Self-motivation pays off for Wagner
Neil Wagner, the South-African born left-arm seamer, believes he will reap the rewards of a rigorous qualification process, in which he spent four seasons playing in the Plunket Shield with no chance of being picked for international cricket, on his maiden assignment for New Zealand. Wagner moved to New Zealand in 2008 after failing to secure a franchise contract in South Africa. He topped the Plunket Shield wicket-taking charts in 2010-11 and 2011-12 and has been included in the Test squad to play West Indies later in July and August.
Wagner was touted as a future international for New Zealand since he first started playing for Otago in the 2008-09 season. Although he had a modest return then, with 21 wickets at an average of 33.33, Wagner's ability to swing the ball caught the attention of national team management and has been closely watched since then.
He missed out on selection for the series against South Africa in March because of the timing but was picked for the national side at the earliest opportunity. His eligibility was confirmed two weeks ago when the ICC ruled in favour of NZC's application to the exceptional circumstances committee to fast-track Wagner's status. According to an ICC regulation, a player who is not born in the country he wants to play for must spend a minimum of 183 days in his adopted country for four consecutive years to qualify.
Wagner missed the criteria on two occasions, once when he played for Otago in the Champions League in 2009 and when he returned to South Africa for a family wedding. The ICC ruled that due to the nature of Wagner's absence from New Zealand he had done enough to be fit to represent the country. Wagner is hopeful that the time and effort he put in the first-class game will bear fruit in the West Indies.
"Playing first-class cricket for four years and not being able to get picked means you've got to keep motivating yourself because you don't really have something to work for," Wagner told ESPNcricinfo in Pretoria, where is visiting his family. "Sometimes it's hard but you get to the point where you are focused on it and want to work towards it and then when you do get picked, because you've got four years of experience, you know your game better."
Wagner arrived in New Zealand with plenty of promise, having been the top-wicket taker in South Africa's amateur competition in the 2006-07 season, but also a lot to work on. Not bowling at express pace meant he had to become better at other skills. Mike Hesson, the former Otago and now Kenya coach who invited Wagner to Dunedin, remembered what the raw article was like. "He was good with the new ball but initially with the older ball, he was limited," Hesson said. "He worked hard on reverse swing and using the angle of the crease."
Once reverse swing also became part of his game, Wagner was close to the finished product and his first taste of something bigger came in the CLT20. "That was a massive step up," he said. "If I had to play international cricket then, I would not have been ready. I was still young and inexperienced and even though I thought I was doing well, I wouldn't have been ready."
At 26, Wagner now feels he understands himself and his game well enough to step on to the international stage. New Zealand have been through a number of seamers in recent times, having fielded youth in Trent Boult and Tim Southee only to drop them for the experience of Mark Gillespie and Brent Arnel. Apart from Chris Martin, who has formed the mainstay of the Test attack, New Zealand have not settled on a seam recipe and Hesson thinks Wagner would be the missing ingredient, especially in Caribbean conditions.
"What Neil offers is quite different to the other bowlers New Zealand have," Hesson said. "In the West Indies, the pitches are quite abrasive and the ball reverse swings early. Neil is the best exponent of that in New Zealand at the moment. When he has played on flat, docile pitches, particularly on days three and four, he has picked up a large percentage of the wickets there. It is a tough place to tour, but for someone who does move the ball in the air, like Neil does, it will be a good outing."
Wagner waited for news of his selection while spending time with family and friends and has not been in touch with New Zealand management about his expectations on the tour, except to acknowledge that he expects a tough contest from other bowlers in the side. "I've got no idea really," he laughed. "But if I get the chance to play, I don't think I will do anything different to what I've been doing so far. I will just try to be more consistent and more professional. New Zealand have quite a lot of bowling depth and that's a good thing. It's a healthy environment to be in and keeps us on our toes."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent