Respect marks Watling's battle with Steyn
MARK GEENTY IN PORT ELIZABETH
After a so-so test career till now, B J Watling has fast become indispensable for New Zealand's struggling test side.
The burning question now is which spot in the batting order he'll occupy in three tests against England in March, and whether he'll don the wicketkeeping gloves, too.
The Durban-born batsman was the standout of day three of the second test, hauling New Zealand up from an awful 62-9 to 121, then adding a defiant, unbroken stand of 73 with Dean Brownlie - another to confirm his spot against England - in the second innings.
It gave Watling consecutive South African scores of 42 (in 211 minutes), 63 (in 133 minutes), and 41 not out, heading into the fourth day as New Zealand began 157-4, still 247 short of avoiding an innings defeat.
Those numbers wouldn't ordinarily be earth-shattering but in the context of this series, considering the way South Africa's pacemen have toyed with the touring batsmen, they represent a breakthrough tour.
And Watling even earned high praise from the world's No 1-ranked test bowler, Dale Steyn, who tried in vain throughout day three to remove him, after snaring his 19th bag of five wickets.
"Yeah he's a good player and he doesn't want to give his wicket away, that's for sure. He's a typical wicketkeeper-batsman, he reminds me of someone like Bouchie [Mark Boucher], stubborn and he just sticks around, short, they all seem to be the same, these wicketkeeper-batters," Steyn said.
"He's a very gutsy player. He played well, he doesn't throw his wicket away and he's been impressive to bowl to. He's left well and hasn't really taken on the short ball, he's just ducked so I kind of waste my energy bowling short balls to him."
It also suggests the qualities badly needed by a New Zealand opening batsman against Jimmy Anderson and company when England arrive next month. Martin Guptill kept the wolves from the door with a stubborn 48 yesterday, but still has work to do to avert a poor recent test record and technical struggles against pace and swing.
It also depends how highly coach Mike Hesson, also the chief selector, rates former Australian gloveman Luke Ronchi who is now eligible for New Zealand.
It will raise the question, is Watling more valuable as a batsman or a gloveman? He's not yet the finished article with the gloves, and should be put in his best batting spot which, given New Zealand's top-order struggles, appears to be opening.
Watling, 27, made his test debut at the top, against Pakistan in Napier in 2009, and scored a breezy 60 not out in the second innings as rain thwarted a promising run chase.
Former coach John Wright was a big fan of Watling's skill and determination and saw him as an ideal gloveman and No 7 batsman to face the second new ball. Trouble with that theory is New Zealand's lineup have rarely been facing the second new ball of late.
He averaged 30 from 15 test innings before this tour, and says he bats the same way anywhere in the order. In South Africa it's been simple yet effective: rein yourself in, leave the ball well and play as late as possible.
"I haven't really adjusted too much. Certain situations can change the way you play. For example this morning I was trying to play a few more shots and now it's trying to soak it up a bit more and bat as long as we can," Watling said.
"I don't really have any preference [for batting position]. I loved opening but I'm quite enjoying batting in the middle there now as well. Wherever I'm playing I'm happy."
Still, this has been a tour for Watling to stamp his mark and behind the modesty he was quietly satisfied.
"I'm learning every time and I've still got plenty of things to work on. It's a great place to learn, the toughest conditions. Each game I'm trying to evolve and make sure I don't make the same mistakes and just work away and I managed to get a few away which is good.
"Personally you get a few runs and it's good but we're obviously disappointed as a team and we haven't quite done what we came here to do and we haven't showed what we're made of."
Should bouncers be banned from cricket?