Early win for Smith as bouncer-bowling nemesis bows out

The sudden retirement of New Zealand quick Neil Wagner may change the preparations of Australian opener Steve Smith heading into the two-Test series

Newly installed opener Steve Smith was handed his first win of the upcoming Test series against New Zealand before a ball was bowled with news his bouncer-bowling nemesis Neil Wagner is retiring and won't be involved in the two-match campaign.

Wagner's relentless short-pitched bowling ploy had proved so successful against Smith in previous series the left-armer claimed the batting star's wicket five times in eight innings of head-to-head combat.

Smith had been preparing for more of the same with Wagner named in the Black Caps' 14-man squad for the Tests in Wellington (starting Thursday) and Christchurch (Friday week).

But as Australia wound up their main pre-Test training session at Basin Reserve this afternoon, news broke that 37-year-old Wagner would not make the starting XI for the opening match and would be released from the squad for the second, and had therefore retired from international cricket.

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"I never saw myself as the most talented or most gifted bloke going around as a cricketer," a tearful Wagner said in confirming he had called time on his NZ career but would continue at domestic level for Northern Districts.

"I just saw myself as someone who loved this game, loved playing for this team, loved playing for my mates and for that Black Cap.

"I had to work extremely hard to find different ways and doing different methods."

The most notable of those improvised methods was the short-ball tactic that became the South African-born seamer's signature.

His capacity to bowl long spells during which almost every delivery was aimed at the batter's upper body made him difficult to score from and led to acclaimed problem-solver Smith having to reconfigure his game plan.

Smith first encountered the ploy during Australia's previous Test visit to NZ in 2016, where the then Australia skipper averaged more than 130 across the two Tests at Wellington and Christchurch but endured a torrid battle against Wagner's bouncers.

He was struck a frightening blow to the head during his innings of 138 at Hagley Oval and lay prone on the pitch for several seconds before being cleared of concussion and able to continue batting.

And in the return series in Australia four years later, Wagner claimed his Australian rival's wicket four times in as many innings of Tests at Perth and the MCG.

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"He's very good at it, he gets a lot of balls between the chest and the throat area and he's consistent with it," Smith told prior to Wagner announcing his retirement today.

"He's probably the best there's been with setting that field on the leg side and being able to bowl consistently to it.

"It has been a challenge for not only me, but I think a lot of batters around the world.

'It's a completely different way to go about it, and he does it very well.

"He's got me out a couple of times, and I've managed to survive for a while and make him bowl a lot of overs a couple of times as well."

With Wagner no longer part of the Black Caps bowling plans, Smith will enter his first away series as a Test opener knowing the practitioner of the plan that has presented a challenge in the recent past won't be a factor.

But Wagner suggested any of his fellow seamers in the NZ squad - which features skipper Tim Southee, Matt Henry, Will O'Rourke and Scott Kuggeleijn – will be able to execute the bouncer ploy if game circumstances dictated.

"It's something I looked forward to again, but I've got full faith in the group there," Wagner said when asked if he regretted not having one last crack at his Australia foe.

"I've had a fun time against him, but it doesn't guarantee I'm going to take his wicket again.

"He's a class player, and I feel like the attack we've got will find a way around it.

"We lean on each other as a bowling group and we come up with plans, and together we'll find a way of doing that."

While Australia's new-look opening combination have yet to pile on a sizeable score in their four innings together since David Warner retired from Test cricket last month, Khawaja acknowledged the two-Test NZ campaign will provide a clearer picture of how their batting revamp is working.

Khawaja and Smith have fashioned four first-wicket stands at an average of just over 26 (including an unbeaten effort when Khawaja retired hurt) and a best of 25 against West Indies at Adelaide Oval.

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Given Khawaja and Warner averaged almost 40 across their 41 innings at the top of the order it's easy to understand why some have rushed to judge the success or otherwise of the move to install Smith as opener after his storied career elsewhere in the top order.

But Khawaja claims the new pairing's long history of batting together at international and domestic level has brought about an easy chemistry that is often cited as the benchmark for opening combinations.

And the fact it's only been two games with Smith tackling the new-ball while all-rounder Cameron Green fills his previous role at number four means a clearer picture will emerge of the revamped line-up after upcoming Tests at Wellington and Christchurch.

"It's obviously a bit of a reshuffle with Smudge (Smith) at the top, but I'll think we're figure out pretty soon whether this is the best balance of the team or not," Khawaja said today.

"And then if we need to make changes, then we will.

"But at the moment there's still such a small sample size, there's only been two Test matches with this team so we probably need to give it a little bit more time.

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"It hasn't been different for me batting with Smithy.

"I batted with him heaps growing up, I was number three for Australia for a long time and he was number four so we batted together a lot.

"It doesn't really feel any different when we go out and open."

On their previous visit to Basin Reserve eight years ago, Khawaja and Smith put together a third-wicket stand of 126 after then openers Warner (5) and Joe Burns (0) both fell inside the opening half hour.

But as if to underscore how fickle the fortunes of an opening batter can be, Burns went on to post a career-high 170 in the subsequent game at Hagley Oval a week later to be named player of the match in Australia's comprehensive win.

As reigning ICC Test Player of the Year Khawaja acknowledged today, opening at Test level is always hard work regardless of the prevailing conditions or individual opponent.

And having played alongside Smith for many years at both New South Wales and then for Australia, he rates his long-time teammate as being as well suited to the opening role as anyone in international cricket.

"You're facing the best bowlers every single time with the new ball, sometimes the freshest wickets if you go out there first innings," Khawaja said.

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"So the challenge is always there, there's no easy runs to be had, it's just hard.

"That's what I miss about batting four or five sometimes, but it's one of those things where I think Steven Smith is as capable a batsman as anyone in the world.

"He's right up there as the best Test cricketer of this generation so if anyone's going to score runs at opening, it's Steve Smith.

"There's no doubt .. you can bat him anywhere and he'll score runs, it's as simple as that."

Qantas Tour of New Zealand

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February 29 – March 4: First Test, Wellington, 9am AEDT

March 8-12: Second Test, Christchurch, 9am AEDT

Australia Test squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, Matthew Renshaw, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc

New Zealand Test squad: Tim Southee (c), Tom Blundell (wk), Devon Conway, Matt Henry, Scott Kuggeleijn, Tom Latham, Daryl Mitchell, Will O'Rourke, Glenn Phillips, Rachin Ravindra, Mitchell Santner, Neil Wagner, Kane Williamson, Will Young.