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BJ supreme: cricket’s finest role model

Black Caps keeper-batsman BJ Watling's true value isn't measured in dollars and cents.

“Try to become Brendon McCullum”.

That was BJ Watling’s throwaway line when asked at the Counties Manukau Cricket Association’s end of season awards about 18 months ago if he had any advice for the kids in attendance who wanted to become the next him.

Like all good jokes, it wasn’t lacking for meaning.

Watling - who was on hand that evening to lend a bit of star power to proceedings and hand out the trophies - was at least in part alluding to the fact that, while his heroics for the Black Caps test side with bat and gloves had earned a nation’s hearty admiration, McCullum’s earnings swotting the ball over cow corner while touring the globe’s T20 leagues had been entirely more tangible.

The plain fact of the matter is that, however many more heroic centuries Watling scores, however many rearguard actions he marshals, however many test victories in which his is the backbone, his value will be limited by the fact he is ‘only’ a test match cricketer.

Sad, but true.

Asked following his superb double century against England how he goes about being a red ball specialist for a nation that plays very little red ball cricket, Watling said he that he takes an occasional break to keep fresh and otherwise concentrates on playing first class cricket for Northern Districts.

Admirable, but hardly as sexy as pumping a quick 30 for the Trinbago Knight Riders before smashing a few rum punches at the hotel bar while chewing on a Havana and screen shotting your bank balance.

Cricket’s global economy might not value him correctly, but that doesn’t alter the fact that BJ Watling is a darned national treasure.

His achievements as a wicket-keeper batsman in test cricket have attained historical relevance, throwing shade on the likes of superstars such as M.S. Dhoni and Tony Blain.

This column isn’t going to delve into statistics that for cricket nerds have reached near orgasmic proportions (if you must indulge yourself you can do so here and here).

We’re happy to accept that Watling is a magnificently gutsy and dependable cricketer. His only problem is that he is just a bit too dependable. So dependable, in fact, that there is no need to actually watch him. When BJ takes to the crease in a test match, viewers can tune out for as long as they like, safe in the knowledge that when they return he will have scored between 13 and 17 runs in the last hour without offering a smidgen of a chance.

And, let’s face it, most of us will have something more pressing to do in our immediate futures than watching BJ squeeze singles through backward square leg and produce the occasional drive through the covers for two.

It’s not that he is unwatchable, it’s just that the demands of modern life have reduced the core audience of people who have time to fully appreciate his mastery to the sick and prisoners on home detention.

Watling's self-deprecation shows he is fully aware of this. His reaction to his mammoth efforts against England was to declare himself a “limited” cricketer.

This is both true and wildly inaccurate. Watling may indeed have become so effective precisely because he recognises his limitations and is willing to play within them, however his powers of concentration and reserves of pluck are demonstrably limitless.

His quip that young kids wanting to emulate him should instead aspire to be McCullums is wonderfully self-effacing – but also a bum steer.

McCullum is without question due a large dollop of credit for his role in engineering the rise of the Black Caps to previously unattained heights. But, for all his dash and daring, the pugilistic keeper-turned-opener was never a test player that inspired massive levels of confidence, or indeed generated consistent results.

Watling, by contrast, is not just a rock – but a diamond. New Zealand would not be sitting second in the ICC’s test rankings – above England, Australia and South Africa – were it not for their match-winning and match-saving keeper-batsman.

He might not inspire the same type of fear in bowlers that McCullum did, but there is no doubt that the first thought that goes through an opposing bowler’s mind when first sighting the technician that is BJ Watling striding to the crease would be largely the same - namely: “ah, shit, here he comes”.

Watling might play down his achievements and performances, and might in fact not even recognise their true value. But there is one thing this master of a dying art should know: there isn’t a parent of an aspiring cricketer alive who wouldn’t want their child to become the next Bradley-John Watling.

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