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Neil Wagner: 'I pride myself in playing a role when things are tough'

The fast bowler talks about his evolution as a front-line quick for New Zealand, his legendary spell at the Bay Oval, and looks ahead to the WTC final

Deivarayan Muthu
Moving from South Africa to England to finally New Zealand, and now to No. 3 on ICC's Test bowler rankings, Neil Wagner has come a long way. The left-arm quick spoke about his evolution from a swing bowler to a menacing first-change option, the spell at Mount Maunganui last summer, and the forthcoming World Test Championship final against India in Southampton.
Even two broken toes didn't stop you from bowling nearly 50 overs across both innings and setting up New Zealand's victory against Pakistan at the Bay Oval. How did you break through the pain barrier?
Yeah, it's a tough one. [It was] sort of in the moment and I guess adrenaline and playing for the team - wearing the black cap is the ultimate drive and it obviously motivates you to go through that. It's [also] just everyone else around you encouraging you to do something like that, and trying to bite through as much pain as I could to try and deliver a job. Luckily it came off.
Around the time of the 12th injection during that Test, you said that you were biting a towel…
Yeah, it wasn't nice (laughs). But it's just one of those things. You have to try and dig deep and find a way. Test cricket and playing for New Zealand means a lot to me, so I wanted to be out there. We don't get too many opportunities or too many Test matches sometimes - we had only four Tests that home summer. So, for me, every opportunity is pretty special, and I just wanted to be out there with the lads, give it my all, and try and find a way to contribute. In the end, it was all worth it.
And you have a bit of fear of needles?
Yeah, I don't like needles (laughs). It was one of those things where you had to close your eyes and just sort of deal with it.
Did you have to alter your action during that Test match because of the injury?
It was one of those moments where you try to not think about it too much and just get through it. But I felt like the action was changing to overcompensate for the foot a little bit. I started feeling that my back and shoulder were getting a bit sore and mentally it was sort of draining when it got to the back end of that Test - when the game finished, everything fell off the shoulders a little bit and felt a little bit like, "Yeah, it's over now. I'm done with it." You switch off and straightaway start feeling the pain.
Did you enjoy bouncing out Fawad Alam in the second innings? You celebrated his wicket with a vicious high five that almost knocked out BJ Watling.
Yeah, I don't like the way I sometimes celebrate (laughs). It just sort of comes out. I remember seeing some footage, and poor Mitchell Santner probably tried to come in for a high five, and I went quite hard there. I think it's maybe letting off the steam, and a bit of frustration comes out bowling through the pain and trying to get a wicket, and finally when you do, it's a bit of a relief. Looking back afterwards it's not the nicest sight. I don't like the sight of my veins popping and things like that. But it's the passion that I play with and the pride I take [in my performance]. The boys give me a bit of stick and we do have a couple of laughs about it as well.
Yeah, maybe [I enjoyed the wicket of Alam more] because he was putting up a pretty good fight. He has been showing that he's a good member of the Pakistan team, playing really well and making some valuable contributions. We found it really tough bowling to him during that Test match. He didn't offer many shots or chances, so to finally have got a shot out of him and being able to get his wicket was pretty pleasing.
Then there's the version of Wagner who runs down to fine leg, flashes a big smile, and happily obliges young fans.
I think people who know me off the field know exactly who I am and how I am. Emotions do come out sometimes - I wear them on my sleeve - but I remember what it was like when I was a kid standing on the side of the field and asking for an autograph or wanting to talk to a player. To give that little back, it goes a long way in getting kids to fall in love with the game and getting them to see the way I saw it when I was a kid growing up. People off the field know me as a friendly guy who is a lot more approachable than the guy who is celebrating after a wicket, that's for sure (laughs).
The bowling pack has forged a strong partnership with Watling over the years. You've also played with him for Northern Districts. What has your relationship with him been like?
He's a top man and will be sorely missed in this team. He's the glue and the gel of the team and has been around for a long time now. I've always appreciated his honesty. He's one of the guys who puts me back in line if need be, but will also encourage you and pick you up on the tough days. He's always been there for me, whether for plans or ideas. No matter how tired he is, he will sprint from the keeping side, run all the way to your mark to have a chat with you with a couple of plans. He's been a class performer for this team and he's always seen to be the guy that has done the nitty-gritty sort of stuff well and encourages people like myself and everyone around the team.
Mount Maunganui 2020. Perth 2019. Kolkata 2016. Do trying conditions or circumstances tend to bring the best out of you?
Test cricket is tough and it's never easy playing in different parts of the world, where it can be challenging. You get to test your skills and ability against the best players in the toughest situations. That's where you want to stand up and make some sort of impact, and I pride myself in playing a role when things are tough. I want to put my hand up and have the ball in my hand.
It's a special thing to be a part of and to represent your country. With my background and where I come from [South Africa], to be able to get that opportunity and the sacrifices that you had to make along the way... it means a lot to play for New Zealand. The guys around me are mates on and off the field, friends for life, so I'm doing it for them too. Seeing the satisfaction on their faces is extremely rewarding at the back end of it. So to play with your close friends, with the black cap on your head and that fern on your chest, is a pretty special feeling.
What does your fitness routine look like?
We're lucky to have a trainer like Chris Donaldson, who has been a huge part of the team, and not just the bowling unit. I've had him from my first year starting at Otago - he was our fitness trainer then and he later joined the Black Caps. Ever since I've started working with him since I moved over to New Zealand, he has been monumental in my success. The way he encourages us to train really hard and do the hard yards - you've got to motivate yourself on some cold winter days to get up and go to the gym and do some running outdoors. He has been a huge part of it all and obviously [I spend] a lot of time in the gym, running and doing fitness stuff. Bowling-wise as well, as a group we push each other to do the hard work. So I guess a huge thanks goes to those guys and we keep feeding and bouncing ideas off each other.
How have the 100-200-300-400 metre runs under Donaldson benefited you?
We all do those runs. It's one of our running sessions and it's one that I enjoy the most. I sort of feel like it gets me going and I get a good rhythm out of that. We do have various other running sessions that we do.
We sometimes sort of joke around and say it's a love-hate relationship. Love them during the season, when you see the rewards for it. And at the time when the email comes about the fitness and training work that needs to be done, you don't like it very much (laughs). It's one of those things where you clench your teeth a little bit and go, "Argh!" Coming through a Test match and being able to back it up the next game, that's where you give Chris a big hug and say, 'Thanks for making us push through', because it goes a long way to bowl those long spells and back it up game after game.
Are you among the fastest sprinters in the group?
No, I'm definitely not. I like to try and push myself to be there. I think Trent [Boult], Mitchell Santner, Henry Nicholls are the fastest guys and I try to keep up. Lockie Ferguson is a pretty good runner as well. But, yeah, I can't say that I'm one of the fastest and strongest around, but I do have goals that I know I have achieved through the years and I try to improve on them or stay around the same.
You trained with Colin de Grandhomme in Mount Maunganui during your recovery from the toe injuries. How is your body shaping up for the England tour?
Yeah, quite a few of us stay in the same area in Mount Maunganui, so it makes things easier, training-wise. Being able to train with Colin, who is also coming back from injury, has been quite beneficial and it's nice to hit the ground running. We had some amazing facilities at the Bay Oval and to get some overs under the belt in the Plunket Shield was quite beneficial for me as well. To get some bowling fitness in that sense - it's the first time in my career that I've been away for ten weeks after an injury. It was a bit of a change, but yeah, it was nice to get some overs and play for Northern Districts at that time and get some rhythm leading into these three Test matches [in England].
When you burst onto the scene in New Zealand and bagged five wickets in an over in first-class cricket, you were largely a swing bowler who could also reverse-swing the ball. How did you evolve into this first-change bowler for whom the top of off is the batter's body?
Yeah, I obviously started as a swing bowler, as someone who pitched it up a lot more than I do now or what it looks like in Test cricket. It still comes down to the conditions and what's in front of me and what the day requires. In New Zealand, the wickets tend to flatten out quite quickly, and if the ball doesn't swing, I obviously try to bang it in and get different modes of dismissal or try and create some pressure with dot balls by doing that. Through the years, playing more cricket and getting more experience and sort of knowing that we have two of the best swing bowlers in the world in Tim [Southee] and Trent... Rather than trying to bowl the same as they do or trying to compete with them, for me it was about trying and finding a different method or a way that's going to make them and us effective as a bowling unit. It sort of came off and worked out at that time, and I just ended up going with it.
