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Wagner’s World: The inside story of New Zealand’s history-makers

by Taha Hashim 7 minute read

Neil Wagner sits down with Taha Hashim to take Wisden.com through the two-year journey of New Zealand’s historic World Test Championship win.

Out there in the middle, Neil Wagner is one of cricket’s most menacing prospects. Broad shoulders, veins throbbing, a wicket-taking roar and bouncer after bouncer… after bouncer – the New Zealand fast bowler has made a name for himself as a man who gives no inch to the poor guy at the other end.

But as he greets Wisden.com over a Zoom call, there’s a big smile. And so there should be: we’re speaking just weeks on from New Zealand’s victory in the inaugural World Test Championship. Wagner, who took 35 wickets at an average of 22.97 in the tournament, is here to take us through the key moments in a momentous two-year cycle.

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Sri Lanka v New Zealand

August 2019
Two-match series drawn 1-1

On July 14, 2019, New Zealand hearts are shattered. In a World Cup final no one will ever forget, England triumph in the Super Over at Lord’s by virtue of a superior boundary count after the scores are tied. As one global tournament ends, another begins: the World Test Championship kicks off with the Ashes and continues with New Zealand’s visit to Sri Lanka. But the wounds are still present when the Test squad assembles, as Wagner – a red-ball specialist – explains.

NW: There wasn’t a big gap between the World Cup and then going to Sri Lanka, and a lot of the guys who were part of the final were in Sri Lanka. When we got together as a group there were a lot of people who didn’t look like they actually wanted to play cricket at the time. It was hard for them to put what had happened behind them.

There were a lot of guys who weren’t part of that tournament coming into the group with a lot of energy – the likes of myself and BJ Watling – who were really looking forward to the challenge of the World Test Championship. We brought in a lot of energy, but you could see that the other guys were still affected by what had happened.

When we got there, the manager of the group, Mike Sandle, got them [the World Cup players] all together and went into the team room. The other Test guys were still in their rooms. Afterwards, we then got invited to join this meeting. When we walked in there, you could see something had fallen off their shoulders. I don’t know what was discussed and what happened but you could see it was a turning point for a lot of the guys. We just sat down with them to talk about everything that’s not to do with cricket, caught up with one another, and you could see that it was good that happened. You could see there was a different sort of energy and the guys were ready for the World Test Championship.

“It was hard for them to put what had happened behind them”

Australia v New Zealand

December 2019 – January 2020
Australia win the three-match series 3-0

After battling to a 1-1 draw in Sri Lanka, New Zealand’s next World Test Championship assignment is a visit to Australia – and it’s a series to forget for the Black Caps. On the opening day of the first Test, under the scorching Perth sun, debutant quick Lockie Ferguson suffers a calf strain, leading to Wagner bowling 60 overs in a 296-run defeat. Our narrator enjoys a fantastic series, taking 17 wickets at 22.76, but his side continues to lurch from one blow to the next. 

When it comes to the final Test of the series in Sydney, New Zealand are without Trent Boult (fractured hand), Kane Williamson, Mitchell Santner and Henry Nicholls (the trio laid low by illness). The chaos leads to a Test debut for Glenn Phillips, who is in New Zealand on the eve of the match when selector Gavin Larsen rings and tells him to get on a plane. The tour ends with a 279-run defeat for the visitors.

NW: It was a pretty tough series and it hit us pretty hard. We kept playing our brand of cricket, kept trying really hard but didn’t have much luck. Things didn’t fold our way and we couldn’t really throw a punch, and it just showed what a quality team Australia are in their own backyard.

They played extremely well. There was never really a half chance to create something. I thought we bowled pretty well, and they batted pretty well, and when they came out they were relentless with the ball and just didn’t give us anything. They know how to bowl in their conditions, how to whack that wicket really hard and they obviously bowl with an extreme amount of pace as well.

