Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Dylan Cleaver: The curious case of Neil Wagner

New Zealand Black Caps bowler Neil Wagner. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand Black Caps bowler Neil Wagner. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

Perhaps Neil Wagner thought it would be hilarious to put trainer wheels on coach Mike Hesson's bike. Who knows, maybe he put Deep Heat in Brendon McCullum's jockstrap or talcum powder in Tim Southee's blowdryer.

Whatever he did, he should have apologised so we could have avoided the ridiculous situation of him having been omitted from all four tests against Australia this season.

Wagner's rejection from an under-performing New Zealand team is just plain weird. You want to know the results of the last 10 tests New Zealand has played with Wagner in the team? Good, I'm just the person to tell you. They have won seven and drawn three. You don't need to be Alan Turing to work out that doesn't leave any room for losses.

What about the last 10 tests New Zealand have played without Wagner? Glad you asked and I can help you there. Drawn two, won three, lost... five.

I can see some of you at the back of the class with your hands in the air dying to point out that Wagner didn't play Australia and therefore the numbers are skewed.

Chicken, allow me to introduce you to egg, or vice versa.

With Doug Bracewell's injury, there is a chance for the wrong to be righted.

The bustling Wagner is the dose of aggression to add to what has become a largely passive Black Cap attack. All muscle and thunder, the South African-born left-armer can bowl some utter tripe, whole spells of it at times, but at least he does it with feeling.

It would have been nice to watch him come around the wicket at the Basin, get wide on the crease and bump the bejaysus out of Usman Khawaja and Adam Voges for a spell.

Even leaving aside the fact he has takes wickets more often and less expensively than the preferred Bracewell, Wagner has the intangible effect of making those around him play better.

Continuing to leave him out was starting to suggest it wasn't a cricket selection, but something more mysterious. If that's the case then it's a joke - a bad one.


I don't subscribe to the knee-jerk theories put forward that the result in Wellington was a case of systemic failure; a case of umpire failure (though Dick Illingworth didn't help, he didn't cost a series like Nigel 'It Could Have Come from Anything' Llong); or, most laughably, a case of a team taking their eye off the ball while celebrating their captain's career.

It was simply, and even more disturbingly, a case of too many individuals being horribly, catastrophically out of form and if you look at the numbers, it's a wonder they beat Sri Lanka, let alone Straya.

To wit:

McCullum's test batting decline from December 2014 to now (435 runs at 27.2) is well documented. I'd need director of cricket Lindsay Crocker to take a polygraph test to convince me that McCullum wasn't strong-armed into extending his career beyond Leeds to protect a new captain, probably Kane Williamson, from starting their tenure with home-and-away series against Australia.

McCullum plays best when he defends straight and at the moment he's defending to cover and midwicket, the latter technique costing him his wicket twice in Wellington.

Although he is used to accepting the role as public punching bag, he is far from alone in his woes. Some of his vaunted teammates have been searingly awful.

The top four, even taking into account the collapse on the Basin's first-morning greensward, get a pass mark, with the qualification that Guptill's summer average of 33.2 drops to an anaemic 18.1 versus Australia.

Beyond McCullum, there are black holes of productivity at No 6 and 7.

The allrounders position at No 6 has been filled by four players - Jimmy Neesham (Brisbane), BJ Watling (Perth), Mitchell Santner (Adelaide, Dunedin and Hamilton) and Corey Anderson (Wellington). Just 175 runs have been scored in the position at a woeful average of 17.5; the nine wickets have cost 41.7.

This position is heavily in deficit.

Watling, who apart from Perth bats at No 7, has become the most inexplicable case. Renowned for his heady batting in a crisis, the wicketkeeper has been a shell of himself, scoring a meagre 156 runs at 17.3 and looks to be clueless against offspinner Nathan Lyon.

You want to get a sense with your bowling and wicketkeeping allrounders that you can't keep them out of the game; New Zealand haven't been able to get theirs into the game.

But don't think the bowlers are getting a free pass.

Look at Southee, the bowling leader. At first glance his 21 test wickets at 31.5 looks like a reasonable return. At second glance, his eight wickets against Australia at 56.3 looks weak as water.

His new-ball partner Trent Boult has also taken 21 test wickets this summer, at an adequate 37.2. His figures have held up reasonably well against Australia - 15 at 39.3 - but it's hardly strike bowler output.

But don't worry, coming on at first change we have Bracewell, whose 14 wickets this summer have cost 49.6; whose nine against Australia cost 55.

You can put any spin on it you want, but that's an ordinary return from your first-choice seamers.

Which brings us to actual spin. Cripes.

Perhaps the kindest thing you could say is Mark Craig batted very well in Wellington. The unkindest thing would be that Australia are praying for his continued selection. His 10 test wickets this summer have cost 666 runs. You do the math.

It adds up to a combustible failure of form and the problem with the way the game is structured is that there are few options to find form. Instead we have out-of-form bowlers bowling to out-of-form batsmen in net sessions that are as useful as a three-legged racehorse.

The Black Caps came into this summer on the back of a few years of unparalleled success in long-form cricket, but when Hesson pulled the Camaro out of the garage this summer only a couple of cylinders were firing.

Which makes Wagner's omission this summer all the more inexplicable. He's never had the chance to succeed against Australia, but nor has he hopelessly failed either. At the moment, that sad fact alone puts him ahead of the incumbents.


Nothing else will suffice but this.

Point of interest: Look what Williamson is on when McCullum comes to the crease at the ground upon which he will play his final test starting on Saturday. Look at what McCullum is on by the time Williamson is dismissed.


I'm buying... tickets to Chicago
Great city. The All Blacks v Ireland. The Maori v USA. At Soldier Field. If I didn't have two kids, a mortgage that seems stalled and a heart that can only take so many deep dish pizzas, I'd have bought my seats already.

I'm selling... Made-for-TV launches
Are you telling me you didn't cringe when you saw the Super 18 launched yesterday?


This from New Zealand-based journalist Emma Stoney piqued my curiosity as it was not only prominent on the esteemed NY Times sports homepage, but was also featuring on their "Most Viewed" and "Most Emailed" categories. Rugby fever?


This is, literally, the last $10 I will spend in this column... unless it wins. The futility of me haplessly losing every week could leave the impression that I am blasé about the value of money. I'm not. I am acutely aware that too many people in this country bet with money they cannot afford to lose. Throwing ten bucks away every week is, in actual fact, stupid.
So here goes, the final half-court heave...

Last week: The Boston Celtics needed to beat Milwaukee away by 10-. They lost by one. No dice.

This week: Baylor to beat Iowa State head-to-head @ $1.55. Someone told me they'd win.
Total spent: $30 Total collected: $0

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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