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The song of Neil Wagner

New Zealand pacer Neil Wagner
New Zealand pacer Neil Wagner. (Photo Source: BCCi)

Neil Wagner sat in the haven of the dressing sheds at the Holkar Stadium in Indore. Draped in his trademark sunhat and sun-blocking goggles, he was eagerly awaiting his entry into the field of play. Alongside him was Ish Sodhi, the Indian-born leg-spinner. In spite of the overcast conditions, it was a hot day. The humidity at Indore can sometimes reach unprecedented and undesirable highs.

Underneath the shades, there was a sinister frown on the lower brow of Neil Wagner. At the end of the over from Mitchell Santner, he would sprint onto the field of play with Sodhi with a few cans of Gatorade and Electral to rejuvenate the seemingly sullen New Zealand players. However, the frown was not because of the fact that he had to deliver the drinks, but because Virat Kohli was batting and he was the one who had gotten him out last few times.

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The birth of Neil Wagner coincided with South Africa in the middle of a crisis. In 1986, the late PW Botha had made himself quite famous in Africa. Unfortunately, with Apartheid going quite strong, Botha had just broken the golden rule of diplomacy with air strikes over Harare and a few other neighboring African countries.

Wagner was born in Pretoria, the heart of Apartheid. Although he was only a lad of a few years when the regime was dismantled, the toughness of the time is something that perhaps shaped him into the fighter that he perhaps is today.

The first day’s play saw the temperatures soar at the Green Park in Kanpur. In spite of the overcast conditions, the humidity was at a high like no other.   The Kiwis were sweating it out. Of course, they were picking wickets at will, but Neil Wagner was on a level much higher than the rest of the New Zealand bowlers.

The sun was beating down and Wagner squinted. Not because of the heat. But because of a plan. A plan he had successfully executed against South Africa, the country of his birth, the previous month. New Zealand may have been headed for a defeat. There was a disappointment on the faces of the Kiwis. They all wear shades barring the few who don’t. As for Wagner, the squint illustrated a distinct story.

He was bowling to Indian skipper Virat Kohli. A million things raced through his mind before he went bowling the next delivery. Back in South Africa and the domestic scene in New Zealand, Wagner was laden with an opportunity at glory. He was a distinguished batsman. A left-hander in some respect as well as a player who could thwart bowling attacks into submission with his near-perfect defense.

One of the things that probably went across his mind was the glory of the batsmen. Why was he bowling? Bowlers don’t get as much love as the batsmen. Sure, the respect is there for all to see, but the fact of the matter was rather something else. Wagner charged in. He squinted a little more than usual. The plan was clear. Crystal clear. Run in hard and bang it in short, and let the ball do the rest.

Virat Kohli glanced at Wagner as the latter charged towards him. Kohli had the eye of the tiger, something he has had since his inception in world cricket all those years ago in 2008. However, for the 30-year old Neil Wagner, this was a well-documented form of a War of Attrition. Wagner bent his back to the hilt. At this point in time, Kohli had two choices. Of course, he is one of the better exponents of the short-pitched delivery. In 2014, he had pulled an angry Mitchell Johnson to the fence on multiple occasions as well as thwarted attacks from Ryan Harris both verbally and with the bat.

Wagner banged it in short with the wild hope that the Indian skipper attempts the sinister pull shot. Kohli knew this. Of course, he did. And so did the folks at the Green Park. Kohli ducked as the ball ripped through the dry wicket and into the safe and impregnable gloves of BJ Watling. Wagner allowed himself a smile. It was the final delivery of the over. Virat did not make a gesture as the southpaw took away his gear from Rod Tucker and took up his post back on the third-man fence. He would be back the next over perhaps.

Kane Williamson, the skipper came across a moment of god riddance as well as one of good conscience. One more over for Wagner he thought. And it was one more over Wagner would get. Ish Sodhi, his partner-in-crime during the drinks break was posted at deep square-leg. Kohli could almost hear the death roll. If not, he was about to.

Wagner charged in. Yet again. Banging it, in short, Kohli held himself for the first two deliveries. It was becoming weary. The sun was beating down. But not for Neil Wagner. He had been through worse conditions in the Natal Province earlier. It would take a signed note from The Lord himself to stop Wagner from charging in.

‘The Eye of The Tiger’ was well and truly there for all to see. He banged it in short yet again. This time around the Indian skipper fell for the trap. Ish Sodhi collected the catch as Wagner had his wicket. The exhaust chamber had finally vented its steam out. Whilst this was going on, the sweat on the face of Wagner was perhaps a consolation to the impact he had made. Even if it was for a few seconds. It was well past bedtime down in New Zealand. Yet, Wagner had his man.

Four days after this incredible event, the song of Neil Wagner came to a close. His impressive cover-drives for Otago were nowhere to be seen. His defenses were breached and he was trapped leg-before to Ravichandran Ashwin. India had clinched a historic win in their 500th Test. For his grandchildren, Neil Wagner would be the man who took an active part for New Zealand in India’s 500th Test. This would probably go on his CV as well.

However, for the rest of us – the fanatics, the romantics, and perhaps even the sportaholics (if there is a word for that), Neil Wagner will be remembered a little differently. Wagner had done all he could. You could see it. It was magnificent. It was fantastic. It was not enough. He walked away from the battleground whilst the Indians still celebrated. The disappointment on his face was evident. But behind that disappointment, there was a proud yet beaten man.

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