Having made such an impact last season, both on and off the field, Essex will be hoping New Zealand international Neil Wagner can make a similar impression in 2018.
The 31-year old will link up with his old teammates in May, following the early season spell of Australian Peter Siddle, who is available to Essex for the first five County Championship matches. Wagner’s contract currently expires at the end of July, however, there is the option for Essex to extend his stay, should they receive the green light from the New Zealand Cricket Board.
While Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer rightly grabbed the headlines for their exploits last season, Wagner was typically aggressive, wholehearted, and demonstrated his uncanny knack of making things happen when a game appears to be drifting.
Essex, and new head coach Anthony McGrath, know exactly what they’re going to get with Wagner; a serious competitor, a bowler not afraid to concede runs in search of vital wickets and a man willing to sweat buckets and put the hard yards in during any given game. Being a left-armer he has the added bonus of creating some useful footmarks for off-spinner Harmer to bowl into. That was a ploy that worked wonderfully well in 2017 as Essex lifted the Division One title.
Wagner can also deliver sustained spells of hostile bowling; content to bang the ball in half way down and skidding the bouncers on, rarely wasting his energy as his accurate bumpers invariably find their target.
The bonus of being a relatively short quick, in bowling terms at least, is that the ball tends not to fly through harmlessly above head height but constantly asks searching questions of the batsman. It was this mode of attack that rendered West Indies helpless on the opening day of the recent Test series at Wellington in December when Wagner ran through the tourists to record his Test best figures to date of 7-39.
His 31 wickets for Essex last season came at 35.32 in the Championship, but it’s his Test record that really catches the eye. He currently has 144 Test scalps at 27.87 in 34 Test matches. In 2017 he took 36 wickets for New Zealand at 25.47.
Essex have a player familiar with the surroundings and, just as importantly, with county cricket and English pitches. Short-term contracts dictate that a player needs to instantly hit the ground running, and there is no good reason why Wagner shouldn’t.
His initial contract encompasses just three County Championship matches and a plethora of Royal London One-Day Cup games plus of course a block of T20 cricket. All being well sure Essex will hope to extend that contract to include more four-day games in the rest of his stay at Chelmsford.
There are bowlers around who may possess more skill with the ball than Wagner, perhaps even the man he shared overseas duties with last season – Mohammad Amir – but character can sometimes be even more crucial to a club and Wagner possess this by the bucketload.