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Match Analysis

Neil Wagner strikes gold to uphold New Zealand and England's unspoken promise

A deep bond forged by this ludicrous sport culminated in one of the best days it has produced

Neil Wagner appeals successfully after James Anderson is caught behind down the leg side, New Zealand vs England, 2nd Test, Wellington, 5th day, February 28, 2023

Neil Wagner appeals successfully for the decisive wicket  •  Getty Images

When Neil Wagner finally calls it quits, he should donate his body to science so they can figure out how a human being can spend 17 years contorting and unraveling his torso for bouncer after bouncer and still, at 36, do it just enough to drag his team to such a famous win. That's probably an oxymoron, mind, given it would require Wagner to give something up.
His deciding spell of 3 for 38 came from 9.2 overs into the wind. Perhaps it should have been more than those 57 deliveries (including a wide) when you consider the ones Wagner might have had to bowl again. Not that we should get bogged down in those. Even dragons scorch the earth beyond their foes.
New Zealand became the fourth team in the game's history to win after being asked to follow-on. They beat England by a single run, making them only the second to win by what is literally the barest margin you can get in this format, thanks to a man who just last week had been flayed so harshly you wondered if his time was up.
Evidently, though, his time was now. Specifically Tuesday, when New Zealand needed him most. England were 199 for 5 and walking, not running this time to a seventh successful chase for their 11th win in 12 and a first series victory on these shores since 2008. The wait goes on.
On from the Vance Stand End in the 57th over, Wagner struck first with Ben Stokes, who was probably going to win it for England, even on one leg, because that's kind of his thing. Then he took out Joe Root, who was actually winning it for England with the kind of immaculate poise that makes him a modern day great. Then, with the merest of tickles down the leg side, he took out James Anderson to seal it. And I know you'll never believe it, but he was surely going to win it for England.
Yep. Him. The same 40-year-old Anderson who just a week ago said he "wouldn't get anything out" of hitting the winning runs in a Test match looked primed to do just that. Wickets are his currency, runs, seemingly, an inconvenience. The No. 11 charged Wagner - charged him! - crunching four through midwicket to reduce the ask to just two.
And it was probably about then that this game assumed legendary status. Jack Leach played out a maiden to Tim Southee, and was stood at the non-striker's end on one off 31 deliveries - more than he faced in the great Headingley 2019 heist - on the cusp of possessing more memorable singles than the New Radicals. It took a sprawling stop from Matt Henry - more on him later - at mid-on to keep New Zealand in front.
The start of the 75th over from Wagner was down the leg side, Anderson happy to let it pass him by but irked it was not called a wide (it wasn't). Next ball, having drilled into the middle of the pitch for an hour, Wagner finally struck gold.
The roar when victory was confirmed, Tim Southee's first as New Zealand skipper, was the kind they should bottle and market alongside the Wilhelm Scream. Very few explosions of glee tell the story of this sport, this format and days like these better: the pull of anxiety before the release, sending you into bedlam like the emotional rubber band you are.
To say there were no spare seats at the Basin Reserve isn't technically correct, given all were on their feet long before the 4.06pm finish. But the locals drifted in as day five wore on, free of charge, and by the end were going toe-to-toe with the Barmy Army.
They were outnumbered at the start, but any estimates on the working population of Wellington decreased as early as an hour into play. Whether working from the office or working from home, ditch it all and come here.
Some parents had pulled their kids out of school to trek down in the hope of something memorable. By the end, kids were turning up in school uniform having taken the decision upon themselves to play hookie. This was an education in itself.
England's resumption of their pursuit of 258 on 48 for 1 had undergone the mother of all collapses. 32 for 4, an unwelcome throwback to an English top-order in complete disarray, even featuring the requisite run out to tip it over the edge into "comical".
Root thought he had guided a ball beyond gully, only for Michael Bracewell to swoop from second slip, gather on the bounce and throw into Tom Blundell to do the rest. Harry Brook was as far away from making his ground as he is from his peers. Though now, courtesy of that diamond duck, he's a little closer as the average dips to 80.
Ollie Robinson's ugly but understandable swipe, Ben Duckett's footwork-less slash, Ollie Pope's "Command+C, Command+V" impatience outside off stump were bad enough without some intra-Yorkshire miscommunication. Root said last week Brook won't shut up about the time he, aged 14, got him out in a net at Headingley. One imagines the youngster will have a new, less jovial nail to hammer.
You could link this chase back to making New Zealand follow-on. Not so much the decision to take that option but how things transpired: the lead of 257 eventually accrued, as much as the 215.3 overs in the field split by two nights, the second more restless than the first.
The creeping sense of control being ceded as New Zealand began to fancy themselves for the first time this series, thanks to a player-of-the-match sealing 132 from Kane Williamson in the second innings. The grind of simply being out there for all that long and cursing the early conclusion that never came. Tired minds love a mistake.
