Essex v Lancashire
Specsavers County Championship Division One - Friday April, 7-10 (11am)
Neil Wagner is undaunted by the prospect of making his Essex debut against opponents with whom he shared a changing room and half a summer a year ago. For some such a scenario might be awkward, to say the least; Wagner’s colourful background suggests he has developed the thickest of skins.
“No, I wouldn’t say awkward,” the 31-year-old left-arm pace bowler insists, ahead of today’s opening Specsavers County Championship Division One match against Lancashire at his home for the next three months in Chelmsford.
“I dealt with that side on a similar thing as a guy growing up in South Africa, being born in South Africa, moving to New Zealand, playing cricket in New Zealand and playing in Test matches against South Africa. So I’ve been down that path before.
“I’ve got good mates in the Lancashire team and they’ve been good to me. But once you step over that line it’s a battlefield. It comes down to whatever you do on the field stays on the field. But afterwards you can have a beer in the changing room, talk about it and enjoy the memories.”
The memories of playing against the land of his birth are still raw. He arrived in Chelmsford on Tuesday, a week after the completion of a three-Test series against the Proteas in which he took 12 wickets.
South Africa went home 1-0 winners, thanks to an eight-wicket win in the second Test in Wellington, but knowing New Zealand would in all probability have levelled the series but for a last-day wash-out in Hamilton 10 days ago. The visitors were 80 for five in their second innings, still requiring another 95 to make New Zealand bat again.
“It was pretty gutting, obviously,” says Wagner. “We were in a really good position. It would have been nice to get a crack at them and see what we could have achieved on that day. The weather obviously played a big part, but we can take a lot of positives from the series.”
Wagner had the consolation at the end of his 32nd Test of being named New Zealand’s player of the year. His is a pedigree supported by achievement. Not only has he delivered one of the fastest balls in history, just shy of 100mph, he had even forgotten that yesterday marked the sixth anniversary of a performance that earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records: the only player in first-class cricket to take five wickets in a six-ball over.
“It was a pretty surreal moment, to be honest,” he says of the over for Otago against Wellington on April 6, 2011, that went WWWW0W. Wow, indeed. “I still can’t believe it. It’s just one of those things. A bit of luck is involved and things go your way.
“To take five wickets in one over is obviously a special feeling and something that will stay with me forever. It’s something you don’t really try to achieve in a game, it’s just one of those things that happen on the day. You just take it as it comes.”
Wagner has a reputation as a short-ball specialist, who has added reverse swing to his armoury and can find life in an unresponsive pitch. His work ethic is such that he won’t complain when Jamie Porter bagsies the Hayes Close End and he has to bowl up the slope from the River End.
“It’s not as big a slope as I thought it would be, or what people had told me,” he admitted. “I do find sometimes when you go up the hill you hold your action a bit longer and you get a touch more bounce out of the wicket.”
He was immediately made to feel welcome in the Essex dressing room when handed the No13 shirt. His eyes lit up. It is the first time he has had his ‘lucky’ number in his career.
“When I played back in South Africa, Faf du Pleiss [the current Proteas captain] had it and I couldn’t get it off him. When I played for Otago, they retired the No13 shirt when Craig Cummings retired. I was born on the 13th and some good stuff has happened to me on the 13th day of the month. I’m happy to have any number of my back, but it’s nice to finally get the number you want.”