Neil Wagner is the most unusual fast bowler in modern Test cricket. Can the short ball blitzes that have earned him success elsewhere work on true Australian pitches?
No bowler in Test cricket relies more heavily on the short ball than Wagner.
In the most recent Test between Australia and New Zealand, Wagner was the only Kiwi bowler to have an impact, taking seven of their 13 wickets as Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Matt Henry were neutered by a flat Christchurch pitch.
The left armer’s success against Australia was based on the most relentless barrage of short balls I’ve seen directed at the Aussies in recent memory.
Remarkably, all seven of Wagner’s wickets in that Test were from short-pitched deliveries.
Wagner started in the first innings by having both Joe Burns and Steve Smith caught at square leg while hooking.
Then NZ decided to put two square legs in place to Adam Voges as Wagner continued with his flood of bouncers.
Lo and behold, Voges hooked a shoulder height Wagner delivery straight to one of those catching men.
Then Wagner came around the wicket to Mitch Marsh with a stacked leg side field. The Kiwi dug the ball in short once more and Marsh pulled a catch to mid-wicket. Soon after, Wagner bounced Peter Nevill, who tried to ramp the ball but succeeded only in nicking it to wicketkeeper BJ Watling.
Wagner finished off Australia’s first innings by aiming for the ribs of Josh Hazlewood who edged the ball to slip. Six short balls, six wickets.
I don’t have access to a database that lets me obtain obscure stats, so I can’t give you any exact figures here. But I would confidently say that very, very rarely in the past decade has a Test fast bowler taken six wickets in a single innings with short balls.
Even Mitchell Johnson never achieved that as he bulldozed England with bouncers en route to 37 wickets in the 2013-14 Ashes. That much I learned from watching this video of each wicket he took in that series.
Never have I seen an entire side rattled by the short ball the same way England fell apart against Johnson that summer.
What you’ll remember, if you watch that video, is that Johnson’s brutal use of the bouncer earned him many wickets from fuller deliveries.
Because the English batsmen were camped on the back foot, terrified of having their helmets broken, they were vulnerable to full and good length deliveries.
By comparison, Wagner doesn’t use his short balls to try to intimidate the batsman, as Johnson did. I’m sure he would if he could, but Wagner is about 15kmh slower than Johnson was back then.
Few Test batsmen are scared of 130-135kmh bouncers, which is what Wagner sends down. Rarely are his short balls ever clocked at a higher speed than that.
Here is Wagner earlier this year taking four wickets on the trot against Bangladesh with short balls that measured between 132 and 135kmh.
Here he is again, in the same series, taking all five of his wickets with short balls that measured between 130 and 135kmh.
As you can see, NZ regularly set a strong leg side field for Wagner as he aims to get batsmen caught hooking and pulling. While plenty of Test fast bowlers fall back on such a plan when more traditional methods have not worked, this is often the first line of attack for Wagner.
Perhaps I am overlooking someone, but I cannot think of another current Test bowler who bases their wicket-taking strategy around having batsmen caught on the hook and pull. This seems to be why it works so well for Wagner: few batsmen are used to being peppered by short balls so relentlessly.
In this way, the Kiwi plays on their patience. Many Test bowlers plug away on a fullish length on or just outside off stump, waiting for a batsman to get bored and try to force an attacking shot.
This is the most common strategy for Test quicks and has been for a long, long time.
Wagner, meanwhile, keeps bowling short and short and short and short, until batsmen who prefer not to hook or pull get suckered into having a crack.
Even against batsmen who are strong on cross bat shots he’s happy to smother them with short balls, confident that sooner or later a delivery will bounce slightly higher and they’ll top edge the ball to his waiting leg-side catchers.
And it works, too. It works really well. Since the start of 2014, Wagner has taken 148 wickets at 24 in Tests. In that time he has taken 115 wickets at 24 at home and 33 wickets at 24 away. That includes nine wickets at 16 in South Africa, his country of birth and the nation which has conditions most similar to Australia.
Wagner looks almost certain to play this week in the first Test against Australia at Perth Stadium, which may just be the fastest, bounciest pitch in the world. As the likes of Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Colin de Grandhomme and Matt Henry look to bowl in a traditional fashion against Australia, targeting the top of off stump, Wagner will be inundating them with short balls.
Of this I have little doubt. What I’m less sure of is how Australia will counter this strategy and whether Wagner’s curious approach can work here. Australia’s entire top seven don’t mind a hook or pull. Some of them even border on being compulsive hookers at times, like Tim Paine and Joe Burns.
Wagner will be in his element. Pack your helmets Australia.