But this could not have come about with mistakes alone. It needed more: skill shotted with that familiar Kiwi cocktail of nous and courage.
Knowing England would keep coming at their bowlers after being taken apart at Mount Maunganui and here in the first innings, Southee had an idea. The bowlers could only do so much to keep the batters from advancing, but they could get them to think twice about that by getting Tom Blundell to stand up to the stumps. A tough ask against Wagner, Henry and Southee himself. In truth, there was no real conversation about it: "Straightaway, it was a 'yes' from Tom," said the skipper.
It meant that when Root dropped and ran, Blundell was there to assist instead of Bracewell having to throw down the stumps to get rid of Brook. As well as the deciding catch, a 90 in the second innings gave more weight to overall haul of 267 runs at 66.75 and raised him higher as a vital cog in this side going forward.
His duties for this series aren't yet fulfilled, however. It is a Blackcaps tradition dating back to 1998 to celebrate victory at this ground by taking a limousine up to Mount Victoria - Wellington's highest point - drink champagne and smoke cigars while looking out over the city. As keeper, it's Blundell's job to sort the limo. "I'm sure he's got it under control," assured Southee, with exactly the kind of confidence Blundell has earned these last 18 months.
A more physical example of said bravery came from Henry. Root and Stokes' partnership, that would eventually end on 121, had reached 58 - the England skipper with just 11 of them as his best mate played the part of accelerator - when Henry suffered a back spasm. Southee had to step in to bowl the final delivery of the 34th over.
As the quickest and possibly most accurate of the seamers, the 31-year-old's collapse on the field and eventual walk off with the help of New Zealand's physio did not bode well. Rotating was the name of the game, but with Bracewell being taken apart - notably by Root, who 43 from the 21 balls faced from the offspinner - and Henry's potential absence was ultimately going to give England the game.
After some intense work from the physio in the changing room, Henry spent the lunch interval bowling. Like Blundell, the conversation with Southee was quick. The result? Well, pretty remarkable. Henry ended up putting together an unbroken 10-over spell that allowed just 19 runs and ended up with the dismissal of Stuart Broad, who tried and failed to uppercut beyond third man.
The catcher? Wagner, of course. By then he had cramped Stokes for an uncontrolled one-handed swat and then Root for a more controlled and arguably more culpable demise to Bracewell stationed at midwicket for a mistake that did not seem like coming given Root's previous 112 balls.
At 215 for 8, with 43 to win, the script had flipped. Finally, after 11 days of chasing shadows up at the Mount and down at the Well, New Zealand were in charge. In control of their own destiny. But for a valiant Ben Foakes, it would have been theirs sooner.
As England's least expansive batter, his has been an under-appreciated role since the start of last summer. Across the nine matches played, his work behind the stumps has been match-turning. Now in front of them, England needed him to be match-winning.
He did it his way: diligently, patiently, almost painfully, yet without doubt. The confusion as he turned down singles when runs were a premium was not for self but rather to ensure Leach was protected at the other end, particularly against Wagner. From the 62nd to the 71st, Foakes ensured Leach only faced two deliveries an over.
Slowly, the shots got more expansive. From twos bisecting fielders out in the deep to slapping Wagner back over his head, then pulling him in front of square for back to back boundaries. Then, just as he had got it down to seven, the temptation to go after Southee to rest the nerves further went high and away towards fine leg.
Yep, Wagner again. Behind the batter is usually the best place for a bowler to hide and recharge as best they can. Here, though, it was where the action was going to be. And even in the midst of a blood-sweating spell, no-one belonged there more than Wagner.
It took until around 6.45pm for Wagner to get his biggest cheer from the English. By then, the crowds had spilled out in the town's boozers to tell everyone and each other about one of the greatest Test matches there has ever been. Back in the Basin, the Blackcaps had joined the England team to do the same.
Initially, the victors joined the game of 'Pig': keepy-uppies played in a ring, where the one who messes up gets flicked in the forehead by everyone else in the circle. As Broad bowed his head for his punishment, Wagner came through and gave the 36-year-old's forehead a thwack that sent both squads into hysterics.
As time wore on, the circle of footballers got smaller, with groups breaking off for their own conversations in pockets amid cans, bottles and the odd puff of vape smoke.
The bangers when these two meet are as common as the hours of bonhomie that follow. A tour that started with Southee chilling with Stokes and his old mate Brendon McCullum during the warm-up match in Hamilton and ends 20 days later with exactly the same in a field they made their own.
Just as McCullum said he knew Southee would ensure New Zealand always push for victory, Southee knew McCullum and Stokes would ask them to follow-on and then go hell-for-leather on the final day in pursuit of any chase big or small.
Here we are, then. An unspoken promise between a bond forged by this ludicrous sport has resulted in one of the best days it has produced. It will give New Zealand hope of brighter days to come, and England reassurance their ethos of playing for the people rather than themselves can nourish them even in defeat.
The game is as life - about the experiences and memories you make. And this one will carry forward long after we're all gone.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo