Most quicks have a bouncer or two; Wagner has an entire collection. He aims to bowl as short as possible while adhering to the limits on two bouncers – defined as balls that go over the shoulder – per over.
“Sometimes I try bowling the two deliveries above the shoulder early to make the batsman think that I’m not going to bowl there again, and then be able to try and still bowl some underneath the shoulder,” he explains. “At other times I try and not bowl two above the shoulder to still make batters think that I’ve still got those two up my sleeve.”
The results are stunningly effective. Wagner averages just 22.1 with short balls in Tests. Wagner is not the most-vaunted member of the New Zealand attack but might just be the most valuable. His average of 26.3 is two runs fewer than Tim Southee and Trent Boult, even though Wagner has only taken the new ball three times in 51 Tests. Little wonder that he is now ranked the third best Test bowler in the world.
If Wagner’s self-assessment is overly self-effacing – it neglects both his ability to swing the ball when he pitches it up and the huge skill to deploy a repertoire of bouncers – his very lack of ego helps explain his great worth. “I don’t have what a lot of other fast bowlers have, in the sense of height with the skills of being able to move the ball both ways. So I always had to rely on different things and that is just work ethic and banging the ball in as hard as I can.”
Wagner’s style reflects his journey to being a Test cricketer. Growing up in Pretoria, he idolised Allan Donald and Brett Lee. But he struggled to break into domestic cricket in South Africa.
In 2008, Wagner had offers to play in county cricket as a Kolpak. But Wagner “had a big love for New Zealand sport,” especially the All Blacks. After Mike Hesson – Otago’s coach who later worked as New Zealand head coach – made contact, he moved to Dunedin instead.
“There was no mention of money. I wanted to play for New Zealand and play Test cricket so my answer straight away was yes.”
The contract was initially only for six months a year, and far less lucrative than offers from Hampshire and Sussex.
Playing for Otago, Wagner asked himself a simple question. What could give him the best chance of being picked in Test cricket? New Zealand were already well-endowed with new ball bowlers, led by Boult and Southee. What they lacked was bowlers adept with the old ball.
“I tried to think about how I can actually complement them and bowl around them,” he recalls. “The short ball has always been something that I’ve had, and I’ve always used it and I’ve always got wickets with it, but it’s not something that I just went to.”