BJ Watling as test keeper is a big gamble

FRED WOODCOCK
Last updated 11:30 17/01/2012
BJ Watling
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PART-TIMER: BJ Watling behind the stumps for the Northern Knights.
Kruger van Wyk
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DEBUT: Kruger van Wyk will make his test debut against the nation of his birth.

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OPINION: So BJ Watling has the inside running to be New Zealand's next test wicketkeeper, but of the two contenders in the squad logic and pure numbers suggest Kruger van Wyk should be the front-runner.

The logic part is simple - of the two South African-born players, only van Wyk can claim to be a specialist gloveman.

The 31-year-old has been doing the job for more than a decade at first-class level both in South Africa and New Zealand, while Watling, six years his junior, is a part-time keeper who is rated behind Peter McGlashan for his first-class team, Northern Districts, and only been mooted as a keeping option at international level during the past few weeks.

You can get away with non-specialists at Twenty20, and possibly even one-day, level, but surely test cricket is the domain of specialists. It is the most prestigious, most testing, most physically and mentally demanding, form of the game, and with wickets at a premium, wicket-keeping plays a crucial role.

Chances cannot afford to be shelled and the concentration required to keep wicket over a five-day test (admittedly, we haven't had too many of those of late) is by all accounts acquired over a long period of time.

But Watling is seen as the better batting option, given he is a specialist top-order player. New Zealand want runs from their gloveman, who would bat at No 7 behind Daniel Vettori, allowing room for four quick bowlers.

But is he a better batsman than van Wyk?

Maybe, but the pure stats actually give van Wyk the edge in this department, too, which is intriguing given New Zealand Cricket's selection focus is on numbers and weight of runs.

Since he moved to New Zealand at the start of the 2006/07 season, van Wyk has scored 2579 runs, including four hundreds, at an impressive average of 49.60.

He has played 48 first-class matches in that time, 35 for Canterbury and 13 for Central Districts. Including his time in South Africa, van Wyk's overall first-class average is 38.65.

Since Watling made his first-class debut for Northern Districts two seasons earlier, he has scored 3241 runs, including seven centuries, at a considerably lower average of 33.07. He has played 58 matches.

Recent form also supports van Wyk's case.

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Since his move to CD at the start of last season, he has played 13 four-day matches and averages a whopping 66.38 with the bat across those matches.

Watling's form has also been good during the past two-and-a-half seasons, but his average of 44.27 is again considerably lower than the diminutive frame of van Wyk.

Conditions and their respective batting positions in the order play a part, but the numbers are heavily in van Wyk's favour. The only real factor in Watling's favour is his age, though van Wyk could easily have five years in the national team.

Yet New Zealand coach John Wright has said that Watling had the inside running and, if his keeping is up to the required standard in a three-day warm-up match against the tourists, he will play against Zimbabwe in Napier.

Wright would be taking a gamble by installing Watling as wicketkeeper in next week's test against Zimbabwe, and in the upcoming three-test series against South Africa, both of which are mightily important given they are our only domestic tests of the summer.

But the coach sees potential in Watling, and he has the right - and pedigree - to select on gut instinct. Recent calls to promote Doug Bracewell and Dean Brownlie into the test team have proven to be masterstrokes from the wily coach.

It remains to be seen whether he can complete a hat-trick of successful calls before summer's end.

Meanwhile, Reece Young will probably feel aggrieved after being axed yesterday, after five tests.

His average of 24.14 is basically the same as Watling's test average (24.50), and like van Wyk he has been a top performer with the bat at first-class level in recent seasons.

Two questions surround Young's dismissal - was he afforded enough time to establish himself at the higher level, and was he made a scapegoat for poor showings by the top order in the three tests this summer?

- Fairfax Media

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