‘Dry him up’ – Neil Wagner’s plan for Virat Kohli

Virat Kohli has endured one of his quietest tours in recent memory, with scores of 2 and 19 in the first Test in Wellington following seven limited-overs innings with only one half-century. New Zealand are determined to ensure his lean run continues into the last match of India’s tour as well, the second Test starting Saturday in Christchurch. And Neil Wagner, who returns to their squad after missing the first Test on paternity leave, says he is targeting India’s captain specifically.

“Every team I play against I always try and target and go for their best players, because you know what a big stride it makes within a team when you get their best players out,” Wagner told Stuff. “Drying him up, making sure they don’t score and putting a lot of pressure on him from both ends [is imperative].”

Wagner has dismissed Kohli three times in six innings in Test cricket, bowling 108 balls to him and conceding 60 runs for an average of 20.00. The first of these dismissals came in Auckland, during the first Test of India’s last tour of New Zealand in 2013-14. Chasing an improbable 407, India were giving New Zealand a real scare, with Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan putting on 126 for the third wicket. Then, with India 222 for 2, Wagner removed Kohli, and soon followed up with the wicket of Dhawan with a wicked bouncer from around the wicket. Wagner’s 4 for 62 in that innings was critical to New Zealand’s 40-run win, and he said it was one of the performances that helped him find his bearings as a Test cricketer.

“I think it was a stage where I was still trying to find my feet in the team and trying to find a way of getting a role and doing my role in the team,” Wagner said. “That’s one of the Test matches where it did turn. The way I bowl at the moment, that’s where it started.

“It was an amazing Test win and something I always look back to and I think it kickstarted my career. Before that I was going through the phase where you have quite a few ups and downs and try to find your feet.”

“There was a lot of periods where he’s bowled a lot of long, hard, tough overs into the wind, and I was able to get a lot of success and Timmy didn’t always get that reward or success from the other end. He’s finally reaped the rewards that he thoroughly deserved”

Wagner on Tim Southee’s performance in the first Test

Before that Auckland Test, Wagner had taken 39 wickets in 12 matches at 37.94. Since that game, where he settled into his current role of relentless old-ball enforcer, he’s taken 165 wickets in 35 Tests at the world-class average of 23.95. While his effectiveness in home conditions is widely acknowledged, he also has exceptional averages in South Africa (16.77) and the West Indies (22.80) in this period, and took 17 wickets at 22.76 in Australia when New Zealand went there earlier this season and suffered a 3-0 hammering.

Kyle Jamieson, who came in for Wagner in Wellington, enjoyed an exceptional debut, picking up 4 for 39 in the first innings and following up with a crucial 45-ball 44 from No. 9. Wagner was full of praise for the newbie, and hoped he had enjoyed his first taste of New Zealand’s traditional celebration of a Wellington Test win, a limousine ride up to the top of Mount Victoria, where the bowlers toast their success with a bottle of champagne uncorked by their wicketkeeper.

“Exceptional,” Wagner said of Jamieson’s performance, during a media interaction in Christchurch on Wednesday. “Really glad and happy for him to get his opportunity, and for him to have done what he’s done. He’ll take a lot of confidence from it, and it’ll do him a hell of a lot of good for his future as well, leading into the games he’s definitely going to play in the near future.

“So very happy for him, and I really hope he enjoyed that limousine ride, because it’s something really special, and I know it’s a memory that’ll always be with him.”

Jamieson had been part of New Zealand’s side on their 2019-20 tour of Australia, and had spent a lot of time training with his fast-bowling colleagues there. Wagner, however, said he hadn’t passed on any specific tips, whether to do with the use of the short ball or anything else.

“Not really in particular like that, but I think with him being in Australia, and having been with the group, that’s stuff you sort of feed off,” Wagner said. “Like I said, I think it’s really good for him and his career, and moving forward he’ll learn a lot from that, and take a lot of positives.

“It’s a really good point for New Zealand cricket to have, wherever we go, and someone has to either get crook or sick or, if there’s an injury or whatever, get someone to miss a Test match, you do know that you’ve got that depth and players to come in and be able to do what they’ve done, and a massive plus for Tim [Southee] and Trent [Boult], the way they’ve gone about it has also made Jamie be able to come in and do what he’s done. All in all, it’s very positive for us, a big and good thing for us to have leading forward, and yeah, looking forward to getting back in the team.”

Southee won the Player of the Match award in Wellington, with his swing and seam bringing him nine wickets in the Test. It was belated reward, Wagner felt, for how he had been bowling right through the season for New Zealand.

“Very stoked for Timmy, to be able to get rewards from the hard work he’s put in the whole summer,” Wagner said. “There was a lot of periods where he’s bowled a lot of long, hard, tough overs into the wind, and I was able to get a lot of success and Timmy didn’t always get that reward or success from the other end. He’s finally reaped the rewards that he thoroughly deserved.”

Wagner could have featured in Wellington had his daughter been born on her estimated due date of February 17, but her birth eventually took two days longer than expected. “If she was going to be early, and hopefully there on Monday, I would have definitely been there with the team, but so weird, she wanted to stay a little bit longer, and yeah, give her dad a little bit of a hard time,” Wagner joked. “It’s one of those things, but I wouldn’t change it for anything else in the world.

“It was amazing to be there for the birth of my first child and to be there with my wife and support her all the way, who’s been phenomenal and amazing throughout my career, to be able to be there for her as well and support her through this is, yeah, pretty special, and I wouldn’t change it for anything else.”