Less than five days after becoming a father, New Zealand bowling’s engine room Neil Wagner was soaking in fatherhood on Wednesday. He spoke of the demands of paternity: “I had my phone consistently on Sky Go in the hospital, watching the boys and supporting from afar, and a couple of early mornings (watching on record) while doing the odd nappy change.” Then with a typical mean streak, he stressed: “Now back to business and getting back with the boys.”
Only that his return has put the team management in a dilemma, as his replacement Kyle Jamieson enjoyed a terrific all-round debut. So did his old pals Trent Boult and Tim Southee and all-rounder Colin de Grandhomme, thus making his return complicated. Wagner, obviously, has been one of the Kiwi bowling pillars in the last two years and would slot himself into the eleven. “Neil Wagner will come back and he’s been a force in our team for a long time. He’ll be back with us without a doubt.” said coach Gary Stead.
The New Zealand coach has a practical solution: To play all four seamers, at the expense of left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel, who bowled a combined six overs in the entire Wellington Test.
“I think we always consider those things. We’ll go down there, look at the wicket, we’re still three or four days out at this stage, so don’t want to make any assumptions before we get down there, but generally the wicket we play on at Hagley has a wee bit in it as well. We’ve seen in the past guys like Colin de Grandhomme can be useful in those conditions —think back to his debut against Pakistan, then it was useful conditions for him,” Stead pointed out.
It would have been different if Mitchell Santner was around, but considering that Ajaz is neither handy with the bat nor thrifty with the ball, the pace-quartet strategy seems logical. The decision, Stead kept reiterating, would depend on the nature of the strip. The numbers at Hagley Oval are stacked heavily in favour of seamers. Of the 92 wickets the home team has plucked, as many as 90 have been credited to them. Boult averages 21, Southee 20, Wagner 26, and de Grandhomme 25.
At the same time, the New Zealand spinners could bargain only two wickets, though they tried five in six Tests they’ve played at the venue. While it could be an indication of New Zealand’s forte and the dearth of quality spinners, the overwhelming success of the seamers does indicate the usual characteristics of the pitch.
Two other numbers fortify this pattern. First, visiting spinners too have massively struggled here. Apart from Shakib al Hasan and Nathan Lyon, no spinner has managed three or more wickets on this ground. No spinner features in the top 15 wicket-takers. As significantly, six of the 24 innings have seen scores under 200, nine under 300.
Though the strip tends to flatten out and improve for batting as the match progresses, as most of the pitches in the country do, the tempo of the match is usually decided in the first two days, when it does more than a wee bit. Even in the last two days, the pitch doesn’t take much turn, and if at all there is some, it could be slow.
So spinners are generally consigned restrictive duties, which suited Santner but not Patel, who was wayward in the Wellington Test. Patel played in the last Test at Hagley as well, against Sri Lanka in 2018, when he was unused in the first innings and then bowled 12 wicket-less overs in the second, while Sri Lanka’s spinners returned figures of 2-207 from 62 overs.
So rather than play a redundant spinner for the sake of it, a pacer of Wagner’s or Jamieson’s quality could add value, furnishing New Zealand’s bowling unit with more venom. Wagner could bouncer-barrage the Indians more than his colleagues. He promised it too: “We will obviously continue what we had been doing in the series and make it tough for them. Here, there is obviously a bit more pace and bounce too.”
The other day, skipper Kane Williamson could only sigh at the cruel irony of the moment. “In Australia, most of them got injured. Now we have too many waiting to play.”
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