"We are seeing the dawn of probably our greatest ever batsman." – Martin Crowe on Kane Williamson in 2015.
At 26, Williamson is leading his national side in all three formats. He averages over 50 in Test cricket (51.16), 45.90 in ODIs and 36.29 in T20Is. He has a century against all Test-playing nations. He is among the finest batsmen of the modern era. When greats like Crowe prophesise, you sit up and take notice.
There is an air of serenity and sense of calm in everything that Williamson does. He doesn't have the burly built of a Chris Gayle or the raw aggression of a Virat Kohli, but it's his talent and drive that kills the opposition softly. He will offer you the cutest of namastes, warmest of handshakes and gentlest of smiles which is perpetually emblazoned across his face. But beneath this calm demeanour, there is an astute and determined mind that makes Williamson click.
It's a sultry Friday afternoon in Pune, on the eve of Sunrisers Hyderabad's clash against Rising Pune Supergiant when Firstpost caught up with Williamson – who was coming on the back of a match-winning 89 off 51 balls in his first match of the IPL 2017 season – to try to understand what goes inside the mind of a champion batsman.
FP: Doug Bracewell said in an interview that other kids played for fun and you played to succeed. Can you talk us through the statement?
Williamson: (Laughs) I play for fun as well (smiles). So I am not sure what he was talking about. We played a lot together when we were younger and we had a lot of fun. Oh, I love the game and when I was younger I used to practise a lot. That might be what he meant.
FP: Was it hunger for cricket and winning that has brought you so far?
Williamson: Umm... No, it would be my love for the game and how much I enjoy playing the game. I am fortunate to play a team sport, playing with a bunch of good fellows, which is really important. Fortunately, here at Sunrisers Hyderabad, we have a really good team culture. Also with my national side and domestic sides back home as well. It's a really good sport to play, something I really enjoy and it's great to travel the world and do what you love.
FP: What has been the biggest change in the way you have approached your game over the past five years?
Williamson: I think the more you play, the more experience you have and the more successes and failures you have. Therefore, the more lessons you have to learn. I guess that's just part and parcel of growing as a person with the game and wanting to learn all the time and trying to improve all the time. That has always been the focus and it has always revolved around what the team needs and trying to contribute to the team as best as you can.
FP: You are known for your calmness and composure. Is there a hidden aggression beneath the calm demeanour?
Williamson: Oh, I am very competent. But I guess my personality is my personality. I do think it's important to try and be relaxed. It's not always easy but in the game we play, there's a lot that goes on. I think when you are relaxed and as clear as you can be, your decision-making is better.
FP: How much of your game is premeditated?
Williamson: Umm... I am not too sure (smiles). There is calculation involved which I suppose is a little bit of premeditation. Probably a little bit more in T20 cricket. We are trying to hit slightly different areas. You might play the lap shot which you don't do so much in Test cricket. But calculation is important and you try and align with the strengths of your game.
FP: When do you decide that you are going to take on a particular bowler?
Williamson: I think it's more when you are in a rhythm. And if you have a bit of momentum as a batsman then the clarity around the decision-making is better. When you are under pressure then the decision-making is a bit harder and not as clear. Trying to stay relaxed in those situations can be very helpful. But as we know in T20 cricket, you can have good days and bad days. In all (forms of) cricket, to be fair. But it's very fickle in T20 cricket and you do have to take that aggressive approach and hope it comes off.
FP: When there's pressure, what kind of decisions do you make?
Williamson: It all depends on what the team needs. Whether it's runs (that the team needs) or you need to soak up some pressure or whether it's a bowler trying to bowl an aggressive over to take a wicket at the expense of some runs. (The focus is on) trying to remove yourself a little bit from the equation and think exactly what the team needs and try to achieve it in the best way you can.
FP: Suppose against quality bowlers like Dale Steyn, Mitchell Starc, you've been beaten by a beauty, what are the thoughts that go through your mind? How do you get yourself ready for the next ball?
Williamson: You are probably thankful they beat you with a beauty rather than dismiss you with a beauty (smiles). Because you are going to get few of them against those bowlers and I guess it's just about trying to commit to your plan as best as you can. Look, you can't always get runs. There's always good and bad days in the sport we play. There are so many good cricketers out there, so many world class bowlers that you are challenged all the time. (You need to) try and commit to your plan, put things in your favour as best as you can with your game and hopefully that's enough for the day.
FP: So then, do you play mind games with the bowlers?
Williamson: (Laughs) I don't know. Depends. You've to ask them. I don't think so. Just try and focus on what you need to do, what the team needs from you and then commit to it.
FP: If a particular bowler is at the top of his game and bowling really well in a particular session, what would your approach be? Counter-attack or see off that tough period?
Williamson: Often it comes to a situation of marrying that up with your strengths and weaknesses. Some players rely more on their defence and some don't so much, so that's where the decision-making will be a little bit different. Those sorts of players might try and hit the bowler off their length, so they stop bowling such good deliveries. And other players, at certain times, like myself, if I need to, will soak it up a little bit. Having said that, if we are playing T20 cricket, often, the decision-making is out of your hands and you need to do what the team needs. And if it is to try and play more aggressively and take that other approach, then you need to do it.
