LEADING EDGE: Wagner between a rock and a hard place

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

THE raucous racket that rose from Centurion’s dressingrooms as Tuesday afternoon gave way, under melted Neapolitan ice-cream where the sky might have been, to evening could not have been caused solely by the South African squad and their assorted jam stealers and oxygen thieves.

They had to have had help to make that amount of happy noise.

And that help had to have come from the freshly vanquished New Zealanders.

Not the least of the factors that separate cricket from what we call sanity is that players who spend days trying to knock their opponents’ heads off – on a cricket ground you can get away with what would otherwise be called murder, even if the prosecutor is Gerrie Nel – become the best of buddies after the game.

Until, that is, they meet again to try and remove heads from shoulders in the name of sport.

There was plenty of that flavour of animosity flying about in the second test, much of it delivered by Neil Wagner – the Pretoria boytjie who these days talks in an accent thick with Dunedin twang.

“It’s probably the test that had the most bouncers in the history of the game,” Faf du Plessis said between the last ball and the first beer.

“(Wagner) set the tone with the short-pitched bowling. One fast bowler bouncing everyone gets everyone going, especially if you bounce the quick bowlers in the other team. It’s always going to get them fired up.

“If I was a bowler possibly I wouldn’t bowl bouncers to Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada – I’d just pitch it up.

“But it’s the way he plays and credit to him, that he’s brave enough to do it. There’s nothing against ‘Wagies’. We all know him very well and we’re going to have a beer with him.”

New Zealand coach Mike Hesson couldn’t have said it better himself: “Neil is a combative character. He wears his heart on his sleeve and that’s a big part of who he is.

“It’s a hard fought contest out there; no quarter given and no quarter asked for. But even though there was a bit of needle it was still played in good spirits.”

Was there really nothing against ‘Wagies’?

The first ball he faced after bouncing the bejaysus out of the Saffers came from Rabada. It crashed into his helmet.

And so on and so forth until, having scored 31 off 30 deliveries in the Chuck Norris manner, Wagner threw a hook at a delivery from Dale Steyn and was caught behind.

“If he wanted to be more courageous and brave he would have been 30 off 90 and watched his captain (Kane Williamson, who was hanging tough at the other end of the pitch for his 77) get to a hundred, rather than 31 and walk off the pitch saying I’ve done my job,” Steyn said. “That’s not your job.”

Steyn, also an aggressive batsman, has faced 90 balls or more just three times in his 104 test innings.

But that wasn’t the point, which was to put Wagner in his place.

And that place is the spot between a rock and a hard place reserved for South Africans who, having wrapped themselves in a flag of convenience, turn up back home and let us have it.

Remember when KP was Kevin bloody Pietersen for becoming English too quickly? Or when Clyde and Rathbone were two syllables of the same sheep-shagging swearword?

Rarely do we take it well when one of our own decides to leave. Even more rarely do we celebrate whatever success they might have in their new lives. Never will we let them get away with coming back here and showing us what’s what.

Call it pride or competitive spirit or what happens when too many boundaries are crossed.

Or call it what it is – nationalism – and sort it out over a beer.

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