Wed, 16 Oct 2019

Who's the New Zealand of New Zealand? BJ Watling

ESPNCricInfo
17 Aug 2019, 04:42 GMT+10

11:05 AM ET

If New Zealand are the team that do great things that barely get noticed in the wider cricket world, BJ Watling is the New Zealand of New Zealand. Pull up to a cricket ground when he is in action and watch him closely. Take in his every movement, observe every run he scores, note the difficult takes and the fine catches, drink in his cuts and pulls, revel in Watling, breathe Watling in.

Then go home and describe Watling to a friend.

He was vital to the team's cause, and.... oh yeah, he contributed to key moments. But beyond that, be honest, you can't really remember much. I mean, were you even really watching him? Or were you too busy seething at a Ross Taylor dismissal? Or salivating over a Trent Boult spell? No one would really blame you. Least of all Watling himself. This is his calling in life - to do things that are in essence truly remarkable, but to do them with such utter banality that in the end they are barely remarked upon. You sense he wouldn't have it any other way.

In Galle, on day three, he struck one of those quintessential Watling innings, making 63 not out. Quintessential because, as is often the case, this good Watling innings came with his team in deep trouble, effectively 64 for 4. Quintessential, also, because although the scorecard says he hit five fours, you can barely bring them to mind. Was one of them off a sweep? Come to think of it, does he even play a sweep? A batting style so bland, so nondescript, if it ever committed a crime, you wouldn't pull it out of a police lineup.

And what he does for this New Zealand side, one packed with more great players than you suspect a New Zealand side ever has been, has routinely been the difference between victory and defeat. Specialising in crises is the making of many great players. It is inherently a magnetic and heroic endeavour. When Watling does it though - and man does he do it often - it's like he is doing no more exceptional a thing than walking down the road to buy groceries. The Galle pitch is treacherous. It has made a fool of all-time greats. Watling negotiated it, no fuss, no chances given, no look-at me shots. Just smart, scrappy batting, and concentrated stubbornness.

Ninety-nine innings into his Test career, Watling has six hundreds and 17 half-centuries, but where he really excels is at putting up partnerships. He has been part of two record sixth-wicket stands, with Brendon McCullum, and Kane Williamson, but because he played second fiddle in both, no one really remembers him being in them. When he does lead a partnership, it is generally one of those vital stands with a tailender, and as such do not send any meaningful records tumbling, so no one remembers those for long either. But then what if they had never happened? Where would New Zealand be in this game without the 54-run seventh-wicket stand with Tim Southee? When he bats with the lower order, even normally aggressive tailenders suddenly become workmanlike.

Sri Lanka wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella is often accused of playing flashy and insubstantial innings, and is basically the opposite of Watling in every way. In this Test, as if even being in the same ground as Watling is enough, Dickwella produced a jaw-droppingly responsible innings (by his standards at least) and put up his own big partnership with No. 9 Suranga Lakmal.

All of this is to say nothing of Watling's keeping, which of course, as with everything, is sublimely proficient, and deeply unsexy. He doesn't kick up his heels on the diving takes, doesn't over-celebrate the great stumpings. His appeals are earnest but not pleading. Precise footwork, soft hands, good anticipation - this, instead, is where Watling makes his honest living. He has twice taken nine catches in a match, which is outstanding, but still two catches short of being a record. He has 2.05 dismissals per innings across his career, which again is super, but puts him at only fourth on the all-time list (for keepers with more than 200 career dismissals), behind Adam Gilchrist and Brad Haddin and a certain gloveman from Pakistan. How strange is the space Watling inhabits, that he is both statistically the greatest purveyor of his craft his nation has produced, and yet has slightly worse numbers than Kamran Akmal.

If the defining quality of this New Zealand team is to be better at what they do than most imagine they are, no one embodies those virtues better than their wicketkeeper-batsman. In an alternate universe, New Zealand were bundled out for 120, and Sri Lanka have already won this Test. This universe is no sexier for Watling's presence in it. But it definitely is better.

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