Watling repaying New Zealand's faith
In early 2011, BJ Watling's international record read like the careers of so many failed New Zealand openers before him. In the years after Nathan Astle, Mark Richardson and Stephen Fleming left the game, New Zealand seemed to trial a fresh opening prospect every six months. Michael Papps, Craig Cumming, Jamie How, Aaron Redmond and Tim McIntosh all arrived and wilted at the top level.
Some showed initial promise before quickly waning, but Watling barely made an impact. When he was jettisoned at the end of 2010, he had made only two fifties in 18 international innings, with a top score of 60 not out. His talent was undeniable in domestic cricket, but like Papps, How and Redmond, Watling seemed unable to adjust mentally. He was renowned at home for valuing his wicket and his sound defensive technique, but in internationals, his failures were populated by loose strokes and soft dismissals.
But unlike so many others, he wasn't forgotten altogether. Then New Zealand coach John Wright saw the raw materials of a good player in Watling, and paved his way back into internationals late last year. Soon, before he had even proven himself, Watling was being groomed for a specific long-term role. Brendon McCullum abandoned the gloves in Tests due to back problems, and after short-lived dalliance with Reece Young, Watling, Wright said, would be the man behind the stumps who could also strengthen New Zealand's batting.
He began to repay Wright's faith, hitting a century against Zimbabwe in his first Test as keeper, but sustained a hip injury before the real test came against touring South Africa. Kruger van Wyk took his place in the XI, and has not relinquished it since, having hammered out a reputation as a battler - exactly the quality a New Zealand top order veering towards spineless was short of.
Yet, although his international career had seemingly run aground again, against West Indies in July, Watling suddenly found the steel that had been lacking from his game, making consecutive fifties in the first two ODIs - the first time he had done so in his career. He was injured again after making 40 in the third match, but he had shown enough pluck for New Zealand's management to keep him in their plans. Against Sri Lanka in Pallekele, Watling finally demonstrated what team management had seen in him for the past two years.
Watling may not have even played in the second ODI had Brendon McCullum not withdrawn with a stiff lower back, but as has been his recent habit, he did not squander the opportunity. New Zealand have adopted a conservative top order strategy in recent months, and Watling's steady 55 saw the venom leave the pitch and provided the platform for Ross Taylor to flourish after him.
In the next match, Watling had ground his way to 29 from 54, but soon after, both Taylor and James Franklin had fallen, and he took it upon himself to provide the finishing impetus, as he showcased a more belligerent facet of his game. The Watling that blasted 67 from 34 deliveries to close out the innings at 96 not out, suddenly seemed eons away from the player that had scratched his way through his first two years of international cricket. The offside gaps were pinpointed with purring strokes and the vacant areas in the legside targeted aerially. Lasith Malinga had tormented New Zealand in the previous match, but Watling dispatched him for three consecutive boundaries in the penultimate over of the innings.
"He took risks and he hit the ball in the air, it wasn't all along the ground," New Zealand captain Ross Taylor said of Watling's innings. "He showed the power game that he does have. He's getting a lot of belief in himself, I'm sure, from the way he's batted in the last two games, and half the battle at this level is self-belief."
Watling had taken 23 innings to compile three scores over 50, but he now has four half-centuries in five ODIs, with an average of 107.66. Some players ease their way into top-level cricket, and others burn hot from start to finish. Watling's abrupt torrent of runs suggests a dam has burst somewhere, and if he can sustain the deluge, he will remedy his record after two lean years.
"The way BJ is batting is outstanding and he just keeps growing and growing as a player It's terrific, not just for him but also the team," Taylor said. "He's not an automatic selection, but I'm sure the way he's played in the last little while, he's pushing for that."
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka