(Photo: Getty Images)
By Chris Stocks
After helping New Zealand to a memorable Test series win against England, Neil Wagner is looking forward to playing a part in Essex’s defence of their County Championship title.
The seamer may have only taken five wickets in two Tests but the whole-hearted effort he gave to his team complemented the artistry of opening bowlers Trent Boult and Tim Southee perfectly.
And with the series on the line on the final day in Christchurch, Wagner showed immense character with the bat during a 103-ball blockathon that proved critical to New Zealand sealing the draw that gave them a first series win against England since 1999.
The 32-year-old’s efforts would not have surprised anyone at Chelmsford after he played a key role in their surprise title success last summer.
Again, the statistics – Wagner took 31 wickets in 10 games at 35.32 – don’t jump off the page. But he proved crucial to Essex’s success during two spells at either end of the season.
With former Australia seamer Peter Siddle filling in for the first five matches of the Championship season, Wagner will resume his Essex career in mid-May after a period of rest following the series just gone against England.
“I’m going back the last week of April to get into training and stuff and then ready to play in May,” he says.
“I’m definitely looking forward to going back. They’re a good bunch of lads, I enjoyed my time there. It’s a pretty cool place Chelmsford, it’s nice to be around London in some sense as well knowing a few mates there. But, yes, I’ve made some pretty good friends and pretty cool memories over there. I’m definitely looking forward to it and hopefully I can play a part in defending that title for Essex.”
Wagner is only scheduled to stay at the club until the end of July, but in news that will cheer those regulars to the County Ground he says there is a good chance he will return later in the summer.
“Yep, I guess it all depends on workloads and how the body is feeling,” he says. “New Zealand are pretty proactive in us not playing too much cricket, using the other times for strength and conditioning, resting the body up and getting ready for our long summer.
“But I guess it’s the same as last year – come back, freshen up and then go and finish the season off there. It would be a similar sort of thing, I’ll just play it as it comes.”
Wagner’s rise to No6 in the Test bowling rankings is testament to what a good year he has had for New Zealand.
He does, though, admit the title win in Essex’s first year back in the top-flight was a career highlight.
“They’ve got a special group there, a good group of young players coming through complementing the quality experienced guys,” says Wagner. “It’s a nice changing-room to be in, a great bunch of lads who enjoy each other’s success and time together. We found ourselves last year having a lot of fun and playing good cricket and it led to a lot of success.
“We always felt if we could keep doing that, we’d get ourselves in with a great chance.
“As it went, we took it game by game and I think Chris Silverwood and Anthony McGrath were outstanding in the way they went about things. We always kept believing it could be possible and it happened for us.”
Hopes of emulating that success this summer have been hampered by the loss of coach Silverwood, who took over as England bowling coach in January.
McGrath, Silverwood’s assistant for the past two seasons, has taken over, bringing in Dmitri Mascarenhas, who Wagner worked with when he was New Zealand’s bowling coach, as his assistant.
“He was massive for Essex,” Wagner said of Silverwood. “He’s a quality man and a great person to have around the changing-room. “His knowledge and experience of the game was instrum-ental in our success. Every moment I spent there working with him was pretty special and I took a lot from it.
“He’s going to be a big loss but Anthony McGrath is a quality coach himself as well and he’s a top man too. Both of them have got a lot of knowledge and experience around the scene and then Dmitri Mascarenhas coming in is a great appointment.
“He’s another strong leader and a strong bowling coach. So, I’m looking forward to working with him again. I think Silvers will be a big loss but the characters and the group there can make up for that in the future.”
Wagner is confident the continuity of promoting from within with McGrath’s appointment will allow Essex to pick up from where they left off last summer.
“Definitely,” he says. “Anthony’s got his own way of doing things too but I think it’s really how we shape up as a team and what we make of it as a team.
“They’ve got the players and the people around there to do that. It’s going to be tough. To get there and win the title is one thing, to stay there is another.
“We want to put that to bed and defend it. It’s going to be even harder but we’re looking forward to that challenge and I know all those lads will be pretty excited by that.”
The difficulty in defending the title was brought home last summer when 2016 champions Middlesex were relegated. And Wagner, who also had a spell with Lancashire in 2016, admits the quality of the County Championship is the closest he has come to Test standard in the domestic game. “It’s quality cricket,” he said. “You’re getting tested skill-wise a lot and playing in different conditions and on different surfaces everywhere you go.
“The quality, from what I’ve experienced, I’d say it’s as close as you can get to Test cricket.
“For me, I like it, you feel like you’re getting challenged every day. You might get a green seamer here or there or you might get pretty flat and slow wickets you have to adapt to and try and swing that Dukes ball and use it to good effect. So, I do enjoy it and like going there which is why I try and go back as much as I can.”