It was a tough flight back home with a lot of questions in the media, and we tried to put it behind us quite quickly and just focus on an Indian series which was a month or so around the corner.

A series to forget

New Zealand v India

February – March 2020
New Zealand win the two-match series 2-0

New Zealand return to winning ways at home against India as Test cricket is introduced to its newest star: Kyle Jamieson. With Wagner on paternity leave during the first Test due to the birth of his daughter, the 6ft 8in colossus makes his debut and takes 4-39 in India’s first innings at Wellington before Tim Southee finishes with nine in the match to set up a 10-wicket win. 

Wagner returns for the second Test to create a fierce pace attack with Southee, Boult and Jamieson, and the newest member of the group is named Player of the Match after taking the first five-for of his international career. A little over a year later, Jamieson caps his rapid rise with a Player-of-the-Match performance in the World Test Championship final. The 26-year-old’s start to Test cricket has been extraordinary – after eight matches he has 46 wickets at an average of 14.17.

NW: Well, it worked out quite well. Our daughter was born and I wasn’t there [for the Test], and Kyle took his opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. He showed an extreme amount of skill, showed what he could bring to this group and fitted in seamlessly. The moment didn’t get a hold of him; he just came in, wanted to learn and be a part of the team and he did it brilliantly. In the second Test, when I came back, as part of a four-pronged seam attack, to do what he did, to show his craft and skill, to be able to come off his height and still bowl at a really good pace and swing the ball both ways – he was just relentless in his areas.

He’s able to hit the same areas for a long period of time, ask tough questions and make it hard for batsmen. It’s been amazing to watch. He’s fitted into the group and quickly become one of our mates and a great asset to the team. He’s a great human being and a special person. Even with all the other stuff, the big IPL contract and everything, nothing’s changed him.

New Zealand celebrate a 2-0 series win over India

New Zealand v West Indies

December 2020
New Zealand win the two-match series 2-0

Nine months on from New Zealand’s last Test assignment, the world is a very different place, but Kane Williamson is still one hell of a batsman. His 412-ball 251 in the first Test at Seddon Park kicks off an innings win and clean sweep of a home summer.

NW: Coming into that Test match, on a wicket with a lot of grass on in it, we’re batting first and the ball is nipping all over the place. And if you want someone to bat for your life it’s Kane. Just the way he goes in there, the patience he showed, it was just a batting masterclass. I thought West Indies bowled really well and put us under pressure and for Kane to bat the way he did and to give us a score on the board just set up that whole Test and series nicely. They weren’t easy conditions, but he’s played for so long that he knows his game inside out. He stood up to the occasion again – he’s done it for a long time for us now.

New Zealand v Pakistan

December 2020 – January 2021
New Zealand win the two-match series 2-0

Wagner brings us theatre in a thrilling series opener at the Bay Oval. While batting in the first innings of the match, the quick is struck on the boot by a fierce Shaheen Afridi yorker, resulting in, not one, but two fractured toes. And yet Wagner carries on. He bowls 49 overs in the match and, as Pakistan threaten to save the game on the final day, claims the crucial wicket of Fawad Alam to help set up a last-gasp win.

NW: Firstly, I don’t think I’ve faced two better yorkers in my life. [Afridi] actually bowled me a few deliveries before that, rocked my castle with a yorker that swung in pretty quick. I was walking back when the umpire said it was a no-ball so I had to go back and face him. I thought, ‘This is great, I’ve got another opportunity, let’s make the most of this’. And I think it was a few balls later, a seriously fast yorker, and it was probably up there with one of the fastest or best yorkers I’ve ever faced. It was a lethal delivery, straight on the toes. He’s a quality bowler, there’s no doubt about it. Facing him you know there’s something special about him.

I knew straight away that something was wrong. I tried to bat through it, scored a couple of runs in the end, but I just kept feeling the pain. Adrenaline got me through that and I went out to bowl and just tried to wear the pain as much as I could. It was sore but I had a job to do. It’s pretty special to play for New Zealand with a bunch of mates. When the chance comes you’re truly grateful for that opportunity. I didn’t want to miss it and I just wanted to be a part of the team. I wanted to be out there.

