By Martin Smith

NEIL Wagner knows he has big boots to fill as he starts his third spell as Essex’s overseas bowler.

The New Zealand Test quick is set to be with Essex as they open their Royal London Cup season today against Middlesex at Radlett and has seen at first-hand the impact that Australian Peter Siddle made in his four-match stint in Chelmsford.

Siddle is returning down under with 20 Specsavers County Championship wickets to his name at an impressive cost of 16.10 runs each.

Wagner has been around while Siddle has taken 15 of those wickets in the last two games, and said: “Just watching him run in the other day it looked as if he was playing in a Test match.

"He’s shown the skills and ability he’s got in the last few weeks to make the ball talk and move around.

“I’ve always known he’s a huge competitor.

"A bit like me, he’s a real aggressive man and gives his all.

"He’s a top man and brings a lot to the team.

"He has fitted amazingly into the group and everyone has loved having him around.

"It’s almost a pity that he’s got to leave.

“So big boots for me to fill.

"Hopefully I can follow in his footsteps.

"I’ve got to spend some time with him around Chelmsford and that’s been pretty cool.

"I know he’s going to hang around a bit, so I hope I can continue to pick his brains.”

Wagner has signed initially on a three-month contract to the end of July, which will take in three midsummer Championship games, the entire Royal London Cup campaign and half the Vitality T20 Blast fixtures.

He did not need much persuading to return to The Cloudfm County Ground where his 31 Championship wickets in two spells were integral in Essex’s title success.

“It’s nice to be back,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time here last year and I’m looking forward to getting amongst the lads, seeing some mates, and hopefully playing some good cricket.”

Since last he put on the No13 shirt, Wagner has advanced his Test-wicket haul by 19 in two short series to 149; improved his best Test bowling figures to seven for 39 and nine for 141 in a match; plus he helped New Zealand to a first home series win against England in 34 years, digging in with out-of-character obduracy to save the second Test and complete the series win.

Wagner kept Ish Sodhi company in an eighth-wicket stand that frustrated England for 32 overs, and in which his contribution was seven from 103 balls. For the statistically-minded, that is a strike-rate of 6.79, and that from a batsman who hit a six in his first-innings 24 not out.

“Normally I try to be quite aggressive and hit the ball over the top,” he said.

“To have to change my game-plan and just try to survive was obviously quite challenging.

"It was tough, but I enjoyed the battle and it came off. It was a pretty awesome achievement to be part of.”

Wagner makes his first appearance since that game in Christchurch when Essex open their Royal London Cup season today against Middlesex at Radlett. The Pretoria-born seamer played his part last year as Essex reached the semi-final of the 50-over competition before losing to Nottinghamshire in a match of 743 runs and the largest successful domestic run-chase in history.

“That would have been a hell of a final,” Wagner said.

“But we had a lot of positives to take from it and hopefully we can start off well and continue doing the things we did well then.”

Wagner has already made a devastating impact this season, though not as he would have liked: bowling during practice before the victory at Worcester, he broke one of Nick Browne’s fingers, putting the opener on the sidelines for up to six weeks.

“I felt really bad about that,” Wagner said.

“It’s something that’s been bugging me ever since.

"You never intentionally try to hurt someone, whether in the nets or out in the middle.

"I guess it’s part and parcel of the game, we do play with a hard ball and if you get hit on bones they can break.

"I send my best wishes to him.”