Picture this: New Zealand find themselves bowling to an indomitable batting unit. They have lost the toss, meaning that the opposition is going to make the most of the batting conditions. Oh, by the way, the weather is extremely hot and is making their bowlers gasp for air after every impactful spell.
The game meanders along after New Zealand’s sprightly opening exchange. The opposition has still not been dented and it seems that they can bat until the cows come home.
Worryingly, New Zealand, a team that rarely looks clueless, has begun contemplating the worst. They aren’t just thinking about what they need to do to nudge ahead in the game. They are also wondering what would happen if things continue to transpire the way they’ve done so far.
The chatter between overs (among fielders) grows in frequency and length. Each conversation leads the New Zealand players to believe that they can still land a substantial blow. But it eventually fizzles out with a sense of inevitability dawning.
Thus, when a left-arm seamer, who hardly resembles a fast bowler, marks out his run-up, not many bother with his name. Everyone at the ground expects him to be taken to the cleaners too. New Zealand, though, just start showing a bit of spike in the field. In fact, there is a spring in their step as well.
Those watching the game opine that this effervescence – much like it did at the start of the day, would peter out. Those notions aren’t completely baseless. They’ve seen it happen already and the surface looks more like a runway than a cricketing pitch, meaning that New Zealand could be subjected to a similar fate soon.
The pacer rocks up and hurls down his first delivery. Short, wide and left alone. He repeats the same process and digs another ball into the surface. He barely evokes any response – both from the track and from the batter. The spectators, meanwhile, are busy moaning and groaning.
The same sequence keeps repeating for the next few minutes. This bowler has tested out the middle of the strip at every possible opportunity and has, courtesy of his tactics, bordered on absurdity.
But then, something changes.
Batters begin playing shots to balls that ought to be ducked under. They drive at deliveries that should ideally be defended. More tellingly, though, they throw away their wickets when it seemed easier to bat New Zealand out of the game.
New Zealand, rather unsurprisingly, erupt in joy. They have, after long hours of toil, finally broken open the game. And, on a drab and docile surface, made things happen. Or, more precisely, seen Neil Wagner make things happen.
Cut to reality. This is 2021. New Zealand have survived by the skin of their teeth at Kanpur and seem well-placed to go one better at Mumbai. Their batting seems in fine order, whereas Kyle Jamieson and Tim Southee have also been penetrative.
The potency of the duo, though, means that Wagner has to miss out – partly due to the variety of options New Zealand ideally want but largely because of their fixation of playing three spinners.
On paper, a strategy of deploying three spinners in India isn’t an unwise decision. However, when considering that such a tactic leaves Wagner out and prefers spinners who can’t provide control, let alone pick wickets, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
On Day 1, Ajaz Patel looked a cut above the rest. He flighted the ball delightfully, got it to dip and drift at vital junctures and accounted for all Indian batters to fall.
New Zealand's spinners, barring Ajaz, struggled at Mumbai
At the other end, Will Somerville leaked runs for fun. The off-spinner, who isn’t a huge turner of the ball, kept bowling outside leg stump, hoping that the batters would, probably out of sympathy, gift him a scalp. With Mayank Agarwal in full flow, though, that was never going to happen.
Somerville bowled a grand total of eight overs. He conceded 46 runs at an economy rate of 5.75. The economy rate, in isolation, is pretty dire. But if someone were to watch how Somerville operated, they wouldn’t be wrong in suggesting that he looks out of his depth at this level – at least against batters worth their salt.
To add further context, Somerville’s tally was overshadowed by Daryl Mitchell and Rachin Ravindra, who combined to bowl 9 overs throughout the day. Mitchell and Ravindra, by the way, are all-rounders who, under ordinary circumstances, might not want to bowl a lot.
That, in itself, is an indictment alarming enough for New Zealand to question their omission of Wagner.
Had Wagner played, he would’ve allowed New Zealand to exert pressure. Though he might not have extracted a lot of assistance from the surface, he would’ve done enough to keep a lid on the scoring rate and allow Ajaz to turn the screw at the other end.
Apart from that, Wagner could also have exploited the spongy bounce on offer at the Wankhede Stadium. Throughout the day, there weren’t many bouncers bowled at the Indian batters, meaning that they camped on the front foot. With Wagner in the mix, that might not have been the case.
Thus, it seems that New Zealand have missed a trick by excluding Wagner, despite the pitch not really being conducive to fast bowlers. He might not qualify as a spinner but he would’ve added more value than what Somerville has done or might do in the rest of the game.
It seems quite remarkable that New Zealand, of all teams, aren’t able to understand Wagner’s true value, especially after everything he has done. Remember, he has more than 200 wickets (229) at an average of just over 26. So, he isn’t necessarily a flash in the pan as many suggested when he started.
He may not be as glamorous as Southee or Trent Boult. He might not have rewritten history like Jamieson. He most certainly isn’t the first name New Zealand have had on their team sheets lately. Yet, he does possess the heart of a lion – the heart that makes the unthinkable and ludicrous seem routine.
He bowls with broken toes, he bowls on dead pitches, he bowls long spells and he bowls himself into the ground. But more crucially, he finds methods to make things happen, irrespective of the conditions, opposition and situation.
On that count, oh, Wagner is almost incomparable.
After Day 1 of the 2nd Test against India, you can’t help but wonder if New Zealand would be hoping for some divine intervention that allows Wagner to be unleashed.
This is New Zealand’s tale – a tale of only two pacers. A tale that they dearly want to go their way. Yet, a tale that doesn’t feature Neil Wagner. And, most damningly, a tale that has left New Zealand without their usual beacon of inspiration.