By Jim Birchall
I’ll admit I’m not a great fan of watching BJ Watling bat. Tests, (which in NZ are as rare as a snow leopard) are indeed occasions to be salivated over by the red-ball proletariat. They are also a sporting safe-space which from where you can view a player like BJ in his natural environment.
My innings voyeurism is generally reserved for players that Richie Benaud once described as “Dashers”. The arrival of Baz McCullum in 2001 showed the traditional wicketkeeper’s role could run concurrently with that of a Blitzkrieg-like ball striker. McCullum became a genuine two-for-one deal for the selectors.
In 2010, Baz decided to lighten his workload in the Test arena and restrict the wearing of lightweight pads to white ball outings, thus, presenting a chance for Barry-John Watling, a Durban-born, Hamilton-raised opener/part time keeper. BJ assumed the crouched position from around 2013, after squirrelling away a few runs in a handful of tests.
Talk about chalk and cheese.
Eventually finding a home at number 7 in a BlackCaps unit far removed from today’s WTC finalists, BJ’s occupied a well-carved niche of strugglers, fighters and journeymen. Players, that in times of yore, were relied on to dig the BlackCaps out of their latest batting collapse. A cavalcade of nudgers and nerderlers, (many of them glovemen) had been entrusted with cleaning up the latest 35/6 mess the hands of Holding, Wasim, Waqar etc.
BJ could be the best of the lot. After weathering many tidal waves of fast bowler aggression on home pitches greener than St Patrick’s Day, his tenacity was rewarded by a gigantic 352-run partnership with Baz at Wellington against a frozen India in 2014. His stubbornness to not give up on a lost cause in the West Indies a season later let everyone know he was made of harder stuff.
As aforementioned, his batting style was not for me. Whilst not of a generation that requires continued stimulation (which can be challenging in a game played over 5 days), the irresponsible 13-year old batsman in me only knows one way. Go big or go bigger. Fortunately, players like BJ bring sanity to hyperbole and his measured approach, extreme calmness under duress, and reputation as a ‘good team man’ were undoubtedly drivers for the success now being enjoyed by the test side.
Not that his batting was ugly. Far from it. It just wasn’t reckless enough for me. Transplanting from an opener to a 7 was the antithesis of many experiments conducted by NZ selectors in the past. Adam Parore had a modest time in test cricket once being moved up the order. The prevailing theory for his ascension was that he was equipped with the tools of defensive-mindedness and a solid enough technique. Similar was trumpeted with Bryan Young, who after starting his career (with an impressive lip-slug) behind the sticks in 1990, followed a similar path to Parore up the order, this time to open, with some success.
On sheer stats, none of the keeper-opener hybrids can touch BJ who will end with an average around the 40 mark. Not a bad return considering he also pouched 270-odd catches often in challenging conditions should Boult, Southee or the Wellington wind be on song.
Seamer Brett Randell has been playing alongside BJ Watling for a few seasons at Northern Districts.
I asked him what sort of culture BJ brings to the team environment. “Being one of the more experienced guys, BJ shows everyone what the culture of ND is: lots of hard work and thorough enjoyment. BJ was always working to get better, or help others get better.” Randell says that BJ is always willing to impart his knowledge of the rigours and professional standards required of the modern cricketer, “There is a professionalism about BJ where no matter what team he plays for, he wants to succeed. Having him as a keeper for a few games, we have had interesting conversations about bowling and fielding positions. These types of conversations are great, especially for me as a younger cricketer in the team, as they help both parties progress. I’ve been able to have a few of these conversations with BJ and they’ve always been very profitable for my career.”
Brett was also pretty emphatic when asked whether BJ is the premier keeper batsman in the history of the game in New Zealand.
“There’s a reason BJ holds all the wicketkeeping records for NZ. It’s because he’s the best to ever do it. I personally don’t remember watching Parore or Smith much. Our bowlers now are probably more adept at knicking batsman off, thus giving BJ more dismissals. His ability with the bat makes him that much better too. Not an explosive batsman, like McCullum, but he was able to dig NZ out of a hole more often than not batting at 7. BJ seemed to me as a batsman that could adapt to whatever situation he was thrown into. If he needed to score runs, he could. If he needed to bat out the day, he could. I think that’s why he was so valuable at number 7 for NZ. It meant that coach and captain had something like a security blanket: someone who could absorb pressure and turn it into momentum.”
This week sees the start of a 3-part mini-series farewelling Watling, a player who’s kind will rightly or wrongly drift out of a game becoming increasingly bereft of toilers.
I think the best summation came from Brendon McCullum when he said (after a typical display of grit from BJ) that “he is fast becoming my favourite player”.
Me too Baz, as long as I don’t have to watch him bat.
This article first appeared on guerillacricket.com