"Like the World XI at one end and Ilford 2nd XI at the other."

That was Graham Gooch's assessment of New Zealand during the 1986 series in England, when the difference between Richard Hadlee, the visitors' best bowler, and the rest of the attack was somewhat stark. It rather backfired on Gooch, as New Zealand completed their first Test series win in England, but the premise was true: Hadlee took 19 wickets at 20.52 and no one else in the side took more than six.

It's different these days. While Hadlee's record of 431 Test wickets is unlikely to be ever overtaken by a fellow countryman - not least because the volume of Test cricket for New Zealand only seems to be heading one way - the pace attack they currently have can rightly claim to be their finest ever.

Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner have formed a formidable trio over the last four years. They first played together in 2013 and have joined forces in 24 Tests, of which New Zealand have won 13. It was in the 2013 home summer against England that the attack really started to be forged. New Zealand should have won that series but couldn't get past Matt Prior in Auckland.

Individually their numbers are impressive: Southee 208 wickets at 31.45, Boult 200 wickets at 28.56, and Wagner 144 wickets at 27.87. In terms of matches, Wagner was the second fastest New Zealand bowler to 100 wickets, in 26 matches, one slower than Hadlee.

The averages of Southee and Boult are, unsurprisingly for swing bowlers, better at home than away. However, Wagner, New Zealand's battering ram, has almost identical figures - 27.91 at home, 27.79 overseas.

Southee, a skilful swing bowler, who of late has developed the art of cutters with some success, is the senior figure in the attack. It is ten years since he launched his Test career with a memorable debut against England in Napier, taking 5 for 55 in the first innings before smiting 77 off 40 balls, albeit in a heavy defeat. The runs were a slog, and that is basically how he has continued with the bat, but the raw skills he showed with the ball as a 19-year-old have been honed.

It was not until around 2012, though, that he cemented his place. There were two performances on the subcontinent where he stood tall, and they remain high points in his career. In Bangalore in August that year, he took 7 for 64, and then in Colombo three months later, he took eight wickets in the match to help secure a series-levelling victory. The latter was also one of the first occasions that he and Boult combined effectively.

"He was very young, he hadn't actually grown into his body," Shane Jurgensen, the current New Zealand bowling coach, who also had a stint with the team between 2008 and 2010, says. "He's actually got taller - it's funny, when I saw him back then, I used to be taller than him. Then when I saw him after four years, I'm looking up at him. He was definitely a late developer into his body in terms of his physical strength, and when that came through… to be able to bowl for the long periods in Test cricket - he always had that beautiful wrist - it was just about time before his body could deal with Test bowling."

Last season there was a collective intake of breath when Southee was dropped for the first time in five years to allow New Zealand to play two spinners against South Africa in Dunedin. Due to a combination of that, injury and paternity leave at the start of this season, Southee has only played six of New Zealand's last 12 Tests. He will be keen to reaffirm his standing in this series.

Southee is the senior man but Boult has become the star. He can sit alongside any left-armers of his generation and could well be considered his country's second-greatest quick. He began his career in 2011, the debut coming in one of New Zealand's most memorable victories, when they squeezed home by seven runs against Australia in Hobart. A year later the aforementioned Colombo Test followed, and in March 2013 he claimed 6 for 68 against England at Eden Park.

"Trent is naturally quite an aggressive bowler - he's very competitive and he's just a bit quicker than you think at times," Jurgensen says. "He's gone from someone who was bowling 130-135kph and now he's probably 135-145kph, which allows him to have a bit more penetration with the new ball, more bounce."

There is a healthy internal rivalry between the pair, although Jurgensen says it's often as much to do with their batting than bowling. "Tim and Trent are pretty close to each other in terms of wickets they have taken."

Wagner has a better average than both Southee and Boult, but it has been a tougher path to acceptance for him. From 2012-13 he went through a strong run of 11 Tests that brought 45 wickets, but he then played just two of the next 13, one of those appearances helping New Zealand to a series victory in the West Indies. He returned with nine wickets in two Tests against Sri Lanka, before again being left out against Australia in Wellington.

On his recall, in the next match, which was lit up by Brendon McCullum's 54-ball hundred in his final Test, something else significant happened, though New Zealand lost heavily: Wagner took 6 for 106 in the first innings, all with the short ball.

The short-pitched attack, as dissected in this piece by Sidharth Monga 15 months ago, continues to be Wagner's modus operandi. He has become New Zealand's bounce specialist. Most recently he dismantled West Indies at the Basin Reserve with a career-best 7 for 39, six of the wickets coming from the short delivery. It was an indictment of the batting, for sure, but it showed that Wagner certainly knows how to work over a batsman.

"His bouncer is quite difficult to play at times because of the skiddy nature of his bowling, and as the game wore on, the bouncer became quite a dangerous delivery," Jurgensen explains. "The whole idea was to get the batsmen off the front foot, change the way they play, get them confused over the height the ball was coming through. When that delivery became one that was taking - or creating - wickets, over time it became his role in the team: get batsmen out of their comfort zone."

"It's the trajectory of the ball, the way it comes off the pitch. What actually happens is that one bouncer that lands on a 10-12m length will come through at ribcage height, then the next one will come through at head height. It's very hard for a batsman to know what kind of shot to play."

The New Zealand attack may not have the fire and fury that England faced in Australia, but in the view of Jurgensen they are a very smart trio, making the most of what they have - whether that be Southee developing his offcutters, Wagner's pounding of the pitch, or Boult using the angles of a left-arm swing bowler.

"It's about adapting quickly, and that's something we've been able to do quite quickly, especially in red-ball cricket. We see and learn, the guys try things. They take it upon themselves, that's credit to the players. We might see things and suggest, question, challenge, and they buy into things."

The three are different in how they find their success, and they are also different in how they deal with it when things don't go right.

"Tim has always been a bit of joker, he always assesses things and talks about it, but he's quick to move on," Jurgensen says. "Trent is quiet, very open about where he's not got it right. And Wags, well Wags, he wears his heart on his sleeve - what you see on the field is a more toned-down version.

"I think it's quite good how they all complement each other. They will assess and adapt, how can they get better."

Southee (29) and Boult (28) should be in their prime, and though Wagner (32) is a touch older, he plays only Tests. They ought to have a few years ahead of themselves as a unit. How many Tests they will play remains to be seen. New Zealand's schedule is being trimmed; it's the white ball that pays the bills.

It makes these two matches against England even more important for them. They are facing a side who have lost nine of their last 12 Tests overseas. There may never be a better chance to secure just a second series win at home (and fourth overall) against them. The challenge of facing Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins required more courage, but the next few weeks will be another test of the England batsmen's skills.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo