Enter the Wagnerverse: Are bouncers taking over Tests?

Lord’s had the most bouncers we’ve ever seen, what does it all mean.

If Jeff Thomson - Thommo - was not the fastest bowler ever, he was at the least, probably the quickest ever compared to other bowlers in his generation. People were terrified to face him.

Yet when you look at his balls, you see his fields. He has a short leg and a leg slip. But also a full cordon. That means while two are set for the short ball, four are in more conventional positions. There would probably also be a fine leg out, and maybe a square leg.

I checked lots of old Thommo spells. He often had two catchers on the leg side, which was common for him. Thommo was super quick and didn’t have many players in front of the square, but he almost always had full slip cordons with catchers for the fend-off.

What about one of the most famous bouncer spells of all time, Michael Holding to Brian Close? In this spell, Close took a lot of punishment, and the field was a fairly normal slip cordon with two catchers on the leg side again. Not that it mattered, the only way Close was clearing the field was with his nose.

And finally, we have Allan Donald almost ending Mike Atherton. He did that with a ring offside field, slips and a short leg. When Atherton has the audacity to hook, the square leg has to go and field the ball as there is no second fielder out.

This was how bouncer spells used to look.

Now they look like this. The fielders are speed everywhere. This no longer looks like a proper cricket field. You don’t find this in any coaching books.

I mean the only reason you would need a field like this for Mike Atherton would be for comedy effect.

Everyone had a field like this for this match at Lord’s, and that is because it was the most bouncers ever recorded. Now we only do that in the ball-by-ball era, and not everyone records them the same. But it was the number one no matter how you slice it. And not by a little bit either, these two teams smashed the previous record. We have never seen a Test like this before.

Test cricket looks different now. And the question is why?

What if I told you the most influential Test cricketer in the world was a fast medium left-arm bowler who had to leave his own country because he couldn’t even break into his first-class team that much?

Yes, Neil Wagner.

I know what you are thinking; what about Virat Kohli, who by stating regularly that Test cricket was his preference, made a huge impact. That certainly helped, but he didn’t change how the game was played.

Steve Smith, perhaps? The greatest batter since Bradman is incredible, but so far we haven’t seen any real clones try his methods. Players did start batting on off stump after his success, but it didn’t work for them as well, so it has been shelved as he’s a one-of-one.

Jimmy Anderson was the man who gave us the wobbleball. Not the inventor, Mohammad Asif gets the credit for that. But Anderson was the reason it spread, but TV also played a part in that. We have better cameras, so people were picking it up also just by watching.

The four all-rounders are Shakib Al Hasan, Jason Holder, Ravi Jadeja and Ben Stokes. But as important as they have been, sure you can try someone as an all-rounder because it has worked for them. In truth, you kind of have someone who can do it or not.

I suppose Ben Stokes the captain would be another part of all of this. However, as it currently stands, while there has been a slight bump to run rates, teams aren’t really Bazballing outside of England. Though it’s still very early.

Even if you think one of these players is more influential than Neil Wagner, that he is on this list is incredible. I would call that field we showed you before the Wagner effect. He was the first player who did this less than a one-off and as a full-time statuary. His cordon was three catchers on the legside, or three sweepers - who were also catchers, I suppose.

He certainly had an effect on that side of cricket, even if each captain puts a different spin on this original plan.

What about the number of bouncers? They had gone down. But that makes sense as this was during the wobbleball era, and you don’t need to bowl bouncers then. But this year there was a substantial rise, and the highest year I have in my database. As batters have evolved to the wobbling seam, bowlers have returned to bouncers.

Another thing Wagner brought in was more accurate bouncers. This was something that Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh were very good at, making sure each bouncer counted. But bowlers have never been as good at accuracy when bowling them. But Wagner was as accurate with his bouncer as Vernon Philander was with his line and length. If you noticed this last Test, you will see that it was very rare for wides or for no balls to be called on three bouncers in an over.

The speed has changed. The idea of bouncers was that your quickest bowlers delivered them. Neil Wagner was never the fastest New Zealand bowler. He was never slow, but they had quicker options. So when you see England using even slower bowlers than him, that is where that idea came from.

Fitness is another part of this. The stories of Wagner’s fitness are legendary. We know he can bowl a ten-over bouncer spell uphill into the wind carrying a piano on his back. But the base fitness level of players has improved a lot. The professionalism of cricket certainly plays a large part here, because bowling long bouncer spells are far more draining than a regular type of bowling.

The analytics has also changed. We always knew that pull and hook shots were the riskier shots in cricket. Because you are not using the full face of the bat, you are swinging across the ball, and you are often turning your head as you play them. But that is very different from saying that three of the five most likely attacking shots to be dismissed on are from bouncers.

One ball can bring about so much extra risk from a batter when trying to score.

I mean, let’s zoom in here and take a real good look, the leave averages almost as much as the hook. No way we ever would know this before ball-by-ball tracking.

Analytics make sports go to extremes. If you read Kirk Goldsberry’s book Sprawball you will see how the NBA went to three-pointers.

You can see that over the years the more information that players have had the more they have shot the riskiest shots that pay the most. Which makes sense. And Goldsberry’s warning to the sport is that something needs to be done or basketball will mostly be three-pointers in the future.

But there is something else here, outside the dunk, the three-pointer is the most exciting shot in basketball. They are not as exciting when they miss, and they miss around two-thirds of the time. So basketball fans see better shooting, but still more misses.

The successful yorker is the most exciting for Cricket, followed by the bouncer. It’s visceral and brutal. The phrase is smell the leather. It’s basically cricket at darkest and untamed.

But when you have seen 500 of them in one Test? Many delivered around the pedestrian 80 miles per hour mark, they are no longer anything like that. They just become a fairly normal delivery after a while. That’s not terrible. White ball cricket has meant that most yorkers are fairly pedestrian, but the point is cricket will look different if we go down this path.

Of course, Ben Stokes has already suggested that this was a one-off, largely because of the pitch. It was a bit two-paced with the short ball. Perhaps making it a perfect storm, especially as both teams tried it. They will continue to bowl bouncers, but obviously, it won’t always work.

Let’s go to the map. It won’t work on most wickets in Asia, there just isn’t the bounce, so that is already a big part of the world that can’t do it. I am also sceptical of it working in South Africa or Australia because the extra pace and carry means you can score so quickly off these shots. That is not to say it won’t work, but it would have more risk.

It makes the most sense in England, the West Indies, Zimbabwe, Ireland and New Zealand. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Wagner started this there. But with all these places, I don’t think all the wickets would help it. So it might only end up being a fairly small amount of Tests where this happens.

There are other reasons why this won’t work all the time. Teams will sometimes just score quick. It is what happens when you bowl lots of bouncers. The good shots go for runs, but you can also get four byes and five wides as well. These are fast-scoring shots, and some days they will spook bowling teams.

Also, this is tiring. Just bowling fast is tough, bowling bouncers takes more out of you. And this is two-fold. At first, you have to ask if it is worth putting your best bowlers through 5-10% more effort when you only ever create so many bowlers of that talent. And then you have to factor in back-to-back schedules. You would have to track how bowlers do in the second match to see if this is even worth it.

The other thing is simply if batters leave the ball more, take a few on the body, and get their duck back on. It’s not been as much of a skill needed. Two hours of bouncers in the middle session - when I expect to see this the most - could be thwarted by giving that session up and just not playing the pull or hook, and seeing if you can tire them out.

So we need to talk about Bodyline here. Because quite clearly there were big long spells of short balls bowled there. But it was really only by two bowlers, and even then, mostly Harold Larwood. You can see that Bill Voce didn’t actually bowl that much in the series. Outside of Larwood and Voce, you had Gubby Allen, who refused to bowl that style. Wally Hammond bowled medium pace. And Hedley Verity was a spinner.

Australia famously didn’t retaliate either. So while there were a lot more bouncers bowled than had ever been seen in cricket, by today’s standards it was probably on the high side, but not at the very top. What was really different about Bodyline of course was the fields.

Bodyline had a lot of weird arse fields. A leg slip, a leg gully, a short backward leg and a short leg was quite common. There was another I found that had six fielders from leg slip to short midwicket. From the footage, this is what it would have looked like. And I am not even sure if the other fielder was out on offside, or maybe was patrolling the leg side boundary for the pull shot.

These are how the two fields compare to each other. And you can see how different they are. Of course, part of that reason is during bodyline there was no limit on the number of fielders behind square on the leg side, so this field on the left would no longer be legal.

Maybe people think Bodyline changed the law, but it was over 20 years later when the law actually changed. That was because of off-spinners bowling to boring defensive fields.

But I just want to note more things about Bodyline. Even with those fields, you still saw full balls. Remember in this match England bowled two full balls in a session. That was clearly not the case with Bodyline. Even with their fields set, they bowled regular lengths.

So I think we can say Bodyline was extreme for its day, but nothing like this Test. What about the West Indies of the 80s and 90s?

They changed the length of bowling around the World, from full and swinging, to back of a length and seaming. So we know they bowled shorter, and of course, there were plenty of bouncers.

But the more you dig into it, the more it looks like while they bowled bouncers, it was nothing like this Test match.

Take the famous Test in 1986, which was thought to be the West Indies at their most brutal. Sadly no footage remains. But Rob Smyth wrote a great story on it, and we have the scorecard.  Lots of people got hit, and the pitch was clearly not great. Patrick Patterson bowled as fast as he ever had.

But we know not that many of these balls were bouncers. John Woodcock wrote at the time that Botham sometimes attempted six bouncers in an over. Think about that, in this last Test we saw that over after over. It wouldn’t even occur to us to write down one over, as they were all six attempted bouncers.

Then you have the English fast bowler Greg Thomas saying that actually, the wicket made balls look like bouncers that were not.  Also, the West Indians often felt like they were bowling a lot of bouncers when they weren’t. There are many factors here, racism in the reporting on them played a part. The fact it was the first four-man pace attack was another. They had very tall bowlers who got more bounce than others. And they were bowling back of a length. Many of their balls were rising up at the chest, and they were doing it in unison, and almost causing a cricket version of the cheerleader/fireman effect.

The West Indies changed how we bowled seam in Tests, and they hit a lot of players doing it. But their bouncers were to set up for full balls. Remember this Sabina Park game is famous for how brutal their bowling was. But look at the scorecard, in the first innings. There were three bowleds or LBWs in there, and in the second, it was six.

That is very different from the bowling we saw in this game. There was little setting you up for a short ball, there was just a bouncer, followed by another bouncer, with occasional back-of-a-length balls mixed in.

I would be shocked in any match before ball-by-ball tracking came in had anywhere near the bouncers of this game.

We know how many bouncers Neil Wagner has bowled, as many of them have been recorded. And we can even look at him compared to other players. This is the list of the matches with the most bouncers. The games in pink Wagner played in.

This is all the games with more than 100 bouncers bowled in them. Far left is this Lord’s Test ofcourse. See the pink streaks, that is Neil Wagner on his own. Christchurch 2016 against the Australians, Neil Wagner bowled as many bouncers as the 33rd most ever recorded by two teams in a Test. Almost 200 of them.

When you compare him to the rest of cricket, you see that he has bounced all of cricket. He is the bounciest bowler that ever bounced.

This is all the bowlers who have delivered the most bouncers since 2014. Wagner has nearly 1000 more than second place. But the second is interesting, that is Mitch Starc. Third is Ben Stokes. Fourth is Pat Cummins. Sixth is Josh Hazlewood. Seventh is Stuart Broad. And a long way down you can also find Jimmy Anderson. So in terms of bouncers, there were a lot of bowlers in this game used to them, but obviously not at the Wagner level.

One last thing on this is worth showing, as this is the most bouncers bowled by a player in a match again. The pink is still Wagner, but the blue is players from this match. This is a lot of streaks of blue in one game. Hazlewood misses out as well, because I cut this off at 50 bouncers, and he delivered 49.

But they’re all a mile off Wagner, who once bowled 38% of the bouncers that they all combined for in one match.

So when did this all start? In February of 2014, when Wagner was playing against India in Auckland and decided to bowl all these bouncers, and then never darkened the corridor again.

Would you like to know who the New Zealand captain was at the time? Nah, you already know. It is so obvious I barely need to mention it. While Wagner can lay claim to being the most influential current player, Brendon McCullum has basically been the leading man in all modern cricket.

His resume includes an opening night IPL hundred. Inspiring England’s white-ball cricket by just being better than them. Attacking line a maniac in Tests. Was the father of NZ’s greatest period. Bazball. Named a famous former player about match-fixing. And let Neil Wagner bowl bouncers.

In a 15-year period has anyone ever had this much influence on the game? And while many of these things are positive, the bouncers may not be. It could end up making cricket less enjoyable to watch.

And I’ve been wondering about this a lot, I even asked people on my discord about it. Is this game just an anomaly, or is it the canary in the coal mine that changes cricket? That is also how I felt about the ODI where Australia and South Africa made 400 each at the time.

That match was in 2006, and we all still talk about it. But the year before that happened was actually the first time teams scored at more than five runs an over in ODIs. And really, we all knew that teams were going to score quicker, the run-fest at the Wanderers just woke up people who weren’t paying attention.

That is how I look at this match at Lord’s. From World War 2 until now we’ve been seeing more. But it’s been a little bit like the boiling frog experiment, we just kept seeing a small rise in bouncers every now and again for so long that we have barely noticed our game has completely changed.

This Test at Lord’s, the frog got bounced out. Welcome to the Wagnerverse.