Wagner battles through the pain

Walking off afterwards, after bowling a couple of overs that evening, I felt quite a bit of pain and then went to the hospital and found out that I had two broken toes. It was pretty frustrating because it’s one of those things you can’t control. The first thing I asked the physio was, ‘What can I do to bowl?’ He just looked at me and said: ‘I don’t know how you’re going to bowl, but it’s just going to come down to how much pain you can bear. We can try and numb it and see what you can do. It’s not going to get worse, it’s just going to come down to what you can do.’

I tried to do as much as I could for the team. I knew I was potentially going to be ruled out of the next Test, but instead of sitting on the side watching my teammates go through the hard work, I wanted to be out there just to play some part – even if it was just taking one wicket or bowling a couple of overs and giving the others some rest while going for no runs. It was tough but it was one of those things made easy by playing for your country, playing a Test match and playing with your mates out there, the guys who motivate me to do it for the black cap on my head. It was a pretty special feeling to get across the line and win a Test match with those lads. For two broken toes, it was all worth it.

India v New Zealand

June 2021
New Zealand win the World Test Championship final by eight wickets

In early February it’s announced that Australia’s tour of South Africa has been postponed, confirming New Zealand’s place in the inaugural World Test Championship final. India are their opponents in Southampton, but the showpiece affair is threatened by rain – a sixth and final day is required. India begin it on 64-2 in their second innings, leading by just 32. Enter Jamieson and Southee, to bowl at Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara.

NW: Coming into that last day, there were a few nerves around because we knew all three results were still possible. But we knew that if we did what we’d been doing for a number of years, to the best of our ability, we’d give ourselves the best chance. And we couldn’t have asked for a better start. The way Kyle and Tim started, it was probably one of the best spells of bowling I’ve seen. They were just relentless in their areas, making the ball talk the whole time. They didn’t miss, really, and kept building pressure on two of the best batsmen going around in Virat and Pujara.

Jamieson bursts the door open with the dismissals of Kohli and Pujara, and while Rishabh Pant strikes 41, New Zealand’s pace quartet combine to bowl India out for 170 – 139 runs are required for World Test Championship glory. At 44-2, the situation is tense as Ross Taylor, his country’s leading international run-scorer, joins Williamson out in the middle. So, Neil, how long did that chase feel?

NW: It felt like ages. Honestly, just the longest chase ever. It was amazing to watch because it just looked like an absolute fight, an absolute grind. To handle that and drag that out and have that patience and mindset to eat up a lot of balls that are moving around and challenging you consistently, it was a pleasure to watch. As a fan of Test cricket, and as a guy playing it and watching it in the changing room, I was sort of loving it, but at the same time nervous and not loving it. Know what I mean?

They kept getting the ball to move and do things: Ross got hit on the helmet from a length ball; Kane took a number of blows on the body – the way he left and the way he played, he was having to be so selective in his shots.

On top of the world

Every single was cheered loudly in the changing room. It was like we were playing a T20 match. In Test matches you don’t always cheer a single or a run. You get the odd four where someone claps. To hear every run cheered, it was pretty special. We knew how much hard work went into every run. We all had our different seats; we didn’t want to move. It wasn’t till there was about 20 runs left that we all got together as a group and it started hitting home. It was pretty amazing to see the energy in the changing room, how everyone felt and what it meant.

Ross hit the winning runs with Kane there next to him – New Zealand fans couldn’t have asked for two better and more fitting people to take us through. To see what it was like for them out in the middle, to see the celebrations in the changing room and what it meant for everyone around us, the feeling was amazing and hard to describe. Knowing what we’d been though as a team for a number of years, to being able to be where we are now and achieve that was just an amazing feeling.

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