January 7, 2019

Why isn't BJ Watling a bigger deal than he is?

He has often swooped in to save the day when all has seemed lost for New Zealand, but the wicketkeeper-batsman prefers flying under the radar

BJ Watling's third Test hundred, against India in Wellington, was the longest innings by a New Zealand wicketkeeper © Getty Images

There are things BJ Watling does. Score tough runs. Keep wicket for hours. Entertain (annoying) interview requests on New Year's Eve.

Then there are things he doesn't. Like talk about himself, which is maybe why there's hardly any buzz around the 33-year-old. He's the invisible man. But he really shouldn't be.

Since Watling's debut in December 2009, no wicketkeeper batsman has faced as many deliveries as him. That includes players who have been to the crease more times than he has. MS Dhoni, for example. And behind the stumps, he has 197 dismissals, only four away from the national record. Equally remarkable, as the New Zealand Herald's Andrew Alderson found out, is that he contributes two wickets an innings. Only three men have ever fared better in the history of Test cricket among keepers who have played 50 or more matches.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

I put all this across to Watling and ask if he feels short-changed by the lack of attention and he just laughs.

"No, not at all. I don't even think I'm one of the best, to be honest. I think there's some quality keepers going around who are also fantastic batsmen. So I don't look at that too deeply. I'm just going to try and enjoy my last few years of playing cricket."

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It's a cold day in February 2014. An exhausted man collects his bottle of champagne and starts walking back indoors. There are people cordoned off from him, extending little bats, screaming his name, taking his picture. Brendon McCullum indulges them for a little while. He looks happy. He wears the spotlight well. He probably still can't believe he's become the first triple-centurion for New Zealand.

"Obviously that was a very memorable game," Watling says. "It was important for us to really fight hard. We were 1-0 up in that series against India. We just managed to beat India in the first Test, which was pleasing. And I think we just really wanted to win that series. The motivation to that was obviously apparent, cause Baz was in a mood to bat long periods of time, and I was lucky enough to be at the other end for a good part of that. Had the best seat in the house, really, for a long period of time."

For the record, it was 510 minutes.

"And obviously Neesh coming in after that to keep us going was pretty special. It's a series I'll always remember."

Watling says a lot about the team. Gushes about the other batsmen and the joy of winning. But the only mention of his own innings, which yielded 124 runs, is "lucky".

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A year later - it's chilly, again - and there's champagne flying everywhere. New Zealand are celebrating a Test-match victory, a 2-0 sweep, and the coronation of the man who will lead their batting line-up for years to come.

Kane Williamson makes his highest Test score, an undefeated 242, overturning a first-innings deficit of 135. Sri Lanka are shell-shocked. So are the Wellington Cricket authorities. They had put up a plaque to commemorate the (then) highest sixth-wicket stand in all of Test cricket. Three days later, it had to be changed.

Well, partly.

Watling was in this one too. Three-sixty-five unbeaten with Williamson to follow 352 with McCullum.

"We know the Basin can flatten out for days two, three and four. We were behind the game there and we really knew we had to fight hard again, and I think if you play - as we saw Tom Latham do in the Test just gone in Wellington - if you get yourself in on that wicket, you can really stay out there for a long time and put the pressure back onto the opposition."

Having finished drawing a neat little asterisk against his match-winning 142, Watling proceeds to deflect praise onto his captain.

"Me and Kane, we've been playing a similar amount of time," he says. "I think we were just about starting our careers for New Zealand at the same time. Obviously he was fractionally younger, and yeah, we've been good friends for a few years now. It's great to see the changing of guard, and the way he goes about his game, I think everyone looks up to him."

His downplaying to the contrary, Watling has a difficult job. He bats at No. 6 or 7 in New Zealand's line-up. That means there's not much left, just the allrounder and the tail. And while those are pretty decent odds to bulk up a good total already on the board, it is nowhere near as comforting when the opposition is on top. One wicket can very easily lead to several, resulting in untenable situations: 150 for 5, 170 all out.

But if the lower order can hold on, bat time, then strange things start happening. The bowlers wonder if their plans are sound. The quicks try bowling short. Spinners go round the wicket. Captains go funky with their fields. Bowled and lbw go out the door. And that doubt in the batsman's mind - how will we ever erase the deficit? - is surreptitiously transferred to the other guy: where is the next wicket coming from?

It is the essence of a good old rearguard, and Watling seems to specialise in those. He came in at 36 for 5 in Christchurch last year and took New Zealand to within 29 runs of England's 307. More recently, against Sri Lanka, he helped turn 64 for 6 into a total that fetched a first-innings lead. His maiden hundred away from home was the result of a last-wicket stand that managed 127 runs. He was on 28 when Trent Boult joined him at the crease in Chittagong. He finished with 103.

Watling took New Zealand to a respectable total of 177 from a hopeless-seeming 64 for 6 in the second Test against Sri Lanka in December © Getty Images

"I can't quite explain how it really happens. I know it is just taking each ball as they come. Trying to respect each delivery. You're not too worried about generally having to score at a certain rate or anything. It's about fighting hard and making sure you try and build partnerships. Then you find moments where you can switch off and try and get away from the scenario that's put in front of you. But basically it is watching the ball and making as many good decisions as you can. Sometimes it doesn't pay off and sometimes it does."

Watling grew up in an environment that tips the balance in his favour in these situations. "I've had a lot of help through my school days. Chris Kuggeleijn has helped me a lot and been there as a bit of a mentor for me. There's obviously coaches you're always involved with, through the Northern Knights and New Zealand. And the players you play with. I think the whole time you're trying to get yourself better and you want to help people along the way as well."

There are holes in Watling's game, of course. He averages 17 in Australia, has a top score of 25 in India, has never played a Test in Sri Lanka, and until the recent series against Pakistan, did not have a fifty in the UAE. That is possibly why he rates a hundred he made away from home as his favourite knock.

England were 1-0 up. They matched New Zealand's 350, turning the game into a second-innings shootout. Watling walked in at 141 for 5 and prised open the miserly fists of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, scoring 120 match-winning, series-saving runs.

"To win that Test match was obviously very special for us. We don't win too many games in England, and to put them under some pressure like that and to win that Test match was pretty special. But to be honest, I enjoy scoring runs and I enjoy batting, so each time I'm out there for long enough to have a decent bat is always good."

That innings yielded the only Man-of-the-Match award of a Test career that has spanned nine years.

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McCullum calls him his favourite player. Williamson says he loves talking cricket with him. He has the respect of everyone he goes to work with and a fulfilling life with his family. But is he still really okay with the flying so far under the radar?

"I mean, there's probably no better feeling than winning a Test match and having a beer at the end of it and knowing you've put in five days of hard work to try and achieve that and that's why you play the game. Those are my most enjoyable moments so far. I'm happy with that."

Right, that's it. No point trying. Nothing will work. Not against BJ Watling, the superstar with spotlightphobia.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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