When Neil Wagner devised the leg-side trap to rattle Steve Smith, four years ago in Christchurch, his motive was no more than to contain the Australian. Getting him out was an afterthought. “We needed to do something to dry him up and stop him from scoring the quick runs. So I decided to go leg-side short ball,” he told The New Zealand Herald.
So Wagner decided to come around the wicket, commissioned a bevy of close-in fielders behind and around Smith’s legs and unleashed a short-ball barrage of relentless hostility. A few balls in, a fiendish bouncer smashed into the Aussie’s helmet, knocking him onto the ground. There were gasps all round, before Smith gingerly stood up. Later, he admitted to being shaken. The ball had hit him perilously close to where it had struck Phil Hughes. The memory was not too far away either.
That was the precise moment when the effectiveness of the tactic crept into Wagner’s mind. “Some of his favourite channels were cut out and he looked uncomfortable when defending with fielders on the legside,” he elaborated.
However, the strategy still required refinement. For Smith weathered the storm and ground out a hundred in the first innings before stroking an unbeaten half-century in the second to wrap up the match and series for Australia. More fielders, more hostility and early exposure, Wagner made mental notes. “The next time I played against him, I had a definite idea on how to bowl and clarity in setting field. I had the licence too,” he told The Otago Times.
It took another four years for their next encounter in a Test match. But the left-arm paceman had his plans designed to perfection this time. So the moment Smith would stride in, skipper Kane Williamson would summon Wagner. In turn, Wagner would wink in a close-in ring of fielders on the legside and launch a ruthless short-ball onslaught.
Smith still found run-making outlets — he still returned an average of 42 (disappointing by his 60-plus gold standard) —but runs came not in a stream but by a trickle. In supposedly difficult English conditions, against the most prolific swing and seam duet of this generation, he had scored at a free-flowing rate of 64.71. Against the understated New Zealanders, Smith managed only an earthly 34, the lowest among his batting colleagues and the worst of his career.
More significantly, Wagner found a genuine measure of him. Their duels read: 116 balls, 14 runs, 4 wickets. Australia won the war, but Wagner won the battle. All four dismissals came off bouncers, three times on the legside and once at gully. Smith was devoured at leg-gully and deep square leg in Perth; at gully and backward square-leg in Melbourne.
By the end of the series, Smith’s respect for Wagner grew manifold, and he sounded out a warning to all those seeking to imitate Wagner. Before the series against India, he said: “So if others want to take that kind of approach, then great. It’s not the same as what Neil does, the way he bowls it.”
It was akin to Roger Federer admitting that only Rafael Nadal on a clay court could topple him. Or Lionel Messi confiding that only Jose Mourinho’s park-the-airplane tactic could stop him from scoring a goal. Or Shane Warne confessing that only Sachin Tendulkar could dishevel him. The rest, the imposters and pretenders, would be delusional in thinking that they could be similarly successful. Try the lasso-like forehand against Federer, or suffocate Messi like Mourinho, or shimmy down the surface to Warne, the rate of success would be negligible. It’s like the Phantom curse: Imposters shall face the wrath.
In the same vein, to be like Wagner, one has to be Wagner. One has to be a left-armer comfortable bowling from around the stumps, one has to be strong in mind and body, be prepared to bowl 10-over spells of that most exacting delivery – the short ball – without compromising on pace and aggression, be prepared to be patient, be courageous to face the critics of legside fields, be content to compromise beauty for effectiveness, and be ready for injuries that would keep one out for months. Wagner has not created a niche; he is a niche himself. Almost a bowling equivalent of Smith, in the uniqueness of their methods. Impossible to reprise.
The injury-wracked Indian fast bowling firm would find it difficult to emulate Wagner or reap similar rewards. Even if it’s employed, it could not be anything more than a short-term trick. Jasprit Bumrah would be the obvious candidate to execute the plan, but sustaining it for a significant period could tire him out of the attack. India could ill-afford it, as three of their most experienced pacers are nursing injuries. Thus, a bouncer-barrage could be one of the ploys. Not their most definitive one.
