New Zealand v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Dunedin, 4th day December 13, 2015

An accountant among NZ's rockstars

There are wicketkeepers who fling their arms around and those who flap their gums wide. And then there is BJ Watling. Mousy, soft-spoken, expressionless and really really good

BJ Watling, the man with sheepish smiles after spectacular catches © AFP

Some wicketkeepers are lieutenants, directing traffic and fine-tuning the field, in support of a captain's grander vision. For much of his career, Mark Boucher was one of these, as was latter-day Kumar Sangakkara. Others are buzzing mosquitoes around a batsman's face, occasionally venturing a stinger. Like Ian Healy or Brad Haddin, more recently.

In New Zealand, thanks in part to Ian Smith, keepers are often referred to as "the drummer in the band"; the man beating out a tidy rhythm, whether the guitarist is descending into a riff sequence, or the singer is climbing into his falsetto. They are the overlooked constant. Keepers rarely control the cricket's pitch or direction, but provide depth and set the pace.

Mousy, soft-spoken and often expressionless, BJ Watling doesn't really fit any of the above. He comes close to being a drummer, but even behind all the tom toms and cymbals, drummers have energy and presence. Watling is almost totally unobtrusive. He is somewhere even further behind the scenes. Backstage perhaps. Or in the office building beyond the concert hall. Watling is more like the band's accountant.

There are no extravagant oohs and pained looks when the ball whistles past a flashing blade. Some keepers throw gloved hands to heads when batsmen play and miss. Many stand still with one arm crossed for a few seconds, looking gobsmacked. Watling makes those takes, and passes them off to the slips as if they were any other. He is just filing another tax return.

Watling has been so prolific behind the stumps because he is so organised. The binders are all in the correct shelves. The files are all perfectly labeled. He begins to rise in sync with the ball, and his eyes are glued to leather until they are looking directly down at the rubber of his gloves. He has such soft hands, which come in handy when he is at the crease too. Brendon McCullum's bat makes emits a crack, whichever shot he plays. Watling's, some fans say, is noiseless when he is defending. He vacuums up opposition edges, but his own often fall short of the slips.

Untouched by flair is also his footwork, which experts say is almost flawless. Watling moved quickly and dived nimbly to his right to pluck a tough catch on what turned out to be the last ball of the day, yet he failed to kick up his heels. The pose - outstretched on the ground the way he landed - was not held for long. Having made a spectacular take look almost mundane, Watling rose, a sheepish half-smile on his lips, and gave his team-mates limp high fives. It was the second time he had equaled the New Zealand record of nine catches in an innings.

And what's with the name? In typical accounting style, he seems an obtuse figure of light fun. He could go by Bradley, if he wanted, or even John, and barely anyone would think of the other initial. Instead he calls himself BJ. Does he know ribald jokes do roaring trade in New Zealand? Come on, guy. Just help yourself a little sometimes.

Maybe the unassuming demeanour inspires trust from his team-mates. Behind the wicket is where this seam attack earns wages for their labour, and they all rate him highly. Tim Southee called him "arguably the best keeper-batsman in the world" after Watling had completed six catches in the first innings. Trent Boult has spoken glowingly about him in the past. With Watling covering so much ground, first slip can stand a little wider. Gully can be a touch squarer. "The keeper sets the fielding standard," Southee had said, "and BJ has set a hell of a standard over the past two years."

On the occasions that he talks, Watling's word isn't taken lightly, and it fits that he is most outspoken in the discussions preceding DRS challenges - one of cricket's least glamorous acts. The bowlers look to him for support. McCullum usually follows Watling's hunch. "BJ will have logged the line and height," they think. "He's conscientious that way." Everyone knows it would be more fun to go out drinking with Southee, or Doug Bracewell, but before you step out the door, you'd call Watling to come babysit your children.

He is a refreshing point of difference, this industrious blank slate. It's nice that as McCullum's sparkle ponies jet around the world blowing rainbows out their backsides, they are anchored by a cricketing square, whose work is indispensable, even if it is unheralded.

With seven wickets still to get in the second innings, Watling has a chance to equal the world record for most dismissals in a match. He needs two more. If he gets there, maybe Watling will show a little exuberance. More likely, there will be another half-smile; more limp high-fives.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  •   Gyan Singh on December 13, 2015, 23:59 GMT

    May be the start of a great time for classical keepers, at least in tests. Wriddhiman Saha of India is another one that comes to mind. It is actually a strong sign of positivity on the part of the team management (and captain) to invest in a proper wicketkeeper, instead of putting the gloves on a batsman who thinks (or at least the selectors think) he can keep. @Ianhosier: Exactly, did you see Saha's catch (there were actually quite a few, though on turning tracks, not conceding many byes is an achievement by itself, and chances get shared a lot between behind the stumps and close-in fielders in front, i.e. bat-pads). The catch that Ian Gould praised spontaneously on-field (despite being a match official), off a big deflection, down the leg side, against a spinner ... top class. And of course, the one where he flew to short-leg(!) to dismiss de Villiers, and another flying effort off Umesh Yadav in front of first slip ... exciting times for lovers of good wicketkeeping indeed.

  • Simon on December 13, 2015, 22:45 GMT

    You forgot to mention he also has a first-class BOWLING average of 19.50 - world class!

  • Kunal on December 13, 2015, 19:08 GMT

    BJ is definitely my favourite in the NZ setup, and that's with a lineup that boasts of McCullum, Kane, Taylor, Southee and Boult! He's underrated, he's sharp, and he's a team man. Exceptional batsman too. All the while being so modest you wouldn't notice him at all.

  • Ian on December 13, 2015, 13:09 GMT

    He definitiely is a very neat and tidy keeper, no doubt. However, he is also greatly aided by the fact that NZ has such a seam-dominated attack.

    For bowlers of their pace, the keeper will almost always be standing back - which is so much easier than standing-up.

    Secondly, those NZ bowlers are mostly 'pitch-it-up' types, meaning that they tend to provoke plenty of edges by batsmen looking to drive the ball.

    Again, such types of chances are much the easiest for a keeper, because (a) he gets more time to see the line (as compared to the short-pitched stuff), and (b) the nicks tend to come off straight bat shots (as against flat-batted strokes), and so are usually less deviated in height and pace terms.

    It would be good to see him keeping to a barrage of spinners on a turning and uneven wicket, such as those that SA has recently encountered in India.

    Those left Dane Vilas mostly floundering.

    Watling is much better than Vilas, but those pitches are the real test of a keeper.

  • Vinod on December 13, 2015, 12:11 GMT

    Classy writeup - enjoyed the read - keep them coming AFF....BJ is a an understated star in the Black caps line up and looks promising for a terrific future ahead....typical Kiwi modesty about him.....wish we had some like him....:)

  • Johanne on December 13, 2015, 9:36 GMT

    A moving portrait of a class act: B.J. Watling. May their tribe increase...

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