New Zealand quick Neil Wagner has travelled halfway around the world to answer Essex’s call and share again new-ball duties with Jamie Porter at the business end of the season.
When Wagner departed Chelmsford two-and-a-half months ago to accommodate the arrival of Mohammad Amir as the overseas bowler, Essex were 14 points clear in the Specsavers County Championship.
That has grown to 36 in the intervening four games with Wagner returning to help shove Essex over the line in the remaining three clashes of the season, starting against Warwickshire at Edgbaston on Tuesday.
The left-armer received the SOS from coach Chris Silverwood at the end of last month when it became clear Amir was required home by Pakistan. “Silvers just sent me a text, saying, ‘Listen, would you be interested in coming back? Are you ready? Just be ready if needed’. I said I was obviously keen.
“The plan was always, if I was needed to come back, I’d be available. I’ve tried to keep myself mentally prepared if that happened. I really enjoyed my time here before and that’s what drew me back. I had a lot of fun and created new friendships and new memories.”
He had not lost track of how Essex were homing in on their first title in quarter of a century despite sitting at home in Dunedin: “I’ve been waking up at five o’clock in the morning and watching the T20s on the telly.
I really enjoyed my time here before and that’s what drew me back. I had a lot of fun and created new friendships and new memories
“I’ve been keeping an eye on what the team has been doing. They’ve been doing really well and I’ve been really proud of the guys. I’ve been staying in touch by text and the odd phone call here and there.
“The guys have just been doing what they’ve been doing since the start of the season: playing hard cricket and fighting every game. The performances speak for themselves: Ports the way he’s been bowling, Harmer the same, and Amir did really well. Everyone has been chipping in, everyone has contributed along the way.
“We now need to put our heads down and focus on it ball by ball, bit by bit, in the games coming up. It’s a big month ahead for us.”
Wagner has not bowled since he took three of the six wickets that Simon Harmer didn’t gobble up in the innings defeat of Warwickshire at Chelmsford back in June. It took the 31-year-old Wagner’s Championship total to 23 in seven games.
With the New Zealand domestic programme due to start next month, soon after he hands over his return air ticket, and no break expected for another year, this feels like the beginning of a fresh season.
“It is starting again and having plans in place and executing them," he said. "You can’t come back and just pick up where you left off and do what you did last time. But you’ve got to hit the ground running from day one and make sure you are on the button.
“I had a three-week holiday, which was short and sharp, and it was lovely to have that little break away from cricket. Then it was back to New Zealand where it was a bit cold and I was stuck indoors. But it gave me a nice little block to do some conditioning and get some gym work under my belt. That should have got me strong again and got the body right. I’ve only bowled indoors, though.
I guess our fighting characteristics are going to be quite important in the next couple of weeks. We’re going to have to be nice and positive and aggressive
“I guess our fighting characteristics are going to be quite important in the next couple of weeks. We’re going to have to be nice and positive and aggressive in our approach. I just need to fall back into what the boys have been doing.”
Wagner has returned to Essex for his brief stay without wife Lana, who has just started teaching at a local primary school. The couple have recently heard the patter of tiny feet. Or paws, to be more precise. They are now the proud ‘parents’ of a six-week- old Labrador- retriever cross.
“With me being on the road quite a lot we thought it would be a good idea to get a little companion at home,” he says. “It should keep her busy so she doesn’t miss me too much!”