But as unrepeatable as Wagner is, he has opened the eyes of the bowling brethren to Smith’s leg-side game. He has helped them shift their unflinching gaze from outside the off-stump to his legs, Smith’s supposed forte. All this while, bowlers have been encouraged to keep the ball as far from his body as they could. Those strong wrists could bludgeon it wherever he wants to. But even the most divine sportsman has the touch of mortal weaknesses.
Post Wagner’s roughening up, bowlers are targeting Smith’s legs with shrewd field placements in tow. Not necessarily with short balls, but with good length and back-of-length (like the way Bumrah bowled him at MCG) deliveries too. Not just pacers, but spinners too. India also had the benefit of scheduling, in that Smith has not played a single Test after the Wagner bouts. The wounds, thus, were still fresh.
It’s not like Smith has a dicey backfoot game, but just that his backfoot shots are too instinctive. He can pull or hook, but there may be fielders lurking at fine-leg and backward square; he can’t defend all the time, because there are catchers stationed at short-leg and leg-gully. He can’t leave the ball alone, like he does those outside the off-stump, for it’s reflexive to play those spearing at the body. Often in the instinct-versus-restraint tussle, he has copped blows on his neck and elbow, on his helmet and chest.
As a result, his legside game seems shackled all of a sudden. As if his brain is pulling his muscles back. As if he’s being over-conscious. The hands are suddenly harder, the feet are unmoving, the wrists leaden, and the mind frozen. Even to deliveries that are not quite short. Smith seems to be afflicted with a mind block than ridden with a technical glitch.
The self-admonishing after getting bowled around the stumps by Bumrah captured the essence of his struggles. He was more frustrated than defeated. Deep inside he knows it might be a freakish, one-off way to get out, but the frequency of his legside dismissals might be disturbing him. He needs runs before the pattern spooks him out.
Thus, in decoding the Smith code, the bowlers of the world owe Wagner a debt of gratitude. The Aussie has been a shadow of the batsman in Tests since Wagner’s visit — in his last five Tests, his average has plummeted to 28. He is looking increasingly anxious and petulant at the crease, stripped off his batting divinity.
How he recovers from the slump would be the truest test of his mettle to be considered the “best since Bradman.”
The length: Neil Wagner was not trying to bounce Steve Smith out, rather he was making him ride the bounce. So he didn’t quite bang it in short, but closer to the back-of-length zone. It ensured that Smith could not afford to duck under the ball or get under it to cut. He either had to defend, or pull or hook. Also, he was suffocated of room to roll his wrists over it and keep the ball on the ground.
The line: Don’t bowl into his body, goes a well-worn piece of advice. But almost every Wagner delivery landed on off-and-middle, bursting into Smith’s chest. The trajectory, combined with his robust pace, snuffed out the room to pull in front of square. Neither could he sway away from the line of the ball and cut it through the off-side. The jailbreak stroke could be Smith’s flap-pull, in which he gets completely outside the line of the ball and pulls it behind square. It’s a stroke he plays superbly, but the presence of fielders aggravated the risk. Often, there was a leg-gully, short leg, a finer square-leg and a squarer fine-leg.
The angle: Wagner usually bowled from around the stump. So the inward angle is more pronounced, and even if the ball straightens fractionally, it becomes a difficult proposition to handle. And sometimes, Wagner found slight inward movement off the seam too. He would often shuffle the angles, sometimes bowling from wide of the crease and sometimes getting closer to the stumps.
Smith’s coping mechanism: First, He tried to defend his way out of trouble, but realised that all it takes is one ball that bounces too much or too little to defeat him. So he sought the other extreme, to hit his way out of trouble, but the fielders were so astutely positioned that even perfectly-timed shots ended up as catches. Smith opened up his stance even more and reduced the stride of his shuffle so that he’s not caught on the move. Nothing, though, quite worked.
Emulating Wagner: It’s difficult to emulate Wagner, but the short-ball trick could be tried on and off, especially before Smith’s entrenched at the crease. But long periods of sustained short-pitch bowling will be difficult for India in the absence of Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma. However, leg-side fields could still be productive as Smith has grown increasingly susceptible to onside deliveries. The mere presence of fielders could sow seeds of doubt. It could work as a decoy ploy too.