Neil Wagner: Winning the WTC is 'the pinnacle of the game for me'

The left-arm quick, who recently turned 35, says he still has 'plenty left in the tank' as a Test cricketer

Deivarayan Muthu
As a red-ball specialist who hasn't played any white-ball cricket for New Zealand, Neil Wagner had never dreamed of being part of a world final. Speaking to ESPNcricinfo in the lead-up to the inaugural World Test Championship final, the left-arm quick had likened the match to a World Cup final. During a virtual media interaction on Saturday afternoon, Wagner said winning the WTC was the "pinnacle of the game" for him and that the team was overwhelmed by the support and reception from their supporters.
"Never [dreamed of it]," Wagner said. "No, that (playing white-ball cricket for New Zealand) was sort of a dream and a ship that had sailed to be fair - thinking about the white-ball World Cup in some sort of a way. So, when the Test Championship came around and it was sort of explained to us a couple of years ago what it's going to be like, I got quite excited by the idea. I thought it was quite special and I thought it was something that's going to make Test cricket the way it is right now and make it quite exciting and add a bit more perspective to it.
"So, finally, I guess, getting to an ICC event and with something as big as that… how hard Test cricket is and to be able to do that for a period of two years; every Test match is extremely hard to try and put a performance in and win it. There's a lot of things that's got to go your way and lot of hard work you got to do over five days.
"To then get into a final, which was obviously rain-affected and still play our brand of cricket and be positive and to get there, personally for me, I can't speak for everyone, this is the ultimate for me to win a Test Championship final though it's the first one and probably hard to compare with others, it's definitely the pinnacle of the game for me. And to win it against a quality team like India and the way we did and then to see what it has meant to everyone… The support back home and support that was around there - the text messages keep flowing in, phone keeps buzzing and to see what it has meant for Kiwi supporters and family and friends, it means a lot to us too. So, it's definitely right up there."
Everyone wants a piece of the WTC mace that has now been nicknamed Michael Mason - including the customs officials who greeted the New Zealand players after they touched down in Auckland on Saturday morning.
"I don't think I have ever walked into customs and got greeted the way we did," Wagner said. "Everyone was like straightaway: 'Congratulations!' Pretty happy, [they] grabbed our passports and all they wanted to ask was 'Where's the mace? Where's the mace?' Obviously, when they saw it, the smiles on their faces and what it brought to them, it sort of hit home pretty hard… What it meant to people back home and obviously getting across the line, winning a Test Championship final, and bringing that trophy back like that.
"I remember watching as a kid a lot of other teams lifting that [mace] up after finishing a Test cycle being No.1 in the world and what it meant to them. So, to be able to win it in a one-off Test match like that is a pretty special feeling and we could see what it meant to other people once you got home.
"Seeing even police officers stopping and wanting to have a photo from a distance with it. Like I said, it's a pity that it's Covid times and you can't hug around these guys and pose for a photo and you know, obviously, give something back to them, too, but it was nice to see the smile on everyone's faces and how jubilant they were to receive us and getting on the bus… There were cameras outside and people waving and yeah obviously just being very happy about what we were able to achieve. I think it definitely hit the boys hard what it has meant to everyone and around."
Wagner recently turned 35 and is the oldest member of the New Zealand pace quartet, but he brushed aside talk of a potential retirement, stressing that he was still fit and motivated to deliver for the team. Returning from toe injuries, Wagner swung the Dukes ball in England in addition to unleashing his patented short-ball barrage over lengthy spells.
'I've got plenty left in the tank," Wagner said. "Age is just a number for me personally and I feel potentially I haven't got the five-wicket bags or performances behind my name that I wanted to, but still feel I'm contributing and playing a role, doing what I'm doing and that is just my role. It's not always going to have the glory numbers or the wickets or whatever it is, but I've got a role I can fulfill for the team and as long as I'm needed or called upon, or I guess asked to do a job, 100% I'll be there to contribute.
"I still feel pretty young and the body feels really good. I played those three Test matches [in England] and got through this pretty easily and felt really good that I could play even more. So that's a good sign for me personally. As long as that motivation and desire is there to keep going to do the hard work at training and do the hard yards of going to the gym and do the tough running sessions and keep the body fresh and improving your game - as long as that's still there, the rest is easy. Mentally, [I] still feel fresh.
"If anything this [WTC title] has just urged me on to work harder and my game personally, but also on a fitness level and all those sort of things to keep playing and performing and doing my role to the best of my ability as much as I can and contribute to the team."
Wagner also hailed Kyle Jamieson, who has emerged as a potent point of the difference in New Zealand's attack with his ability to swing the ball both ways in addition to the bounce he generates from his 6'8'' frame. After scorching the 2019-20 and 2020-21 home summers, Jamieson was front and centre of New Zealand's victory over India in the WTC final, scooping up a match haul of seven wickets and the Player-of-the-Match award.
"Just the way he has fit into the group and come in and play the way he's done - to just do what he's been doing in domestic cricket and do even better," Wagner said of Jamieson. "Every game he's getting better and better, his willingness to learn, how he's been bowling with the team and the performances he has put in have put him a long way ahead of the cricketer he's still yet to be and become. He's been instrumental to us; yes it's been amazing to do it with Tim [Southee] and Trent [Boult] as well with myself.
"We keep building as a unit, we keep building in partnerships, we said from the start that we know one day might one person's day and the other day might not be someone else's day, but you still contribute and bowl for the guy at the other end and someone might reap the rewards for us. I remember when I started my career, it took about 11 Test matches before I got even a Test win. Kyle has played eight - he hasn't lost one or drawn one yet [laughs]. That's pretty amazing and he's played a massive part in that [success] too. Good on him and hopefully he can continue and as a bowling unit, hopefully we can continue to learn and get better and obviously put more performances like this for New Zealand cricket."

Deivarayan Muthu is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo