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Neil Wagner vs Hieronymus Bosch.
Neil Wagner vs Hieronymus Bosch.

SportsNovember 21, 2019

In praise of Neil Wagner, the Black Cap who forges beauty out of brutality

Neil Wagner vs Hieronymus Bosch.
Neil Wagner vs Hieronymus Bosch.

James Borrowdale spent the last cricket season examining Neil Wagner and his unique approach to bowling. Today, in the first test of the Black Caps’ summer, Wagner returns.

Neil Wagner has a wicket. He freezes mid-pitch, fists clenched at his side, knees slightly bent, a roar on his lips. His brows are knitted into a rictus of… well, what exactly? Any other New Zealand bowler and I’d say joy, pride in a job done, relief, but Wagner displays nothing like the boyish grin that accompanies a Trent Boult breakthrough, or Tim Southee’s winning smile and one arm aloft as he follows through to the keeper; Wagner’s celebration, as teammates converge to dilute the spectacle, or maybe to restrain it, is an existential, vein-popping cry into the void. Equal parts fury and pain, he looks like a transplant from a Hieronymus Bosch depicting one of Hell’s hotter circles.

By now, we’re all familiar with the cause of this celebration: the packed leg-side field, the ball fired into the pitch to rise uncomfortably into the ribcage. It’s been overwhelmingly successful: Wagner was the second-fastest New Zealand bowler to 100 wickets, behind Sir Richard Hadlee, and – following his nine-wicket haul in the last test against Bangladesh – he is now officially the eighth-best bowler in the world, according to the International Cricket Council’s rankings. At the end of last summer, he ranked fifth.

Wagner upends cricketing orthodoxy, the “top-of-off-stump” ideology that remains the agreed-upon rulebook for fast bowling – and one of which he himself was once a disciple. On his peripatetic journey around world cricket, from the South African Highveld to damp England and then to frigid Dunedin, his accent has softened and his cricket has hardened: no longer the swing bowler who is thought to be first to take five first-class wickets in an over, he emerged from his chrysalis as an architect of intimidation.

And yet, he shares few of the characteristics of history’s most fearsome fast bowlers. Not for him the limb-flailing unpredictability of Australian terror Jeff Thompson; you know exactly where Wagner is going to pitch the ball. Nor the height of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, whose deliveries were speared into the pitch from 10 feet high, spitting venomously to threaten the throat. He doesn’t have the slippery speed of Dale Steyn, nor Shoaib Akhtar’s pure, electrifying pace. His profile on the cricket fan’s digital Bible, ESPNCricinfo, lists him as “left-arm medium-fast”. In a classification system in which the coupling or omission of two words, “fast” and “medium”, make up the four possible combinations – medium; medium-fast; fast-medium; fast – he’s not even in the faster half.

And yet, it works. Hadlee-like accuracy, pulled a couple of metres back, and sheer relentlessness, do the job more outwardly gifted bowlers count on their physical attributes to do. Mark Reason, in a piece for the Sunday Star-Times, adjudged 47 out of the first 48 balls Wagner bowled in the second innings of the first test of last summer’s Bangladesh series to be bouncers. Patience and consistency is key to the Wagner method, but it’s the less tangible qualities he himself is fond of mentioning: “passion”, “heart”, “presence”.

“Brutalism”, Reason retorted in his column, which raised the twin spectres of Bodyline and Philip Hughes; a “roughneck with a knuckleduster” he called Wagner. In Reason’s reading, Wagner is a menace who dangerously tilts the game in favour of the bowler. But his analysis omitted to mention that the second innings he cited was the only time Bangladesh dominated in that series, both Mahmudullah and Soumya Sarkar finding ingenious and profitable ways to score from the Wagner barrage: both scored big hundreds.

Neil Wagner celebrates after taking the wicket of Mohammad Mithun of Bangladesh at the Basin Reserve on March 10, 2019. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

But Reason is right in many ways. Wagner overturns cricket’s central confrontation of ball vs bat. When Wagner is at the top of his mark, the game becomes about ball vs body, and the story of Wagner’s wickets is so often the story of a batsman striving to avoid those two elements meeting and tangling themselves into a dismissal. There’s brutal arithmetic: he seems to just will wickets, as if he merely wants batsmen out more than they want to stay in — which, by the time he’s aimed 30 bouncers at an opponent’s ribcage, probably isn’t very much.

He’s a reminder of the physicality of cricket which is, after all, merely a game of simple constituent parts: a person trying to knock down three sticks with a ball, while someone tries with a bigger stick to stop that from happening. But to hear commentators – between the exchange of barbs about the relative merits of New Zealand provinces, and their respective rugby teams – gush about the beauty of the cover drive, you’d be forgiven for thinking that lifting a piece of willow in this low-key elegant manner was some kind of hard-won moral corrective to our godless times.

Wagner’s method, generally, disallows the cover drive, that most hallowed expression of cricket’s capacity for beauty. “Boring,” says Reason, casting his verdict on the aesthetic value of the Wagner method. But I disagree. “Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports,” David Foster Wallace wrote in his seminal exploration of the aesthetic joy of Roger Federer on the tennis court, “but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty… What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.”

And here’s Wagner’s tired form again. His knees are black-green with mud and grass. It’s late in the day, and the pitch is dead. It’s his 10th over on the trot, and there’s a footsore weariness about him, but also something soldierly: his shoulders are so square they remind me of epaulettes as he marches back to his mark. He pauses to contemplate once more putting his body through the rigours of bowling as fast as he can at a point midway down the pitch. He approaches, his face at the point of delivery set in a preview of that post-wicket grimace. A grunt is sucked from his solar plexus by the strain of the effort. The batsman watches the ball rise at him as he arches his back and drops his hands, and the weighty and ominous little orb whistles past his nose.

What could be more about our bodies – their potential, their deficiencies – than this? One person pushes his body to the point of pain; the other uses his immense skill and dexterity to avoid it. Cricket’s superstructure has always had a tendency to regard itself as a more cerebral game than its competitors, but Neil Wagner brings it out of those rarefied airs and plants it firmly on the level of the body, and that’s where its beauty lies.

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