Almost exactly a year ago, BJ Watling was lying face up on the turf of the Cobham Oval clutching his leg in agony. He had just been run out playing for Northern Districts in a Ford Trophy match against the Wellington Firebirds, his attempt to make his ground hampered, not surprisingly, by an attack of cramp. On the same day, New Zealand completed a Test win over the West Indies, Watling having been omitted from the squad as he was unable to keep due to a hip injury.
His replacement, Tom Blundell, scored a century in his stead. Although Watling himself had notched a ton before the unfortunate end to his innings, as he stared up at the Whangarei sky with his half-concerned, half-sniggering opponents holding up his foot to stretch away the pain, he must surely have felt a little phlegmatic at the vagaries of sport. There was never any real danger Watling wouldn't come back into the Test team, and he would undoubtedly have been delighted for his replacement Blundell, but that moment prostrate on the wicket was most probably a bit of a low ebb.
Fortunately recovering from low ebbs is something of a speciality for Watling. Although he bears a boyish resemblance to the late Heath Ledger, he is more Dark Knight than Joker, a Black Caps superhero whose mask is the relative lack of attention his efforts receive. Time and time again over the last few years New Zealand have been able to cling onto matches by his fingertips, a trend that continued in his side's 2-1 series win against Pakistan in the UAE. In the First Test in Abu Dhabi his second innings 59 enabled the Kiwis to claw their way to a just defendable lead as they won by four runs. In the deciding match, also in Abu Dhabi, captain Kane Williamson rightly took the plaudits for his astute and aesthetic third innings hundred, but New Zealand were only still in the game as a result of his first innings partnership with Watling, who made 77 not out off 250 balls, coming in with the score at 77-4. All this against a rampant Yasir Shah.
Having so many runs on the board when he walks out was actually rather a luxury for Watling. When back in the Test side against England earlier this year, in the Second Test the Kiwis needed at least a draw to seal the series. Watling came in with his side at 17-4 after the tourists had posted 307, a challenging situation even by his standards. He proceeded to make 85 off 220 balls, crucially taking five hours out of the game, and setting up the great escape that Ish Sodhi's stoicism completed as the Kiwis clung on to avoid defeat on the fifth day.
The win in the UAE was New Zealand's first away series victory against Pakistan for 49 years. The win against England was their first ever series victory at home against them. Similarly he has also been involved in two world record sixth-wicket partnerships, first a 352 against India in 2014 with the man who describes Watling as his favourite cricketer, Brendon McCullum, then beating it with Williamson in a match where again New Zealand were in dire straits but went on to win, against Sri Lanka a year later. He can rightly be regarded as integral to New Zealand's cricketing history as well as their middle order.
There has been a huge amount of focus on wicket-keepers recently. Tim Paine, with his earnest handshakes and earthy knocks, has been tasked with the difficult twin jobs of restoring both Australia's results and public standing in the wake of the Sandpapergate scandal.
England have their own pleasant melodrama over who is best suited to take the gloves, a menage a trois of Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Ben Foakes which has left the first feeling embittered and the latter in possession. In the recent series against Sri Lanka their opposite number, Niroshan Dickwella drew such attention for his flamboyant appeals that they became a meme. No such attention ever really befalls Watling, although in his first few years in international cricket he had similar issues to Bairstow in how some saw him as keeper-batsmen and others as purely a batsman.
He actually played his first six Tests without donning his gloves and has faced constant competition from Blundell, Luke Ronchi and another South African-born keeper, the similarly gritty Morne van Wyk (Watling originally hails from Durban, Morné van Wyk from Bloemfontein). There is now no doubt whatsoever about who is New Zealand's number one stopper.
Watling, though, isn't a fan of his own keeping, calling it “not the prettiest” and claiming he hates watching replays of it. He is too harsh on himself, his glovework being generally perfectly tidy with his particularly winning trait being that he often makes the spectacular look mundane. His intuitive take down the legside in the Third Test to dismiss Asad Shafiq was a case in point. In the first ever day-night Test in 2015 in Adelaide, surely not the most straightforward of circumstances for any keeper, he took a diving two-handed catch, again down the legside, to dismiss his opposite number Peter Nevill. Others would have gone with one, and Watling’s anticipation made a stunning take look merely brilliant. Like a lot of his innings, his keeping often goes uncommented upon, which is itself a telling compliment.
His batting is a mix of the pretty, pugnacious and persistent. His cover drive looks as good as Kohli's sounds but, as befits someone whose inspiration was Jonty Rhodes. He defies then accumulates, a clipper but one who on occasion can club to midwicket. His defence is a triumph of will, the long periods he bats astonishing given the long periods without mental respite he also spends in the field. Watling passed three thousand Test runs during the Pakistan series and data analysts Cricviz noted that he features in the three highest New Zealand partnership averages ever: 78.15 with Ross Taylor, 68.69 with Williamson and 65.81 with McCullum, his ton and 121-run partnership with the latter crucial to New Zealand's series-levelling victory at Headingley three years ago.
New Zealand's keeper on that triumphant tour of Pakistan in 1969 was Ken Wadsworth, who passed away a few years later at the age of just 29, killed by an aggressive melanoma. Watling's own existence is thankfully as far removed from such tragedy as possible, his Instagram page full of joyful family shots of babies and dogs with, inevitably for a cricketer, a smattering of golf snaps. As a person and player, he is held in such high regard by Cricket New Zealand that his board appointed him to the panel picked to choose Mike Hesson's successor after the coach so integral to Watling's career announced his resignation from the national side this year.
At the end of the recent Pakistan series, there was a slightly awkward moment when Kane Williamson just took the trophy off the podium instead of having it handed to him by the sponsor. For the subsequent victorious team photograph, he then chucked away the oversized cheque, leaving the sponsors again a bit miffed. Williamson wanted no artifice, no nonsense, just for everything to be purely about the team. Fortunately for the New Zealand captain, those are exactly the things he gets every time Bradley-John Watling, the Black Caps heroic Dark Knight, walks onto the field.
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