Will New Zealand’s three-pronged fork skewer England?

 

That was Graham Gooch’s assessment of New Zealand during the 1986 series in England, when the difference between Richard Hadlee, the visitors’ best bowler, and the rest of the attack was somewhat stark. It rather backfired on Gooch, as New Zealand completed their first Test series win in England, but the premise was true: Hadlee took 19 wickets at 20.52 and no one else in the side took more than six.
It’s different these days. While Hadlee’s record of 431 Test wickets is unlikely to be ever overtaken by a fellow countryman – not least because the volume of Test cricket for New Zealand only seems to be heading one way – the pace attack they currently have can rightly claim to be their finest ever.
Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner have formed a formidable trio over the last four years. They first played together in 2013 and have joined forces in 24 Tests, of which New Zealand have won 13. It was in the 2013 home summer against England that the attack really started to be forged. New Zealand should have won that series but couldn’t get past Matt Prior in Auckland.
Individually their numbers are impressive: Southee 208 wickets at 31.45, Boult 200 wickets at 28.56, and Wagner 144 wickets at 27.87. In terms of matches, Wagner was the second fastest New Zealand bowler to 100 wickets, in 26 matches, one slower than Hadlee.
The averages of Southee and Boult are, unsurprisingly for swing bowlers, better at home than away. However, Wagner, New Zealand’s battering ram, has almost identical figures – 27.91 at home, 27.79 overseas.
Southee, a skilful swing bowler, who of late has developed the art of cutters with some success, is the senior figure in the attack. It is ten years since he launched his Test career with a memorable debut against England in Napier, taking 5 for 55 in the first innings before smiting 77 off 40 balls, albeit in a heavy defeat. The runs were a slog, and that is basically how he has continued with the bat, but the raw skills he showed with the ball as a 19-year-old have been honed.
It was not until around 2012, though, that he cemented his place. There were two performances on the subcontinent where he stood tall, and they remain high points in his career. In Bangalore in August that year, he took 7 for 64, and then in Colombo three months later, he took eight wickets in the match to help secure a series-levelling victory. The latter was also one of the first occasions that he and Boult combined effectively.
“He was very young, he hadn’t actually grown into his body,” Shane Jurgensen, the current New Zealand bowling coach, who also had a stint with the team between 2008 and 2010, says. “He’s actually got taller – it’s funny, when I saw him back then, I used to be taller than him. Then when I saw him after four years, I’m looking up at him. He was definitely a late developer into his body in terms of his physical strength, and when that came through to be able to bowl for the long periods in Test cricket – he always had that beautiful wrist – it was just about time before his body could deal with Test bowling.”
Last season there was a collective intake of breath when Southee was dropped for the first time in five years to allow New Zealand to play two spinners against South Africa in Dunedin. Due to a combination of that, injury and paternity leave at the start of this season, Southee has only played six of New Zealand’s last 12 Tests. He will be keen to reaffirm his standing in this series.
Southee is the senior man but Boult has become the star. He can sit alongside any left-armers of his generation and could well be considered his country’s second-greatest quick. He began his career in 2011, the debut coming in one of New Zealand’s most memorable victories, when they squeezed home by seven runs against Australia in Hobart. A year later the aforementioned Colombo Test followed, and in March 2013 he claimed 6 for 68 against England at Eden Park.
“Trent is naturally quite an aggressive bowler – he’s very competitive and he’s just a bit quicker than you think at times,” Jurgensen says. “He’s gone from someone who was bowling 130-135kph and now he’s probably 135-145kph, which allows him to have a bit more penetration with the new ball, more bounce.”
There is a healthy internal rivalry between the pair, although Jurgensen says it’s often as much to do with their batting than bowling. “Tim and Trent are pretty close to each other in terms of wickets they have taken.”
Wagner has a better average than both Southee and Boult, but it has been a tougher path to acceptance for him. From 2012-13 he went through a strong run of 11 Tests that brought 45 wickets, but he then played just two of the next 13, one of those appearances helping New Zealand to a series victory in the West Indies. He returned with nine wickets in two Tests against Sri Lanka, before again being left out against Australia in Wellington.
On his recall, in the next match, which was lit up by Brendon McCullum’s 54-ball hundred in his final Test, something else significant happened, though New Zealand lost heavily: Wagner took 6 for 106 in the first innings, all with the short ball.
The short-pitched attack, as dissected in this piece by Sidharth Monga 15 months ago, continues to be Wagner’s modus operandi. He has become New Zealand’s bounce specialist. Most recently he dismantled West Indies at the Basin Reserve with a career-best 7 for 39, six of the wickets coming from the short delivery. It was an indictment of the batting, for sure, but it showed that Wagner certainly knows how to work over a batsman.