TELFORD VICE, Bulawayo
THE shadows were longer than usual when Neil Wagner stood at his mark at St George’s Park in January 2013, ready to steam in and bowl for New Zealand in the second test against SA.
They were cast not by the stands but by the culture that had delivered the left-arm seamer to international cricket – by his decision to abandon that culture for the supposedly greener grass on the other side of the world.
Wagner was born and raised in Pretoria and schooled at Affies, and he played 20 first-class matches in SA before he joined the growing Saffer cricket diaspora after the 2007-08 season.
And here he was in Port Elizabeth, ball in hand and about to try to bite the biltong from the hand that used to feed him.
But, by the end of the SA’s first innings, there was little to suggest Wagner had been cut from the cloth of the big, bad, bristling South African fast bowler.
Graeme Smith gloved a limp legside bouncer to the wicketkeeper, Wagner’s only success in 33 overs in which he conceded 135 runs and looked as ordinary as that sounds.
Mostly he bowled too short. Mostly he didn’t have the gas to get away with that. Mostly he paid the price.
Wagner wasn’t the only under-performer in an attack that conceded centuries to Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and Elgar. Trent Boult and Jeetan Patel also brought up hundreds on the wrong side of the equation.
That only emphasised the implication: Wagner’s one of ours? Are they sure? He doesn’t bowl like one of ours.
On Thursday Wagner again stood at his mark ready to bowl in a test, this time in Bulawayo.
And this time he did bowl like a big, bad, bristling Saffer. Scratch that. He bowled like a caricature of a big, bad, bristling Saffer.
Sixty-two of the 125 balls Wagner launched were bona fide bouncers. That’s a fraction less than half the total number of balls he bowled. Another dozen were merely short.
Thirty-three, or just more than a quarter, were on what could be called a good length. He also bowled 17 full deliveries and one yorker. Full tosses? Not one.
Not that that tells us all we want to know. How effective was all that raw aggression?
Plenty. When Wagner went hunting for ribs, arms or heads, he found them. He sent four balls crashing into helmets, three of them in the space of four deliveries.
Wagner’s reward was career-best figures of 6/41. He took all of his wickets in a wicked window of 97 balls.
This, mind, at Queens Sports Club, where the pitch is slow enough to make people wonder whether groundstaff will find quicksand when they finally dig it up.
Who was this Wagner and what had he done with the facsimile of a fast bowler we saw at St George’s Park?
“I think when he came over (to SA) three years ago he was excited and keen to make an impression,” New Zealand coach Mike Hesson said.
“He probably didn’t stick to his gameplan for too long. He’s a lot more experienced now and he’s certainly got the confidence of the captain.
“He can swing the new ball, he can reverse the old one and we know he can bowl bumpers. Especially on unresponsive surfaces, he’s a good bowler.”
Why should South Africans take note of a defector who has managed to cut it with a team from another country?
Because, not quite three weeks from now, that team will be at Kingsmead playing the first of two tests.
Doubtless they will show off the new Kiwi way of cricket, the ultra aggressive approach their now retired captain, Brendon McCullum, unfurled like a missile at the 2015 World Cup.
Wagner, it seems, has bought into the concept wholeheartedly, while Tim Southee and Trent Boult also let fly with gusto on Bulawayo’s featherbed.
Between them, the three quicks took 16 wickets as the visitors clinched victory on Sunday by an innings and 117 runs with four sessions to spare.
What were SA’s players to make of that?
“I’m not sure what they would have thought or if they even watched it, I don’t know,” New Zealand captain Kane Williamson said.
They didn’t watch it because match was not on television in SA. Not to worry, Mr Williamson – the message has been delivered.