The ability to adapt quickly to unfamiliar conditions was crucial to New Zealand’s victory in the first Test over Zimbabwe, according to coach Mike Hesson. He praisedNeil Wagner and BJ Watling for assessing the Bulawayo surface, which did not offer much pace or bounce but grew abrasive as the game went on, and working out how to succeed on it.
Wagner’s career-best 6 for 41 was headlined by his short-ball barrage, an unusual sight at Queens, where most seamers stick to simple plans and wait for a mistake. But Wagner bent his back and attacked Zimbabwe’s line-up in the first innings and the early parts of the second, before adjusting his strategy and searching for reverse-swing as the ball aged.
Although his second-innings returns were a third of his first innings, it showed his dual use as a wicket-taker, with both new and old ball, something that has come with being more certain of his game.
“When he came up three or four years ago he was excited and keen to make an impression. He probably didn’t stick to his gameplan for too long but he’s a lot more experienced now and he’s certainly got the confidence of the captain,” Hesson said. “He’s able to change his game, as we saw. He can swing the new ball if he’s given it. He can certainly reverse the old one and we know he can bowl bumpers. Especially on unresponsive surfaces, he’s a good bowler.”
Equally good but less celebrated was Watling, whose century did not get the same attention as Tom Latham’s or Ross Taylor’s, perhaps because it came after theirs. Watling’s was the fastest of the three hundreds and ensured the game did not drift at a time when Zimbabwe’s wearing bowlers were focused on containing. Watling tired them out even more, pierced the gaps and rotated strike with intent.
“He is incredibly perceptive. He is one of the few players that can adapt technique mid-game,” Hesson said. “He makes subtle changes to his grip. He is a very talented and very hard-working cricketer.”
Some conversations around the match spoke of Watling being the best wicket-keeper batsman in Test cricket at the moment, a label Hesson would not mind endorsing. “His keeping in very tough conditions, in the subcontinent, in England, has been exceptional for us. He often bats with the tail and he has an ability to eke out as many runs as possible. We’re not going to trade him for anyone,” Hesson said.
Overall, Hesson assessed New Zealand’s performance as “very thorough,” with both batsmen and bowlers executing the patience plan as intended. “We talked about playing the long game. We did that. We also showed how important the new ball was. We can be a little bit impatient with the ball at times but I am clutching to find some work-ons. Before hand, we said 20 wickets would be tough to take so we’re pleased that we did it.”
New Zealand will have Monday off before spending a night at Heath Streak’s farm outside Bulawayo and will then return to training on Thursday in preparation for the second Test which starts on Saturday. Doubtless, they will be eyeing a clean sweep in Zimbabwe before moving on to South Africa, where they will face a tougher challenge in their bid to keep climbing the rankings.
“These two series are a chance for us as a group to gain some of the ground that we lost a few months ago against Australia,” Hesson said. “We had gone eight series without a loss before we faced them at home and away. Before that, we had gained a lot of ground and then we lost some.”