By this time next month, BJ Watling would have hung his boots.
The legendary wicket-keeper announced earlier this month that he’d be stepping away from the sport altogether post the World Test Championship and, instantly, tributes started pouring in. Unsurprisingly, a common theme that existed in almost every single tribute was that Watling was underrated. And frankly, it is something indisputable.
But Watling will retire knowing very well that he is far from being the most under-appreciated player in his own team. For, just above him in the batting order exists a certain Henry Nicholls who, quite astonishingly, for years, has just been ignored by the world. Altogether.
In one his latest videos, Jarrod Kimber observed how Watling is a specimen who was made in a laboratory, designed to remain invisible. This is true. But in the spectrum of invisibility, Watling does not come close to his teammate Nicholls, who for four years now has managed to place himself in the upper echelon of Test batsmen without anyone noticing or batting an eye.
Did you know that Henry Nicholls averages 44 in Test cricket and is officially ranked the sixth best Test batsman in the world, level on points with Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant, and above David Warner, Babar Azam, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ben Stokes and Ajinkya Rahane? Did you know that, since 2017, Nicholls is one of only five batsmen - the other four being Williamson, Smith, Kohli and Labuschagne - to average 50 in Test cricket? Or did you know that, among batsmen to have scored a minimum of 4 tons across the last four years, Nicholls has the fourth best innings-per-hundred ratio? Probably not. And there are reasons why you wouldn’t.
For starters, Nicholls has forever lived in the shadows - not just of Williamson, but arguably in the shadows of every single one of his teammates, barring perhaps Jeet Raval. Though being a constant solid presence in the side, absence of flamboyance and charm in Nicholls’ game, coupled with the presence of a handful of larger-than-life personalities in the New Zealand side, has meant that he’s been reduced to a mere acolyte. And he’s had rotten luck, too. He’s never had ‘his moment’ simply because ‘his moments’ have always been overshadowed by better and bigger moments in the same game.
Consider the last Test New Zealand played, against Pakistan in Christchurch earlier this year. At 71/3 the Kiwis were in a spot of bother, but Nicholls ensured that the ship did not sink by posting his third highest Test score. Yet by the time the bowlers had bowled New Zealand to a crushing innings defeat, it was not Nicholls that the world was talking about. As fate would have it, both Williamson and Jamieson would end up producing near-flawless performances - double century and 11-wicket haul, respectively - to divert all the attention away from Nicholls, who was one of the architects of the victory.
The second and arguably the biggest reason why Nicholls has continued to remain a non-discussed figure is that he’s simply failed to turn up the heat against the big boys. The unwritten rule amongst fans in every sport is that a player commands respect - and in turn becomes popular - only when they stand up against the big guns. But Nicholls, unfortunately, has not managed to do that in his career to date. 16.5 is all he’s averaged in 13 innings against India and Australia and while he’s racked up a ton against England, back in 2018, that came at home. Essentially, Nicholls has scored all his runs when no eyes have been on him, and when he’s been in the spotlight he’s either failed or seen his moment be stolen away from him.
But come the month of June, though, that could all change. Lying in front of Nicholls is not just an opportunity to make the world finally take notice of him, but a chance to prove that he belongs.
Not long ago, prior to the commencement of the West Indies Tests, with Devon Conway having become eligible, there were serious questions raised over the merit of having Nicholls in the side. He had, in the 8 Tests that preceded the Windies series, averaged a mere 21.54 - including averaging just 23 across 4 home Tests - and was labelled by fans as a dispensable asset who, despite being solid, was holding the side back.
Yet it only took Nicholls one inning to showcase his quality and repay the selectors for the unending faith they showed in him as in Wellington, on a wicket where none of the Top 7 batsmen passed fifty, he struck a wondrous 174 to help the Kiwis stretch their unbeaten streak at home. That knock was more than just a reminder - it was a message.
India are no West Indies; nor are England. However, Nicholls, who has to date played a grand total of zero Test matches against the Dukes ball, will enter the most important stretch in New Zealand’s Test history knowing that he is the sixth best batsman in the world for a reason. The question, though, still remains: is his ranking an indication of his quality, or a mere reflection of a system that is inherently flawed? The world currently thinks it’s the latter; it’s up to Nicholls to prove to the universe that it’s the former.