England were on top, but as soon BJ Watling started to exhibit his true nature, they lost their way. New Zealand remain unbeaten at home since 2017 and at Bay Oval, the home team owes a lot to Watling’s yet another Herculean act……

 

Five years ago New Zealand were transforming into an aggressive and fighting unit under the leadership of Brendon McCullum. After a rocky start to the journey of captaincy, McCullum was instilling the aggressive and fighting intent among his men and it was evident when they toured West Indies that year. In the second Test at Port of Spain, McCullum praised one man’s vigil in the middle, who was batting out there and trying hard to deny West Indies a victory. BJ Watling, the wicketkeeper, became the factor between the West Indies and victory.

From a hopeless 212 for 8 on Day 4, New Zealand went onto score 331 on Day 5 giving West Indies 95 runs to win. Watling stitched an inspiring partnership of 99 for the ninth wicket with Mark Craig, which not only frustrated the home team, but gave the possibility of an impossible draw only. Watling batted for 387 minutes and scored 66 runs facing 216 balls, while Craig scored 67 runs in 184 minutes facing 167 minutes. A bit more support from the top and middle, then, perhaps, Watling would have denied West Indies a victory.

In the post-match presser, McCullum said, “BJ is fast becoming my favourite cricketer, actually. His strength of character and his fighting qualities. The guy never complains, gets on with the job, goes out there and keeps for a hundred-and-something overs and goes out and bats for seven hours trying to save a Test match for his country”.

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“It’s not the first time he’s done it. He’s done it on numerous occasions now and he’s certainly a guy who’s becoming a strong leader within the group as well. He’s doing that through his actions and leading by example and that’s a really good sign because we’re still a young team, so we need as many leaders within the group as possible”.

Indeed, it’s not the first time that he dared to chase the impossible dreams, but for the last five or six years, getting New Zealand out the Black Hole has become a regular duty for Watling. Be it at home or abroad, whenever the Kiwis fall in deeper troubles, Watling comes out to bat and tests the skill and temperament of opposition teams to the limit.  Each and every time, his knocks end up as quintessential.

At Bay Oval, it was Watling again, whose epic vigil undermined England’s efforts. England posted a competitive total in the first innings. Jora Archer, Sam Curran, and Ben Stokes made the ball bounce and New Zealand’s top and middle-order came under huge pressure. At 127 for 4, they were reeling, but such situations are ideal for Watling to shine.

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For the next couple of days, one could witness a similar story – the story of Watling grinding the opposition and helping his team to escape. At Bay Oval, Watling’s knock not only dragged the home team out of the fire, but put them in such a commendable position that they gunned down England on Day 5. Who else, but the beast Neil Wagner’s brutish sucker-punches ensured a comprehensive victory.

No wicketkeepers in the past were able to score a double ton against England in a Test match before.  Budhi Kunderan’s 192 at Chepauk in 1963-64 was the previous highest. Watling’s 205 is the first double ton by a wicketkeeper against England in Test matches and is also the first by a designated New Zealand keeper in Tests. Brendon McCullum’s 185 against Bangladesh in 2010 was the previous best. Again, his 473-ball effort is the second longest-innings played by a wicketkeeper in Tests. Sri Lanka’s Brendon Kuruppu lies ahead of him. He faced 548 balls for his double ton against New Zealand in 1987.

This year, Watling has faced 949 deliveries in Test matches, which is 189 deliveries per dismissal in a Test. He is leading Steve Smith in this list, where a batsman faced 500 or more deliveries in a Test this year with 151 deliveries per dismissal.

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Mind you, as a batsman, you won’t come across such a technically gifted customer in Test cricket. The hallmark of his batsmanship is his ability to move the feet with authority against any attacks and on any surfaces and playing the ball late as much as possible. Then, of course, he possesses one of the most solid defences in Test cricket.

Then, he does his wicketkeeping job very well too.  He has 2.05 dismissals per innings across his career, which again is super, but puts him at only fourth on the all-time list behind Adam Gilchrist and Brad Haddin (for keepers with more than 200 dismissals in Tests).

More often we read and listen to the word – Silent Assassin. At times, such gritty knocks of Watling makes me feel that Watling is nothing but a silent assassin, who just takes the game away from opposition and they don’t even realise that they are done and dusted. He is not a James Bond, but still, he is the James Bond of Test cricket –delivers the best in hopeless situations and then makes one feel, Test cricket can be sexy as because someone like Watling, BJ Watling is around!

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