CHENNAI: The pitch can be flat and unresponsive. The ball may have lost its sheen after Trent Boult and Tim Southee have made use of the brand new cherry. He can be suffering two broken toes and taking injections to ease the pain. But Neil Wagner will still keep charging in unfazed and doing the 'dirty work' for the Black Caps.
After all, that is exactly what the 35-year-old left-arm pacer has done since his Test debut nine years ago. And, as he showed in the second Test against England, Wagner is not a one-trick pony either. You perhaps can't be when you have 226 wickets in 53 Tests.
Over the last few years, especially in New Zealand where the surfaces become better for batting as a Test match progresses, the left-armer has developed a reputation for being the rescue man. Bowling long spells of short-pitched bowling, he has repeatedly unsettled even the best in the business. It is when the going gets tough that he comes into his own, almost taking the conditions out of the picture.
At the same time, Wagner has the smarts to pitch the ball up and get wickets too. At Edgbaston last week, Wagner outfoxed Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence in the space of three deliveries with classic left-arm swing bowling. He brought the ball sharply back into Pope and trapped the youngster plumb in front before finding the outside edge of Lawrence's bat with one that went on with the angle. They were the kind of wickets we have come to associate with his teammate Boult in recent years.
If all goes well, the South Africa-born Wagner, who is No 4 in the ICC Test rankings, should be lining up for his adopted country in the final of the World Test Championship against India on Friday.
For someone who was not considered good enough by South Africa and had to move to England before settling in NZ, it is safe to say Wagner has forged a pretty special career for himself.
Deon Botes, who coached Wagner when he was in high school in South Africa, certainly thinks so. "I am very proud of how far Wagner has come," he told The New Indian Express.
Botes is the cricket coach of the Afrikaans High School in Pretoria and has seen plenty of special players during his 22-year tenure with the school, including former South African captains AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis. With Wagner, the talent was not always obvious.
"Wagner joined our school at the age of 14 and got into the first team a year later. He had a very rhythmic run-up right from the start. Seeing that in a young kid, I always knew he would play first-team cricket at the provincial level, but I honestly never thought that he would one day play for NZ. He never made any of the South African schoolboy or age-group teams," Botes revealed.
The reason Wagner never made it beyond domestic cricket in South Africa, according to Botes, was a perceived lack of pace for the international level. During his time with NZ, Wagner has largely bowled at speeds of 130-135 km/h but his pinpoint accuracy with the short stuff has helped him hurry up plenty of batsmen.
Botes recalls a school game where the captain of the opposition came out to bat without a helmet, perhaps underestimating Wagner's sharpness. What followed next was not surprising. "Wagner charged in at full steam and made the batsman know that he did not like it," Botes remembered.
While extreme pace may not be one of Wagner’s strengths, he makes up for it with his innate aggression and an inclination to ask for the ball when his team is up against it.
"He was someone who would always charge in for you. It did not matter how hot it was or how late in the day it was. He always wanted the ball in his hands," Botes pointed out.
Another noticeable facet of Wagner is his ability to withstand pain much more than others. Against Pakistan last year, for instance, Wagner suffered two broken toes and yet bowled 49 overs across the two innings and claimed four wickets.
It is perhaps here that his hard-nosed South African upbringing plays a big part. "It is a characteristic of an Afrikaans boy. Coming through a school like Affies makes you tough. He has been brought up tough here and that is just carrying on," said Botes, who still meets his former student whenever the latter visits South Africa.
If Wagner can lift the World Test Championship trophy, Botes will be even prouder even if it is New Zealand that has benefited from the gutsy left-armer's exploits.