Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Cricket: BJ's defining summer plans

BJ Watling has already made a solid start to his international career but the next two test series will be pivotal for him

BJ Watling will be striving to ensure his wicketkeeping progress keeps pace with his batting. Photo / Getty Images
BJ Watling will be striving to ensure his wicketkeeping progress keeps pace with his batting. Photo / Getty Images

This summer will possibly define whether BJ Watling makes the transition from useful cricketer to vital inclusion.

The 28-year-old has been on the New Zealand provincial scene for nine years; the last four at international level after former coach John Wright extracted Watling from wicketkeeping obscurity in January 2012 to replace Reece Young.

A hip injury before last year's South Africa series after his maiden century and four catches against Zimbabwe threatened his progress. Kruger van Wyk took over but Watling won the spot back.

He is already one of the first names on the team list as test wicketkeeper but needs a good season with the gloves in the home series against the West Indies and India to see his name etched in permanent marker on the selectors' whiteboard; his choice as wicketkeeper-batsman a foregone conclusion. His batting has served him well but, though he has often kept wicket during his career, it wasn't until Wright's intervention and that Zimbabwe test that it became full-time.

His compelling outfielding meant his keeping tended to be overlooked. His New Zealand Cricket profile suggests he earned the nickname "Crabby", not because of grumpiness but because of his ability to scamper across the outfield.

Watling's accuracy with the gloves in nine of his 16 tests has been pleasing, albeit with room for improvement. He has a dismissals per innings ratio of 1.733 (26 in 15 innings) which is second to only Brendon McCullum (1.884) and greater than Adam Parore (1.661) or Ian Smith (1.614) for those who have played nine or more tests. The dismissals-per-innings figure is not the definitive wicketkeeping quality but it indicates Watling rarely fluffs his lines.

There is the odd exception. He put down a relatively simple catch off Doug Bracewell's first over during the second test in Bangladesh when Tamim Iqbal was on 5; he made 95. Watling says perfecting his concentration is a focus this season.

"I usually find it easy to switch on early, especially when the ball is beating the bat. The key is to stay switched on later, like at 350 for two, when the chances are rare."

Watling has had the ideal build-up to the test series with the gloves. In Northern Districts' outright win over Central Districts at Seddon Park last week, he was keeping to New Zealand opening bowlers Tim Southee and Trent Boult and perfecting his work behind the stumps to Ish Sodhi and Daniel Vettori. He appeared to stay low and poised as late as possible for the slow bowlers.

Observers say keeping up to spinners is Watling's biggest weakness. A few stumpings (his test record is 26 catches/no stumpings) might be reassurance he is the complete package.

There is a school of thought he needs to hone his instincts through footwork, watching the shoulder movement of batsmen closely as to where they'll play shots and watching the ball out of the bowler's hand (like a batsman) to get an early trigger. Those areas might need polishing, given he only came to full-time first-class keeping late.

"I've been working on keeping up to spinners the most because you can get caught shot-watching," Watling says. "There's always the need to work on the blind spot, particularly with Ish, where the ball crosses in front of the [right-handed] batsman. I'm trying to make an early decision to get into position."

Watling has areas to perfect but fitness is not one of them. He is renowned among the cricket fraternity for an outstanding attitude to training. That has been reinforced by working with New Zealand Cricket's fitness guru Chris Donaldson, who has strengthened his legs through squats and deadlifts as well as working on speed.

It is testament to Watling's devotion to the "man in the mirror" poem in his quest to be a professional sportsman. The poem includes lines like: "The fellow whose verdict counts most in life, is the man staring back from the glass".

He has added spine to the test batting at No 6 or 7. Despite success opening at domestic level, his early tests suggested he would not cut it internationally. However, in the middle order against the older ball (or second new ball), he looks comfortable.

Since Watling's wicketkeeping renaissance, his batting has averaged 47.66 compared to 34.58 overall. Six of the seven times he has passed 50 have come since dropping down. Yes, he's had the luxury of facing a weak Zimbabwe attack for his maiden test century but no one can pick their opposition.

Conversely, he applied himself to be second to Dean Brownlie in the averages in South Africa. He made 42 and a pair of 63s after an initial duck in the Cape Town 45.

Watling got starts and a 60 against England before making his second test century and 70 not out against Bangladesh. He can be elegant using a high left elbow to stroke the ball crisply and he possesses a solid defensive screen.

Another Watling goal this season is cementing a place in the one day international XI now as Brendon McCullum's keeping days look like ending. Watling averages 39.03 at domestic level with six centuries but struggles to replicate that internationally with an average of 29.33 in 22 matches between August 2010 and February 2013.

His key opposition remains incumbent Luke Ronchi. Ronchi, 32, is acknowledged as a sharp keeper but averages 16.50 in 10 matches for New Zealand (he had four for Australia in 2008). His recent form in Sri Lanka (49 off 26 balls and 23 off 29) has shown further promise.

- Herald on Sunday

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