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Cricket: Seamer eyes Hadlee mark

Neil Wagner has 94 wicket from 23 tests and was the clear pick of the New Zealand bowlers in Africa. Photo / AP
Neil Wagner has 94 wicket from 23 tests and was the clear pick of the New Zealand bowlers in Africa. Photo / AP

Neil Wagner is threatening Sir Richard Hadlee's record as the fastest New Zealand bowler to 100 test wickets.

Take a moment to breathe that in. Of all those who have marked out a run-up for this country in 86 years of tests, Wagner could be fastest to the milestone. Consequently, the 30-year-old might threaten Tim Southee and Trent Boult for their frontline roles.

Wagner has 94 wickets from 23 tests. Hadlee reached a century of dismissals in his 25th. To add further context, Bruce Taylor completed the feat in 27 tests; Danny Morrison, Daniel Vettori, Southee and Boult took 29. The only recent bowler to loom into the reckoning for Hadlee's mark was Shane Bond. He reached 87 wickets in 18 tests before retiring.

Statistics should never be a definitive guide to someone's team contribution, given the variables at play in a cricket team.

However, the fact Wagner has taken a wicket in each of his tests, and only missed collecting in five of 43 innings, indicates his value. Whether that is enough to be retained in the starting XI for three tests in spin-friendly India will be an intriguing call.

Assuming New Zealand opt to play Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig, does that make the Southee-Boult partnership vulnerable? The pair have been New Zealand's finest new ball pairing since Hadlee and Richard Collinge, and arguably the best ever, but that does not guarantee selection given Wagner's form and their respective slumps since the start of the year.

In six tests (two each against South Africa, Zimbabwe and Australia), Southee has taken 14 wickets at 46.14 with a strike rate of 90. Compare that to a career average of 32.63 in 52 tests with a strike rate of 64.

In the same matches, Boult has 16 wickets at 38.62 with a strike rate of 82. He averages 29.32 across 43 tests with a strike rate of 59.

This year, Wagner has 27 wickets in five tests at an average of 18.66 and strike rate of 43. Those statistics give bowling coach Shane Jurgensen a clear working brief in an area in which New Zealand has lacked impact since Bond's exit as a mentor after the 2015 World Cup.

Wagner has always worked in the shadow of Southee and Boult. He's the chap who has toiled into the wind without a new ball; he tends to fight the teeth of opposition middle orders but gets few opportunities at tails; and, until the first test against South Africa, he laboured under a plus-30 average. That has reduced to 29.12. His capabilities were also showcased by a first-class county campaign with Lancashire in which he took career-best match figures of 11 for 111 on debut. He finished with 32 wickets at 29.28 from nine matches and took that form to Africa.

His current status is in marked contrast to a year ago, when he slipped off the selection radar for the Australian tour. His chances of a return looked slim with Matt Henry and Doug Bracewell ranked ahead of him.

"I've got to work harder and fine tune so they can't resist picking me again," Wagner said at the time. He has fought back.

The conundrum for selectors Mike Hesson and Gavin Larsen is whether Wagner is a suitable candidate to open in India. The methodology behind many of his wickets has been to bowl a short-pitched length to attack the body. Southee and Boult are renowned for pitching up and attacking the stumps or activating the slip cordon. New Zealand will want to maximise the swing of the ball with conventional and reverse techniques on dry subcontinental wickets and outfields.

Minimising the footmarks which could assist India's off spinner Ravi Ashwin and leg spinner Amit Mishra could also be considered. Two left-arm pace bowlers might be preferable to using one of each.

Coach Hesson suggested Wagner exceeded their African expectations.

"In the last six months, since the test at Hagley Oval, where he got wickets against Australia, he's gone from strength to strength.

"He's established himself as the third seamer, which has been a revolving door for two to three guys, picking up three five-wicket bags in his past five tests. He keeps running in, even when it's flat, and taking top order wickets, which is critical."

Wagner even earned the respect, at least with the ball, of South African spearhead Dale Steyn.

"He's at that pace where ... you always feel there's a chance you can take him on, but he is a lot skiddier than you think and he has good skill. He gets his bouncer really high. He doesn't bowl chest high, which is an easy height. He hits the head. He makes it difficult for the batters to play."

- NZ Herald

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