It’s been a long time between outings for New Zealand’s Test specialists. It’s been even longer for wicketkeeper BJ Watling – 359 days to be precise.
Watling will return to the line-up for the series against England after recovering from a hip injury which ruled him out against West Indies in December. In the meantime, his replacement, Tom Blundell, scored a century on his debut in Wellington and notched another in the recent pink-ball warm-up match against England in Hamilton.
After the century at Seddon Park, Blundell said he was resigned to losing his place when Watling was available again. Watling has earned that loyalty from the selectors; over 52 Tests he averages 38.05 with six centuries. His average of 40.52 with the gloves is the highest for a New Zealand wicketkeeper over a significant duration. He has enjoyed some magnificent moments including two match-saving hundreds in Wellington and one in New Zealand’s victory at Headingley in 2015.
However, it would not take much to ignite a serious debate over the position, particularly if Blundell has a strong finish to the Plunket Shield season and Watling has a couple of lean Tests against England. After this series, New Zealand’s next Test matches are not until October or November against Pakistan.
“I think you feel pressure going into any Test and I’m just looking to do as well as I can over the two matches,” Watling said. “[Tom] is a quality keeper. We’ve got a good young crop coming through which is good to see and it definitely motivates you.”
Watling hip problem which caused him pain when changing direction – something a wicketkeeper has to do often – but not when moving in straight lines which meant he was able to play as a batsman for Northern Districts. He returned to keeping in mid-February at the back end of the Ford Trophy and has played two Plunket Shield matches ahead of his Test return with no reaction to the workload. His longest stint with the gloves is 94 overs but he is confident of being able to come through the potentially greater strains of a Test match.
“I’m feeling really good. The body has been good for the last couple of months, been playing a fair bit of cricket for ND,” he said. “It’s something I monitor and work on every day at the gym but I haven’t felt anything over the last two months.”
It was decided that Watling would play the most recent Plunket Shield match, against Canterbury in Whangarei, rather than join the New Zealand XIs for their matches against England. Watling has spent two days in Mount Maunganui, training under the lights with the pink ball, with the Test squad before arrived in Auckland.
Four of New Zealand’s squad faced England in the pink-ball warm-up – Tom Latham, Jeet Raval, Henry Nicholls and Colin de Grandhomme – and though England’s bowlers had the better of the contest, removing the quartet for a combined total of 35 runs, with Raval failing twice, they will still be able to provide useful intel to the Test squad.
“We’ve had discussions about what happened there and what we’ll do in different conditions,” Watling said. “So we’ll be discussing that a bit more to make sure we are ready.”
New Zealand had a day off in Auckland in Monday before resuming for two days of build-up to the first day-night Test in the country. Watling was part of the New Zealand team who took part in the inaugural floodlit fixture, against Australia in Adelaide, but is a little unsure what to expect this time.
“It might be a bit different at Eden Park with the drop-in pitch and no wickets around it,” he said. “It still swings but also flattens out for periods and can be good to bat on.”