If I were to ask who the most important player in this current Blackcaps side was, there would be a few predictable, understandable, answers.
Many would choose Kane Williamson, the backbone of New Zealand’s batting line-up for years, currently ranked second in the world. Others might point out the likes of Trent Boult, you can’t win matches without taking wickets after all.
However, there is one name that’s always unfairly absent when these types of discussions come around, Bradley John Watling.
Since he first appeared in the New Zealand side in 2009, BJ Watling has gone through a cricketing metamorphosis, starting as an opening batsman, before a brief stint at number three until finally settling as the Blackcaps’ wicketkeeper – and we as fans should thank the cricketing gods for that.
After arriving on our shores from South Africa as a youth, Watling has risen through the ranks, going from the New Zealand youth setup, to a key player in the all-conquering Northern Districts side of the mid 2000’s to the international scene.
While his start to international cricket may have been overwhelmingly underwhelming, making his debut as an opening batsman, it was Brendon McCullum’s decision to retire from keeping duties in 2010, a decision that could have been the end for BJ Watling, was ultimately the key factor in him becoming the heartbeat of the side.
Watling famously chose to forgo his place as a specialist batsman, opting instead to cement his place as the Blackcaps’ Test gloveman, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Playing as a batsman alone, Watling’s average sits at exactly 28, with one hundred coming against England at Headingley in 2015. With the gloves on however, Watling churns out runs an average of 41.70 with five hundreds – something that shouldn’t be taken likely when considering he often has to bat with the bowlers.
What’s more impressive though, is that New Zealand have never gone on to lose a Test after Watling has reached three figures.
Watling has over the last few years shown the fight and desire that New Zealand sports fans would often equate to the All Blacks rather than the Blackcaps, with no cricket fan in this country forgetting the innings of 120 he made in support of Brendon McCullum’s triple century in Wellington.
If you needed any more proof though, Watling has been involved in two of our top four highest ever partnerships with both McCullum and Kane Williamson at the other end.
His ability to grind out the tough periods of an innings with the bat has been key to some memorable Test performances as New Zealand have risen up the world rankings in recent times, with his top order past serving as a vital baptism for batting in the lower order, the patience and technique he displayed as an opener a valuable addition to his role in the lower-middle order.
The most important feature of his role with the bat though, is the balance that he gives the side at number seven, equally capable of scoring runs in a partnership with a top order player as he is with a tail ender.
But he’s not just there for some runs late in the innings, his ability with the gloves has quietly put him up there with the best this country have ever seen. Let’s not forget that the Blackcaps’ most common dismissal in their collective history is now bowled Southee, caught Watling after all.
Wicketkeepers usually always have to contribute to the team’s performances in ways that you will never see on a scorecard. It’s their job to help pick the side up when things aren’t going their way, as well as keep things on an even keel when their fortunes change.
Admittedly, he isn’t as prolific with the bat as some of the other wicketkeepers that we’ve seen over the years, but what BJ Watling does offer is runs when they matter, coming out and playing an anchor role while the likes of a McCullum or a Williamson are able to score vital runs around him.
Most impressively though, it’s probably also worth noting that Brendon McCullum rates him as his favourite player, and I’d like to think that he knows enough about cricket for that to mean something.
So admittedly, he may not be the best player in the side in terms of raw ability, BJ Watling has cemented himself as a nailed on starter on what has become one of the best Test sides to ever play for New Zealand.
He doesn’t score the sheer volume of runs as a Williamson or a Ross Taylor, nor does he hit the ball out of the ground the way that McCullum or Martin Guptill do, nevertheless though, BJ Watling is without question one of the best players to have taken the park in the last decade – something us as Blackcaps supporters should never take for granted.