April 26, 2012

Neil Wagner's three-step plan

New Zealand's hot new pick is a South African who moved continents twice to realise his cricket dream

Don't be surprised if in the days ahead Neil Wagner is talked about in the same way as wine from a Franschhoek estate or diamonds from Kimberley are. He will not be alone in being regarded as a prized South African export; the names of other cricketers with his journeyman characteristics will come up for discussion again. Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Kruger van Wyk and Grant Elliot will be mentioned. The stale joke about cricketers being among South Africa's most traded commodities will be told again and a few will laugh. Wagner, a Pretoria-born and bred lad, will make his international debut in July, for New Zealand.

His story is not too different from that of any person who moves countries in pursuit of work. After he didn't achieve the success he hoped for in the country of his birth, Wagner tried another, England. There the market was competitive and he felt little inclination to stay, so he moved on to a third. New Zealand was the final stop and it stuck.

Unlike Elliot and van Wyk, who moved to New Zealand almost unnoticed, Wagner went with the words "quota system" on his lips as one of his reasons for leaving South Africa, and it will shadow him throughout his career, as much as he wishes it would disappear.

"There's a lot been said about the quota system and some of it has been taken out of hand," Wagner told ESPNcricinfo during a visit home to Pretoria. "When you are young and a bit arrogant and you don't really know a lot, you get very emotionally involved. You are not educated around it [the quota system] because no one told you why, and even though I said it then, it's been made bigger than it is."

Wagner was part of an Afrikaanse Hoer Seunskool (Affies) team that also included AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, and dominated schools cricket. Many of the boys who played in that team thought they were going to make it at provincial level, and Wagner was no different.

He hoped the national Under-19 week in 2002 would be his launch pad. "I had a really good year that year and a couple of people told me I might make the SA Under-19 side after the week," he says, "but I didn't."

That snub set the tone for others. The Titans franchise, an amalgamation of two amateur unions, Northerns, for whom Wagner played, and Easterns, was simply too strong for him to break into. They had Andre Nel, then at the height of powers, Albie and Morne Morkel, and Dale Steyn. There was no room for another quick and Wagner was the one who missed out. In pure selection terms, he was not considered good enough.

"Neil was sometimes misread. I don't think people saw his full potential," Grant Morgan, the current Gauteng coach, who has worked extensively in club and provincial cricket, says. Morgan took a particular interest in Wagner, who he saw as a little different to his peers.

"He always took care of his kit, he was immaculate, and sometimes the guys used to rag him and say he was a pretty boy. But the couple of things he got in his life, he took care of. He was very professional."

Morgan sensed that expectation would follow Wagner after his school success and that he would not be able to live up to it. "Not everyone makes it at the same time. The same thing happened with Faf and AB, for example," Morgan says. "One climbs quickly and the other one doesn't. That happened to Neil.

"He wasn't like Dale [Steyn], who had blinding pace. He didn't always know when to bowl his bouncers. When the ball stopped swinging in, he didn't quite know what to do, but he always had something. He was always naturally fit and committed, and he always took wickets."

Wagner was given a few isolated chances at franchise level but never enjoyed a sustained run. "Maybe I didn't play as well as I should have or could have, but also opportunities were just not there," he says. There was some talk of a deal with Western Province if the Titans did not come through, but it remained only talk.

When real life came knocking and Wagner had to start looking at ways to earn an income, he decided to give himself a last chance at making it in South Africa. He went on a national academy tour to Bangladesh, and it was there that Morgan saw his progress. "He had started learning how to bowl when the ball stopped swinging," he says. "On those flat wickets, when the ball stopped swinging, he still hit those areas, working with the angle to the right-hander."

Morgan may have been the only believer, though. Wagner did not get a franchise deal, and in 2008 he left for England. Morgan saw it coming but there was little he could do. "I was disappointed in the Titans. He was always a performer. If you are producing the goods and people aren't looking at you, it becomes disappointing," he says.

In England, Wagner had a little more luck. After a stint in the Lancashire League, he was invited to play for the Sussex 2nd XI and they even considered a Kolpak deal for him.

The big door, though, opened when Otago coach Mike Hesson called. Hesson had been watching video footage of left-armers to add to his squad and was impressed with Wagner. "I really liked his attitude," he says. "He ran in hard, no matter what the team situation was, so I offered him a deal."

For Wagner, it was just what he was looking for. "Growing up, I always watched New Zealand sport with a close eye. The way they compete, their love for their sport, passion and pride, those are values I grew up with at Affies, so it drew my attention. I never really had the desire to play for England, so I thought it was a good opportunity. Any cricketer in the world would be dumb to pass it up, especially in the position that I was."

Like with every big move, at first everything in Dunedin, Wagner's new hometown, came as a surprise. "I moved into a house with people I had never seen before, and rented a room, which was a massive shock to the system," he says. "And the freezing cold weather. I had never experienced that in my life before. Winter in Pretoria is not that bad."

Wagner did not have a car in his first year and had to rely on lifts from fellow players. He remembers Otago wicketkeeper Derek de Boorder picking him up to go grocery shopping and to training.

"Growing up, I always watched New Zealand sport with a close eye. The way they compete, their love for their sport, passion and pride, those are values I grew up with"
Neil Wagner

While he adjusted to New Zealand, New Zealand also had to adjust to Wagner, and on the cricket field that was not always easy.

"The first year was all about Neil," Hesson says. "Players don't always respond that well to that." Wagner was Otago's top-wicket taker in his first season, 2008-09, and tenth overall, and the early success may have clouded his judgement. In his second season, he took more wickets, 28 compared to 21, but at a bloated average. "After the first year, he may have been a bit complacent," Hesson says. "Then he realised it's not just going to happen for him and he started to work really hard."

With humility and experience came more success, and in the next two seasons Wagner topped the Plunket Shield wicket-taking charts.

Despite offers to move to other teams, Wagner stayed in Dunedin. Recently he bought a house there and he now regards the student town as his home. It is a special place for him, given that it was through spending months there that he became eligible to play for New Zealand, after being given special dispensation by the ICC, considering he did not spend the requisite 183 days a year for four years in the country.

Although some see him as an opportunist, Wagner said the overwhelming sentiment from locals has been that of encouragement, and he hopes to repay their faith in the West Indies in July. "I've been getting so many messages from random New Zealand cricket supporters," he says. "It makes me proud, it gives me a bit of fire in the belly, and it makes me think I want to make these people proud. I've never felt like I've just used the system."

He even has support in some quarters of South Africa. "Through sheer will power, of having to work so hard to get there and not getting a free ticket, he will do well, like Kruger [van Wyk] did," Morgan says. "It's like waiting for the right girl. You won't stuff it up, because you've had to wait. I just hope whoever the coach is does not make him feel like it's his one and only chance."

It was largely being made to feel he had only one shot, rather than the much-hyped quota system reason, that resulted in Wagner leaving South Africa. Wagner acknowledges that he made some mistakes with the way he branded the idea of transformation as an excuse.

"If I look at the players of colour that are in the South African side, they are there on merit," he says now. "They are top-class players and they deserve to be in the team.

"Maybe I did things the wrong way when I was younger. Look at a guy like Marchant [de Lange]. It just shows that when you get that half-chance, you've got to make the most of it. Maybe if I had made the most of the chance I got in South Africa, things would have worked out differently. But in the end, I never looked back."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent