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Stats Analysis

Neil Wagner, short, relentless and ruthless

The numbers that sum up the New Zealand quick's ability to unsettle batters with his bouncers

Shiva Jayaraman
27-Feb-2022
Neil Wagner is a specialist at breaking big partnerships  •  Getty Images

Neil Wagner is a specialist at breaking big partnerships  •  Getty Images

Experts in the commentary box at the Hagley Oval wondered if Neil Wagner's bouncers at Rassie van der Dussen were leaking valuable runs to South Africa. The visitors' lead had crossed 150 and van der Dussen was negotiating Wagner's short balls pretty well. The one real chance that Wagner created by bowling short at van der Dussen had been spilled by Colin de Grandhomme. Surely, the South Africa batter wouldn't give another one? May be it was time to change tactics?
But that's not how Wagner operates. He is a few days shy of 36, but continues to bowl every ball of every spell in every Test match he gets to play with relentless intensity. That relentless intensity was what got van der Dussen in the end. Like he did in South Africa's second innings, Wagner has repeatedly delivered for New Zealand when they desperately need him to. And it's often been through aggressive short-pitched bowling. No bowler has taken more wickets bowling short balls than Wagner since his debut in July 2012.
The partnership between van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma had lasted 17 overs when Wagner made the breakthrough. Since the beginning of Wagner's Test career, no fast bowler has broken as many partnerships to have batted 100 or more balls as he has. He's broken 55 such stands in his career. That's 22.5% of his 244 wickets at the time of Bavuma's dismissal. Stuart Broad has 51 such wickets since Wagner's debut, but that's just 13.6% of the 376 wickets the England man has taken in this period. No fast bowler has built a career out of breaking partnerships quite like Wagner. Ben Stokes comes close at 21%, having broken 35 partnerships of 100-plus balls in his 167 wickets.
Admittedly, bowlers at second and third change are likely to be at the top of this list. But Wagner's back-breaking method of providing these breakthroughs give these numbers meaning. And the use of the phrase 'back-breaking method' isn't too much of an exaggeration - in 23 of these 55 partnerships that Wagner has broken, batters have got out to balls pitching short or short of length according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data.
Van der Dussen had already batted 84 balls in his innings before he was dismissed by Wagner. That's enough balls for a batter to get their eye in, especially in conditions like the Hagley Oval's. But Wagner still managed to prise a wicket out and that's no surprise. 97 of his 244 wickets have been of batters who've faced 50 balls or more in their innings. Since Wagner's debut, only Broad and James Anderson have got more such batters out. However, these two largely bowl in English conditions where pacers almost always get some help.
Among pacers to take 100 or more wickets since Wagner's debut, only Shannon Gabriel has a higher percentage of his career wickets dismissing 'settled' batters. Among the 14 bowlers to take 200 or more wickets since Wagner's debut, no one has a higher percentage of such wickets. The top five in this list apart from Wagner are all spinners.
Wagner is the sixth-highest wicket-taking fast bowler in Tests since his debut, having played just 58 of the 84 Tests that New Zealand have played since. None of the bowlers who've taken more wickets than Wagner have missed as many matches for their teams. In a team with fast bowling riches, he's not a shoo-in in all conditions. However, one wonders if he should be playing more often. Though if he does, with an increased workload at his age, it's likely that he won't be as relentless in every spell as he is now. Or he might just spring a surprise as he did with the wicket of van der Dussen.

Shiva Jayaraman is a senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo @shiva_cricinfo