bowl long spells while maintaining high intensity. This allowed the other quick bowlers to have a longer rest and be fresher when they were bowling next. After Martin retired, this was a role Wagner took over. He would bowl 12 or 13 overs on the trot and keep running in hard the whole time.
He now had a role: to build pressure, one far from the strike bowler he had been for Otago. But in December 2015, that all changed.
Sri Lanka had arrived to tour New Zealand. They had a powerful betting line up and had experienced some success in the previous tour. It was not expected to be an easy tour for the hosts.
However, almost every time a Sri Lankan batsman got set, they were unsettled by a short ball from Wagner. In the first Test in Dunedin he took four wickets with short deliveries, as well as getting Angelo Matthews bowled after pinning him to the crease, expecting another short ball.
Brendon McCullum, then Black Caps skipper, was prepared to gamble with a leg slip or leg gully as well as a short leg just in front of square. Rather than the traditional tactic of two men on the boundary, he only put one back, and put two up close. The Sri Lankan batsmen didn't know what to do against the approach.
Wagner missed out on the first Test against Australia in the next series, but played in the second. Some of the Australian batsman had suggested his short ball attack wouldn't work against them. They had faced left armers in shield cricket who were faster and taller than Wagner. All seven wickets that Wagner picked up were either short balls, or back of a good length, targeting the body. The rest of New Zealand’s bowlers struggled, but Wagner prospered.
The Wagner approach was now a thing. Over after over of energy-sapping quick balls directed at the ribs/shoulders with relentless accuracy. This while bowling to a field that would have not been out of place in the bodyline series.
If a batsman tries to defend it, it's dangerous because it might pop up, and there's a man there. If he attacks it, that's dangerous, because there's a man there. If he tries to sway away, that's dangerous, because Wagner's a left-armer, so a batsman has to sway further than he would against a right-armer. He often bowls over the wicket to right-handers and round the wicket to left-handers, which makes swaying difficult — both Mitchell Johnson and Wasim Akram also did this, and they both also regularly hit batsmen who tried to sway. Ducking is also dangerous, because Wagner’s short, so the batsman has to go down a long way. Just waiting it out is hard too, because Wagner's fit enough to keep it up for 12 overs.
He manages to get both sideways movement and variable bounce out of even quite placid pitches. In one spell in the UAE against Pakistan all the short balls landed within a very small area, but they ended up reaching the batsmen at very different locations. The batsman had to be able to read the ball off the pitch at 135 km/h. That’s difficult enough against a mystery spinner bowling at 85km/h.
The Wagner approach has worked against almost everyone. Since he started to employ it he averages under 40 against every team, with only England and India not losing wickets at significantly less than that to him.
On his second tour of South Africa they were too busy nursing their bruised ribs and egos to continue telling him he shouldn't ball bouncers at his pace.
Since December 2015, only Kagiso Rabada has a better strike rate and average of all active pace bowlers to have taken 50 wickets in at least 20 matches. Wagner has been a force of nature.
The most impressive thing is that he's done it with the old ball. He's not picking up his wickets at the time that's the most amenable to fast bowling, he's picking up his wickets at the time when the batsman are supposed to be dominating.
Wagner's very rarely bowled before the 20th over. He's often been used as the fourth seamer, allowing Colin de Grandhomme to bowl a few, effective overs with the new ball. New Zealand have been able to give Boult and Southee a good early spell, with the assurance that they will have time to get batsmen out, then unleash Wagner once the ball starts to lose its swing.
The balance that he's provided has helped turn New Zealand from a team who were genuinely noncompetitive quite often into a quality side. New Zealand have won 15 Tests and only lost six that Wagner has played in since December 2015. In those matches they’ve averaged 10 more with the bat than the ball.
Bangladesh didn’t have the answers against Wagner in Wellington, but they can take some solace from the fact that nobody else really has had them either.