Neil Wagner | Warhorse and a smiling assassin that awaits India
When the cricket nuffies were still digesting some tough cookies thrown at the Aussies in the 2019 Ashes, the Kiwis were brewing their mix of toughness in the form of Neil Wagner.
A riveting watch. As I recall the ball-by-ball action of the Blackcaps taking on an ominous-looking Australian side Down Under, one that featured last year's best Test batsman and Steven Smith. There are certain things you find hard to relate with the current New Zealand side - physical aggression, verbal duels, and ungentlemenish behavior.
The moving-on phase from the infamous 2019 Cricket World Cup super over had toned down their morale but not the spirits. If a physical demonstration of action and emotions aren't their cup of tea, the Kiwis ensured that they had all in the mix without going over-board. And boy, did the 33-year-old war-horse rise to the occasion.
A series of bodyline-ribcage - directed short stuff provided for a compelling view. An old-fashioned battle embroidered with the knowledge of detailed shortcomings of some of the best-known defenders of the cricket ball. The plan was simple and divided into two parts. Tackle the right-handers from over the wicket and cramp them for room. Similarly, if you were to bowl from round the wicket, left-hand batters would suffer a similar fate.
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With not express pace to bank on, Wagner hurled onto the batsman with deliveries that nipped either way, bouncing the pink and the red cherry from halfway down the pitch. Aussies had a peach under their sleeves going by the name of Mitchell Starc. But it wasn't the same when Mathew Wade and Steve Smith took on Wagner in the middle. A string of impeccable batting performances had helped Wade earn a spot as a pure batsman in the jam-packed Aussie line-up. He was leaner, muscular and boasted of a clearer head than previous times. The first Test at Optus Stadium was a prime example.
No batsman, trust me, no batsman likes to be stared right-back, half-way down the pitch after receiving a series of body blows. Wade stood his ground, his eyes unflinching at the prospect of getting hit on his right arm, shoulder or even the head. The battle resembled more of a boxing defense-n-offense training, with Wade keeping his head straight and eyes glued on the pink-ball and body ducking through the muscle memory created over the years. Soon the crowd got involved. They knew that the real action started during Wagner's extended follow-through. But it wasn't a one-way street. Wade is as tough as a cricketer gets after years of toil in the Aussie framework. When Wagner hit him on his arm, he didn't care. If he opened him up and still got a bit of flesh on the way, Wade didn't nudge. He just didn't. Explained best by Australian head coach Justin Langer, the word is 'Crazy', absolutely nuts. That's how Wade had built himself in the Aussie dressing room. He doesn't want the records, he isn't after those hundreds that the mortal cricketers drool over. He wants to be the strongest cricketer there, in the middle, taking on anyone anywhere.
No words were spoken. As you would expect from a New Zealander. But the sense of admiration was present the entire time. A smirk exchanged between the two, a friendly nod to acknowledge the level they were competing at, and then the crowd build-up as Wagner steadied himself for another go at Wade. The duel wasn't complete. The margin for error was minimum and as soon as Wagner went wide of the crease and bowled a similar length but with an off-side heavy line, Wade latched on it. A way of respecting the opposition when they are good but putting them away when they err even a little. Some pundits take it as maturity, and rightly so while others talk about it as character.
Wagner took to the world-stage by claiming the best Australia had to offer, 17 wickets in all. He claimed Smith in each of the four innings, getting the all-important batsman at scores of 43, 16, 85 and 7. Something which is expected more out of a bowler like Trent Boult bowling in the mid 140s, Wagner troubled the strongest and also possibly the best defender of the ball with his inexplicable line and lengths.
With no left-arm pacer in their arsenal, India have a tough task at hand - a good old-fashioned Test battle between the bat and the ball.Published 12 Feb 2020, 16:16 IST