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Opinion

Neil Wagner on song, but needs policing on short-pitched bowling

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27th December, 2019
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New Zealand’s aggressive left-arm bowler Neil Wagner has had a memorable 2019.

At the time of writing, he’s taken 40 wickets this year inside of six Tests. But it’s the other numbers around his bowling that show just how effective he has really been.

His wickets have come cheap, at an average of 18 with an economy rate of 2.8 runs an over. Plus, he boasts an astounding strike rate, picking up a wicket every 38 balls. It’s no wonder he has risen to number three in the ICC Test bowling rankings.

But at what cost? While many commentators praise his unbelievable work ethic and incredible fitness levels, I would say that there is a lot to dislike about Wagner’s bowling. I believe his focus on short-pitched bowling aimed at the body and head is negative, cynical and at times just plain dangerous.

Cricket analysis website Cricviz recently took a closer look at Wagner’s bowling in the Perth Test. According to their numbers, the 33-year-old bowled 193 short balls in that match, more than any bowler has managed in a Test in Australia since records began.

In his final spell on day four, 86 per cent of his deliveries were short-pitched. Since 2016 he has taken more wickets bowling short (75) than any other bowler worldwide.

Why is that a problem? Well, due to the way a batsman naturally stands side-on at the crease, short deliveries – especially those aimed at the body or down leg-side – can really only be played into the area that the ball is already heading. What’s more, controlling them is difficult.

This means bowling in this zone has the potential to completely control how a team scores its runs.

Watching Wagner slam endless bouncers into the MCG pitch as Steve Smith remained reluctant to play the hook or pull, gave me a sense of the strangling effect of Bodyline all those years ago. Sure, it was accurate bowling from Wagner, landing his bouncers on a 20-cent piece, but it was very negative.

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Neil Wagner

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

At various stages on the first two days in Melbourne, Wagner bowled with a notable field – a short leg, a short gully, a fine leg on the fence and deep square leg. As a consequence, Australia’s scoring rate at times slowed to a crawl as batsmen refused to play uncontrolled shots straight at fielders.

But it’s all within the rules – just. While the MCC laws of the game are pretty vague about short-pitched bowling, the ICC Test Match Playing Conditions leave much less to chance.

These are the conditions that set the “two bouncers an over” rule that exists in Test cricket, which applies to deliveries passing the batsmen between shoulder and head high. According to that condition, only the third short-pitched ball in an over will be punished with a no-ball. Wagner appears to push the limit on this just about every over.

In paragraph 22.1, the Test-playing conditions also create special parametres around calling a wide for negative bowling, although we seldom see this enforced by umpires. Pat Cummins was penalised for bowling a leg-side bouncer to stop the run flow in last year’s Boxing Day Test against India, and was duly wided by umpire Marais Erasmus, but it hasn’t happened to Wagner yet.

Australia’s batting coach Graham Hick has already queried whether this should be looked at more closely.

Then there is the danger element to Wagner’s bowling. While not express, his short-pitched bowling is seriously accurate. His low release point also means his deliveries don’t fly over the batsmen’s head, rising instead into a danger zone between the ribs and the eyes.

Wagner - it had to be Wagner

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

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While dangerous short-pitched bowling is enough to rule a bowler out of a match according to the MCC laws, the umpire has to consider the batsman’s relative skill to determine whether it will really injure them. Only then can it be considered dangerous.

But no Australian batsman is really a batting bunny these days, so when does this law now apply? It’s pretty subjective, and the umpires need to stay on it. After a barrage of bouncers to tailenders in the last Ashes series – from both teams – it would seem that this isn’t being policed much at all at the moment at Test level.

While New Zealand is regularly praised for its sportsmanship and good spirit, no cricketer on the international scene is naive these days. Professionalism has seen to that.

Let’s hope the Kiwis’ excellent reputation isn’t allowing them any freebies on the short-pitched bowling front.

After all, you can have all the rules and regulations in the world, but if they are not enforced then they are pretty useless.