11 December 2009

An opening question

BJ Watling (Mark Taylor, Waikato Times)The New Zealand versus Pakistan test series is about to move into its final chapter as the teams descend on Napier with the tally tied at one win apiece.  It has been a series of wobbly and uncertain batting, which has made for an intriguing battle between two well-matched teams. 

As is usual for a New Zealand test series, there have been some personnel changes along the way to keep things interesting.  After the stirring first test victory in Dunedin, New Zealand lost the services of the much-injured fast bowler Shane Bond, and now as the third test looms the failures of the New Zealand top six has brought about the dropping of the middle-order batsman Peter Fulton.

Fulton’s dropping is no great surprise – he was in the team for this series due to the absence of the hard-hitting Jesse Ryder, and in his four innings in the series Fulton managed two starts and two ducks, with scores of only 29, 0, 0 and 13.  In ten tests and 16 innings over three and a bit years he has only managed one test half-century, a score of 75 against the West Indies in Wellington back in 2006.  At nearly 31, he is no longer a young prospect in a team that often rewards youth and enthusiasm over experience. 

To replace Fulton the New Zealand batting line-up is being re-shuffled once more, with captain Daniel Vettori moving up to number six, presumably acting with the in form Ross Taylor at number four as bookends to Daniel Flynn, moved from three to five.  Martin Guptill moves from opening with Tim McIntosh to first drop, and McIntosh gets a new debutant opening partner: the South African-born BJ Watling.  Selected off the back of two strong innings in the domestic Plunket Shield four-day competition (90 against Wellington and 136 against Auckland), the 24 year-old Northern Districts batsman, who moved to New Zealand when he was ten, has been given a golden opportunity to achieve in a crucial match. 

If Watling rises to the challenge perhaps it will help to settle the notoriously difficult problem New Zealand test teams have faced when trying to select opening batsmen since Mark Richardson (average 44.8) retired in 2004.  Cricinfo reported that the selectors were keen for him to repay their faith in his ability:

The selector Mark Greatbatch said Watling showed outstanding potential as a developing batsman.

"He's a quality young player with good technique," Greatbatch said. "With the series at one-all we need to regroup and we believe Watling can add strength at the top.

"There was a lot of discussion about the batting line-up, but this was not a time for wholesale change. We are aiming to give guys the opportunity to succeed."

Watling’s selection after two good innings has irked more experienced domestic players, with former test opener Craig Cumming (11 tests from 2005 to 2008, 441 runs at 25.9) complaining to the media that batting form in the domestic competition is not being rewarded.  He told the Otago Daily Times that the selectors must think that at age 34, he’s over the hill:

Cumming said he received a courtesy call from Greatbatch prior to the team's being named and was told he was passed over for Watling.

"They went with BJ Watling because they see him as more of a player for the future, which means that I'm obviously not," Cumming said.

"I asked them three weeks ago if my age comes into consideration when they have a selection meeting and was told, `No.' Now it appears it does, because they don't see me as a player for the future."

However, Cumming did not feel it was an employment issue or that he was being discriminated against because of his age.

"It is no different from how teams have been selected in the past. Saying you are not a player for the future is just a new reason not to be selected.

Cumming has some justification.  Naturally, he’d have a better case if he was the same age as Watling, with a long career ahead of him.  But test batsmen are perfectly capable of maintaining international standards into their late 30s.  And when examining domestic form and experience, Watling is merely a promising beginner by comparison with Cumming.  Furthermore, several other young batsmen have equally strong claims to strong domestic form in the opening role. 

Comparing Cumming to Watling, it’s clear that the selectors are rewarding youth over experience, with Cumming’s record clearly the stronger of the two:

 

Watling

Cumming

Age 24 34
Matches 40 121
Innings 73 216
Runs 2155 7154
High score 153 187
Average 30.35 36.13
100/50 5/9 16/33

 

Across the Plunket Shield, which is admittedly only four rounds old at this point in the cricket season, Watling is not a leading contender for best batsman in the competition.  His highly commendable three innings have totalled 242 runs at an average of 80.7, but this only places him as the fourth highest run-scorer in first-class opening slot so far this season.  Here’s the top six domestic openers as of today – the ones who have scored more than 200 runs so far this season:

Player (team) Runs Average
JM Brodie (W) 390 55.7
RA Jones (A) 363 51.9
CD Cumming (O) 285 71.3
BJ Watling (ND) 242 80.7
P Ingram (CD) 226 37.7
J How (CD) 215 35.8

 

Of those six, only Wellington’s Josh Brodie and Central Districts’ Peter Ingram have yet to play for New Zealand.  Auckland’s Richard Jones was given a few chances in 2003, batting for New Zealand in one test and five ODIs; the aforementioned Cumming has 11 tests and 13 ODIs to his name; and CD’s captain Jamie How batted for New Zealand as recently as March 2009, and has a total of 55 international appearances to his credit.

Given that the New Zealand selectors are looking to secure an opener with a long career ahead of him, it’s understandable that batsmen like Cumming (aged 34) and Richard Jones (36) are not welcomed back into the fold, despite their strong current domestic form.  But if youth and good form are to be rewarded with selection, Wellington’s Josh Brodie has a strong case too.  The 22-year-old is only in his second season of first-class cricket, but in that time he has accumulated 758 runs in 20 innings at an average of 37.9.  Brodie’s average in this season is even higher and his form has been consistent, with only two failures in seven innings to date (66, 2, 103, 69, 4, 76, 70).  

Perhaps the key difference between Watling and Brodie is that Watling has had more chances to impress the national selectors, and on more than one stage.  While Brodie has only played for Wellington and an Emerging Players selection against England in February 2009, Watling has played age-grade cricket for New Zealand in the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh in 2004, where he scored 268 runs at 44.7, and has also played two T20 internationals against Pakistan in Dubai a month ago.  He is obviously a man in the selectors’ eye, and perhaps they have identified something in him that mere numbers cannot define.  

[Image credit: BJ Watling photographed by Mark Taylor, Waikato Times]

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