According to Tim Southee, BJ Watling is "probably the best keeper-batsman" in world cricket. © Getty Images
According to Tim Southee, BJ Watling is “probably the best keeper-batsman” in world cricket. © Getty Images

Born in South Africa, Bradley-John Watling had moved to New Zealand with his family at the age of 10. In hindsight, it was a good decision. Had he not moved, his future in international cricket could have been in jeopardy. Ability would not have been a concern, but the quota system in sport that South Africa employs could have been a hindrance for him. That is, however, another topic. Watling has scaled through the ranks and established himself as one of New Zealand’s most important player in the side.

In recent past New Zealand wicketkeepers have adopted a contrasting approach when compared to Watling. While it seemed Brendon McCullum’s primary objective was to tear the leather off the ball, Luke Ronchi’s approach is no different. They have indeed subscribed to the Ian Smith school of batsmanship.

In contrast, Watling carries a monk-like temperament, buys time and scores runs — and important runs. With McCullum gone and Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill in indifferent form and Jesse Ryder’s whereabouts completely unknown, it is safe to say that Watling is the side’s second-best batsman after captain Kane Williamson. Or let us replace the ‘best’ part with ‘bankable’, ‘reliable’ or ‘dependable’.

All that, of course, is about his batting. Watling’s wicketkeeping skills, which has been top-notch until now, will be thoroughly tested in Indian conditions. Let us get through with his keeping first.

Watling, the wicketkeeper

New Zealand have always been an outstanding fielding unit, but under McCullum an unbelievable transformation unveiled. In December 2015, during New Zealand’s home series against Sri Lanka, Watling was unbelievable behind the stumps. Tim Southee, his teammate and fast bowler, who can attribute a lot of his success to Watling’s superlative keeping skills, explained New Zealand’s approach to fielding after dismantling Sri Lanka at Dunedin.

“Brendon [McCullum] speaks about it being an attitude, fielding. The keeper sets the standard and BJ’s set a hell of a standard over the last couple of years. He will graft away and he loves a battle. He’s always striving to get better, you know he’s never going to let you down.” said Southee in a report from Stuff.co.nz. The right-arm pacer further explained the fact that makes Watling so special.

Southee further added: “He has turned himself into a world-class keeper-batsman, for someone who started his career as a test opener to now be arguably the best keeper-batsman going around the world in test cricket is no mean feat.”

watling-catch
Watling’s approach to wicketkeeping is a manual for the budding talents. © Getty Images

Contrary to belief, Watling started his career as an opening batsman. Rewind to December 2009, at McLean Park in Napier, Watling opened batting with Tim McIntosh. He got 18 in his maiden innings and a 62-ball 60 not out in the second innings. McCullum was the wicketkeeper. He was coveted to the role since McCullum gave up the big gloves.

It was not that Watling was a natural keeper. Back in 2012, he had said, “I’m confident I can do the job.” He was a ’keeper at age-group cricket and school but when he stepped to the international arena, he was an opening batsman. From a part-time wicketkeeper to being “arguably the best ’keeper-batsman in the world”, Watling has come a long way.

Watling’s approach to wicketkeeping is a manual for the budding talents. An uncluttered mind, he watches the ball till the end, moves up according to the ball’s rhythm and not for a moment, you feel the leather is out of his sight. Watling’s batting is all about soft touches and it is commendable how he uses his bottom (left) hand. The softness is apparent in the way the red cherry cushions into his gloves instead of thudding, when he is keeping. Southee, Trent Boult and Neil Wagner can attribute a lot of their success to this smart genius guarding the zone behind the stumps.

In recent times he has nearly plucked balls off thin air. In a relatively short career Watling has had 9 match dismissals twice and 8 twice more. We talk about the art of batting and smoothness in bowling action; Watling belongs to the league who makes keeping look delightful. All this, and he remains unfazed.

The India challenge

If India dish out rank turners like they did against South Africa, Watling will experience something he never has. It is not his first tour of the subcontinent, but he has not kept on rank turners and New Zealand have a decent bunch of spinners in Ish Sodhi, Mitchell Santner and Mark Craig. The pitch can misbehave and trick you into believing that you are following it, but will, in all probability, end up deceiving you. How Watling overcomes such hostility, if any, will determine his legacy as a wicketkeeper.

The bankable batsman

When a part-time wicketkeeper can scale himself to be amongst the best, you can then expect an opening batsman to continue being as effective despite his primary role having been shifted. We can see where the sound technique comes from but will that be enough in Indian conditions.

BJ Watling’s batting career

 

Tests

Runs

HS

Ave

100s

SR

Career

42

2,322

142*

39.35

6

45.04

In Asia

6

281

103

35.12

1

40.6

He has only played a solitary Test in India. It will not be fair to judge him in these conditions. But Indians will surely mark him out and chalk down specific plans against him. Why? We remember McCullum’s defining 300 at Wellington that broke many Indian hearts at Wellington in 2014 but Watling’s role was no discount.

Staring a huge defeat after being reduced to 94 for 5, Watling and McCullum had added 352 runs for the sixth wicket. Watling contributed with a 367-ball 124 that helped New Zealand clinch the series. It was the then highest sixth-wicket stand in Test cricket.

Miracles happen once? A year later New Zealand were staring a defeat against a Kumar Sangakkara-inspired Sri Lanka. Once again they produced something extraordinary. At the same venue Watling joined Williamson in the second innings at a precarious 159 for 5. The duo surpassed the past record of the highest sixth-wicket stand in Test cricket. They added an unbeaten 365-run stand (the record now is held by Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow who added 399 earlier this year against South Africa at Cape Town), a partnership that won New Zealand the Test. Watling’s 333-ball 142 not out was as vital as Williamson’s unbeaten 242.

Is Watling the second-fiddle man? New Zealand had lost the first Test in England at Lord’s in 2015. The conditions were not the best for batting. New Zealand posted 350 and England scored as many. Even stevens. Watling walked out to bat at a tricky position of 141 for 4. The need of the hour was to extend the lead to a point where the visitors felt they would not lose. Watling responded to the challenge with a strokeful, pleasing-to-eye 120. His strike-rate this time was almost 74. A 455-run lead and a 200-run victory, helped the visitors draw level 1-1.

Watling's brilliant 120 helped New Zealand level the series in England. © Getty Images
Watling’s brilliant 120 helped New Zealand level the series in England. © Getty Images

Let me repeat. Watling scores important runs. In the 6 Tests he has scored a hundred, New Zealand have won 5 of them, while one in Bangladesh ended in a draw.

Like his wicketkeeping, his batting will be tested in Indian conditions where he will be up against the quality spin trio of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra. Watling has so far proved to be a very important cricketer. The ‘underdog’ tag presented to New Zealand can act as a benefit.

This India tour provides Watling the opportunity to stamp an authority and mark his transition to the league beyond, to a league of greats, where his young captain already finds himself in.

(Suvajit Mustafi consumes cricket for lunch, fiction for dinner and munches numerous other snacks throughout the day. Yes, a jack of several trades, all Suvajit dreamt of was being India’s World Cup winning skipper but ended up being a sports writer, author, screenwriter, director, copywriter, graphic designer, sports marketer, strategist, entrepreneur, philosopher and traveller. Donning so many hats, it’s cricket which gives him the ultimate high and where he finds solace. He can be followed at @RibsGully and rivu7)