I do still try to pitch the ball up when it's required and if it can swing. Like I've shown in the last season in New Zealand against West Indies and Pakistan, if it's required to pitch it up, we go that route. If my role is to run in and pitch it short, we obviously change accordingly. It's quite nice to have been able to develop different skills.
It took a little while to find my role or my feet in the early stages of my career in the Test team. Once you get that, you grow some confidence, knowing what you need to do and knowing your role. It's nice that we feed off each other and with Kyle Jamieson coming into the attack as well, he brings in a different dimension. It's nice that we all offer something different.
Sometimes people tend to stereotype you as a short-ball specialist, but you have developed a knuckleball and a three-quarter-seam ball along the way. Can you talk us through the change-ups?
I do play a bit of white-ball cricket for Northern Districts. And obviously, in white-ball cricket you've got to refer to the yorkers and slower balls for a few bits and pieces of that. Playing that has been nice for staying fresh and mentally training different skills and things you need to do. Sometimes they can come in handy in Test cricket too, and it makes the short ball more effective when you can swing the ball upfront, and to have a slower ball up the sleeve as well.
It just comes down to summing up the conditions and what's required on the day. Obviously in England, it will be a bit different with the Dukes ball. If the overhead conditions suit to pitch the ball up, look to swing the ball or use the seam. Then, when it's required, when the sun is out and it's flatter, you try to bang it in shorter and then that role comes into play. It comes down to knowing your role and whatever Kane [Williamson] and the team requires from me, and I try to do it to the best of my ability to take a wicket or bowl for someone else at the other end to get a breakthrough. We know that as a unit when it swings around, one day it will be one person's day and on another it can be someone else's. But if we keep chipping in, playing our roles, we will be successful as a group.
Has Jamieson's emergence helped ease the load off yourself, Southee and Boult?
We've been lucky to have quality bowlers over the years now. Matt Henry, Doug Bracewell, Mitchell Santner, Colin de Grandhomme and Daryl Mitchell - everybody has chipped in when they needed to. That's the beauty of this team - when you come in, you know your role. Jamo has come in and seamlessly fit into the group. He has been nice and level-headed and wanting to learn. And he has played some amazing cricket. So his confidence will only grow and get better as he goes on in his career. It will be exciting to see where he can take it to. He has all the attributes and it's amazing to see how he has fit into the bowling group.
Outside of this Test squad on tour, there's Lockie Ferguson, Adam Milne and Blair Tickner. Ben Wheeler has been around and Will Williams had a fine domestic season. Have New Zealand's pace stocks ever been richer?
I don't think it has, to be fair. Since I started, with guys like Mitchell McClenaghan who has played for New Zealand and now the names you've mentioned, there has been a healthy group of fast bowlers in New Zealand for a number of years. The good thing about it is that it keeps you working hard on your game to be able to get selected or play. These other guys will push you, which is pretty good, and it's a healthy place for New Zealand cricket to be in. Sometimes it can be a coach's or selector's nightmare, but it's a really good problem to have. To be able to pick through various groups of fast bowlers and to be able to rotate them as well… That sort of thing is also good if there are injuries or something like that - somebody can come in and fill those boots.
R Ashwin, who plays just one format now for India, recently referred to the WTC final as a World Cup for him. You, too, play only Tests for New Zealand. What does the WTC final mean to you?
Yeah, it is like a World Cup final for me. The biggest disappointment, I guess, in my career is that I've never really played a white-ball game for New Zealand or never been able to crack into the T20 or the one-day game. That ship has probably sailed now and I don't think the opportunity will ever come. For me now, it's about putting all my focus and energy into Test cricket and to be able to play in a World Test Championship final is like a World Cup for me.
I know this final is the first and there isn't a lot of history around it, but it's the start of something that's pretty big. To play in a one-off Test final against India - one of the best teams in the world, if not the best team in the world - to be able to test yourself against the best on the highest and biggest stage, that's what it's about. It's extremely exciting, but I don't want to think too far ahead. Don't want to let the occasion get to you, just treat it like another Test match and do the same things you do. It's definitely going to be a special occasion. That's for sure.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo