Transition in sport can be brutal. If you’re a side that’s just bid goodbye to a legend, chances are that you’ll struggle for a significant period of time to find an ideal successor unless you’re very, very lucky.
It took Australia 4 years to fill the void left by Shane Warne in the spin department. A decade on, England haven’t even managed to replace Andrew Strauss, let alone Sir Alastair Cook.
Meanwhile, the likes of Sri Lanka and West Indies have simply not produced individuals as good as their predecessors who belonged to a very successful generation.
So when BJ Watling bid farewell to Test cricket, post the World Test Championship triumph, New Zealand and their fans had every right to be skeptical even though Tom Blundell, by then, had already been penciled in as the heir apparent.
It was no secret that, in Blundell, New Zealand were getting a solid replacement. Prior to the handover, he’d averaged 38.13 in 11 Tests, and he’d shown his mettle on multiple occasions, most notably away in Australia.
But in Watling, he was succeeding a legend, someone that was among the best wicket-keeper batters of his generation and arguably the best ever to have worn the whites for New Zealand.
‘Yeah Blundell has it in him to be good, but can he be consistently good?’. That was the question.
It is fair to say that, 20 months on, we have a definitive answer.
After 23 Tests, Blundell’s average now stands at 44.20.
Tom Latham is the only Kiwi to have scored more runs than him in the ongoing WTC cycle and he currently is among the best batters in the longest format — let alone wicket-keeper batters — having averaged 60.53 since the start of last year.
He has not only seamlessly replaced a legend in Watling but in many ways exceeded expectations. There was a small buffer period but Blundell has now truly come into his own.
Glenn Pocknall, who oversaw the 32-year-old’s development at Wellington for the best part of 15 years, believes Blundell’s current success is down to how well he understands his own game.
“The success he’s enjoying is a testament to him understanding his game probably more than ever,” Pocknall, who has served as both the high performance and head coach of Wellington, tells Cricket.com.
“It does take time for a batter but he is really clear on what his game is and he is sticking to his game and he is doing it for long periods of time. The more often he does that, the more consistent the success will be.”
This clarity in his game plan was what made Blundell stand out in the first Test against England at the Bay Oval.
There, he amassed 45% of the total team runs in the first innings all by himself and though the 138 he scored came in relatively rapid time (at a SR of 76, which is 27 more than his career SR of 49), he merely stuck to his strengths for the longest part.
As it turned out, England played into his hands with their strategy to bowl short: Blundell, as attested by Pocknall, is extremely comfortable against short-pitched bowling and at the Bay Oval, he scored at a strike rate of 100 against anything that was either back of a length or shorter.
“Technically he is one of the best players in New Zealand of the short ball,” Pocknall says.
“On bouncy wickets, he comes into his own. We saw it in the first Test — England tried to target him but it didn’t bother him or deter him. It happened in Australia when he opened the batting and got a hundred over there against a world-class attack.”
In a way, then, the plan deployed by England was ill-advised. But according to Pocknall, Blundell’s success is also down to him upskilling in another area of his batting.
“As much as playing the short stuff is a strength of his, a development of his game has been how he’s managed to take care of the fuller balls,” Pocknall says.
The numbers don’t lie: the last 18 months have witnessed a significant jump in Blundell’s numbers against fuller deliveries.
Between 2019 and 2021, Blundell averaged 16.8 against full deliveries (2m-6m), getting out to the fuller ones 6 times in 124 balls. 58.82% of his dismissals (10/17) in this period were either bowled or LBW.
He is by no means immune to the full one now, with 9 of his previous 15 dismissals being either bowled or LBW, but since the start of 2022, his average against the full deliveries have shot up to 48.5. Against deliveries that are in the 2m-6m region, he’s been dismissed just 4 times in 216 attempts.
Going back to his old middle and leg guard, Pocknall reveals, has helped Blundell fare better against deliveries that are full and challenge his pads.
“The only thing really is he has gone back to one of his old guards. He used to always bat on middle and leg, which he’s gone back to,” says Blundell’s former coach.
“He was on off-stump for a while — it helped him score through the leg-side but with that guard, he got himself into trouble with bowled and LBW. Going back to his old guard, which I’m guessing he did 18 months ago, certainly made him a little bit more comfortable getting beside the ball versus pace, allowing his bat to come down straight.
“This is the tactical side of it but he’s also now looking to attack full balls. The mentality part along with the tactical part has contributed to him being able to play full balls with a lot of confidence.”
At the Bay Oval, though, it was not just Blundell’s technique that enabled him to thrive.
He might have just played 23 Tests, but ‘excelling under extreme pressure’ is already a recurring theme in Blundell’s career.
Three years ago, he announced himself to the world through a gritty fourth-innings ton opening the batting at the MCG and last year, he averaged 76.60 in a series where his entry points were as follows: 12/4, 56/4, 169/4, 131/4, 123/5 and 153/4.
In Mount Maunganui, at 83/5, the Kiwis were under serious threat of getting rolled over cheaply but Blundell once again rose to the occasion with his side’s back against the wall, smashing a sublime ton to single-handedly keep the BlackCaps in the contest.
Pocknall reveals Blundell has been an ‘odd-defier’ since his under-19 days and believes the 32-year-old has an inner drive ‘that cannot be coached’.
“He’s done this since he’s been a 17-year-old. That’s when I first saw him, when he was a young 17-year-old coming into a U19 system," says Pocknall, who served as Wellington's high-performance coach for 20 years (2002-2022).
“He was one of the youngest kids there, and that situation could be a little bit daunting and he’s always been potentially in uncomfortable situations — both whether that’s in the change room or on the field, being young and inexperienced — but that has bought the best out of him.
“And that is one of the attributes that you cannot coach. I sensed it when he was younger.
“Against the best bowlers and in tough situations the team needs somebody that stands up. Invariably, he is one of the guys who does it.
“It’s that inner drive you can’t coach. Some guys have it, some guys don’t. Most guys don’t have it.
"It’s a wonderful attribute to have, especially in Test cricket, because more often than not, you’ll find yourself in tough situations.”
23 Tests into his career, Blundell, who is now the undisputed #1 gloveman in the country, has utmost role-clarity but that wasn’t always the case.
While the long-term plan always was to hand Blundell the gloves over post Watling’s retirement, there was a phase — between 2019 and 2021 — in which both New Zealand and Wellington deployed him as an opener.
The move initially seemed like a masterstroke, with Blundell toning-up against the Aussies at the MCG, but with time it bombed.
He not only struggled to find his feet at the top of the order, averaging 27.18 across 23 first-class innings as an opener, he also suffered after eventually moving down the order.
Blundell registered scores of 13, 2, 8, 0, 11 and 0 in his first six innings post Watling’s retirement and it wasn’t until the away series in England last year that he started thriving in a lower-order role again.
Pocknall reveals that the constant shuffling destabilized Blundell to an extent.
“He was moved around the order a fair bit, both for Wellington and New Zealand. He initially was a middle-order batter/keeper and then he got an opportunity to open for the Black Caps and did really well — getting a hundred in Australia.
“That kinda sparked our interest domestically and along with conversations with NZC. They, at that time, believed Blundell was going to fulfill that role (opening) for a while, especially with BJ Watling in the side as the #1 keeper. So he opened for us for a few games and took the gloves too. Unfortunately, it wasn’t feasible.
“But once BJ Watling made it clear that he was going to hang up his boots, it allowed us to move Tom down the order, where he was more comfortable.
“A lot of that shuffling and movement makes it hard to really be comfortable with your role since it’s ever-changing. So Tom got comfortable with the middle-order then he got comfortable at the top of the order then he came back down the order.
“He just needed a bit of time to re-adjust and that happened when he eventually took over from Watling.”
Thankfully for both Blundell and New Zealand, all is well now: since the start of last year, he’s scored 228 more runs than any other wicket-keeper batter in Tests and has racked up three more fifty-plus scores than any other wicket-keeper in the world.
However, it’s not his batting alone that’s stood out.
Since permanently taking over from Watling, Blundell has taken 29 of 30 catches that have come his way. His catch efficiency of 96.70% in this period is the best among all wicket-keepers who have taken a minimum of 15 catches.
He’s been a rock for the Kiwis not just with the bat in hand, but also behind the wickets.
Pocknall reveals that closely working with Luke Ronchi and Watling aided Blundell in his bid to become a world-class gloveman.
“It’s something he’s worked really hard at and he’s been blessed to have played with Luke Ronchi. Luke (Ronchi) was in the Wellington side as a keeper-batter when Tom (Blundell) was making his way into the team,” the current Central Districts head coach reveals.
“He got the opportunity to work with Luke while he (Ronchi) was still a player and that really helped Tom with his craft. And then Tom went with the Black Caps squad, where BJ (Watling) was there.
“His hard work, though, has been unbelievable and that’s been a huge part of him developing as a keeper and getting better.”
Blundell, so far, has done justice to the tag of being Watling’s successor by being solid with both the bat and the gloves, but could the apprentice end up doing something the master never did, i.e. captain New Zealand in Test cricket?
Pocknall, who appointed Blundell the skipper of Wellington’s red-ball side towards the end of the 2021/22 season, has ‘no doubt’ that, a couple of years down the line, Blundell will be among those that’ll be in contention to become New Zealand’s Test skipper should there be a vacancy.
“In my last season of coaching Wellington I made him captain of the Plunket Shield team at the back end of the season, and that was the first time he’d captained in that format. He did a fabulous job. He impressed everyone that came in contact with him through his communication, and with his tactical acumen.
“It was great to see that, given I’ve had a long association with him. To see him develop into a really good leader of Men was so encouraging to see.
“Fast forward a couple of years, with two more years of experience under his belt, I have no doubt that an individual like Tom will be considered (for Test captaincy) if the position is vacant.”
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