FP: Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja are one of the most devastating pairs in Tests, especially in home conditions. How would you tackle them when they are bowling in tandem?
Williamson: They are both world class bowlers. In India, especially in the past few years, on the surfaces which have been pretty difficult, they've tended to spin the ball square. (Playing) such good bowlers having such assistance off the surface is a very, very tough challenge. Trying to come up with a game plan that you can apply is probably the biggest part of that challenge because the conditions are so diverse – it's a fantastic experience. You do really enjoy that challenge. One of the toughest challenges in the game at the moment is Test cricket in this country. The one that you want to relish and try and grab with both hands and work out. It is tough but enjoyable.
FP: But how do you work them out?
Williamson: Not too many people (have worked them out). Steve Smith is probably the one who has worked them out better than the most. So you might have to ask him (laughs).
FP: Walking in at 2/1 and walking in at 150/1, how much of a difference does it make to your thinking process?
Williamson: In Test cricket, you are still focusing on your game plan. Yes, it can be quite different, I suppose, when you are batting at three, or when you might bat anywhere except as an opener. You always know when you are going to bat when you are opening. But yeah, you (have to) try to be relaxed, apply your plan and try and be as fresh as you can with your mindset. Those are the challenges you (have to) deal with.
FP: But does it make you relaxed that you've come in to bat at 150/1 and the team is in a decent position?
Williamson: Yeah, you want your team to be performing as best as they can. It's always great when the openers play really nicely and there's always a challenge as well because you might be facing the new ball and it does a bit more. As a batsman at three, sometimes you have to come out and face the new ball as well, sometimes you come out and it might be older and sometimes reversing. So you are just trying to get the reading on the game and handle that as best as you can.
FP: As Sachin Tendulkar used to visualise some of the shots the night before a match or even a couple of days before, and Kohli does now, do you also visualise shots in the same way?
Williamson: May be I should, if those two are doing it (smiles). Perhaps a little bit, (it) probably comes under the umbrella of preparation. Trying to prepare as best as you can for what you are about to face, and within that bracket of preparation, there are a number of things – there's practice, trying to be relaxed and calm. And that's always challenged by different things. Perhaps what you might have been working on previously and may be what you've got to be working on now, after coming over to India from perhaps Australia or New Zealand where the conditions are pretty much different, might differ. Yeah, there are a number of things to consider while preparing.
FP: I'll get a bit deeper into visualisation. In your career so far, haven't you visualised and thought, 'Right I am going to hit this shot against Steyn or Starc or someone else'?
Williamson: I suppose you do a little bit of visualisation, when you are preparing. You are thinking about what you might come up against and obviously the bowlers that you are going to face in practice are not going be the ones that you're going to face in the game. So, there's a little bit of thought that will go into that and the adjustments you want to make. But when you are in the game, you would not want to get too far ahead of yourself and think of shots you're going to play. You perhaps would want to focus on your game plan rather than chasing the big drive or whatever it might be.
FP: Did you ever feel unsure or insecure? If yes when and how did you overcome it?
Williamson: Yeah, I mean, you always have doubts. The game is fickle and it teaches you so many lessons. You have good days and bad days, no matter who you are. Trying to accept both of those is part of the challenge of the game. And trying to use them as a player and as a person is something that this game is very good at teaching you, if you allow it to. But it can be pretty difficult at times.
FP: How do you overcome that insecurity?
Williamson: I don't know if it's insecurity, but it's just the challenges of the sport that you play and accepting that everyone has good days and bad days is part of that. You want good ones all the times but it doesn't always happen. And accepting that is a big part of being able to relax when you go out time and again. But it is very difficult in the professional environment where there is a lot going on, and you might play in this team and that team and with all different people for all different things. So dealing with those is important but a real challenge.
FP: When do you realise that you are in the zone?
Williamson: Probably not realising is important to help you be in the zone (laughs). Whatever it is, I guess if you are realising it then you might not be in it anymore. There are some days you feel really good and other days not so much, but you try and stay as clear as you can be and accept that every day is going to be different. You want everything to be perfect but it doesn't really happen like that. So it's just trying to be okay with that which isn't easy because you practise a lot to try and make it right. Like I say, every day is different – different surfaces, different opposition – some days you play well and try to remember what you might have done, but ultimately just trying to adapt each day is quite important. Although it can be frustrating at times, but it is a challenge (and is) something you want to allow into your game.
FP: What is it like waiting to bat?
Williamson: I've done it for a while now and it's part and parcel of the game in terms of where I bat. It's just trying to have those observations of what might be going on in front of you and what the team needs. And then when it's your turn to bat, try and apply those. Be as clear as you can be and commit to those plans.
FP: What do you think in between deliveries?
Williamson: Umm... In between deliveries (a slight pause). Try and relax. Actually it's a good question. Sometimes you get those good balls or you might hit a boundary and the next ball could be very different. So you are trying not to get ahead of yourself and look behind. You're just trying to stay neutral and in the present, which is important but not easy at times.
FP: What has been the toughest time you've had on the field so far in your career? Where you have really struggled and somehow got through?
Williamson: There have been a number of times and there will be plenty more, I am sure. But very difficult to pinpoint one. I guess as you develop and grow, from a younger player, you face those all the times, from all different angles. You are wanting different things more and more, but they are perhaps not coming. It can be frustrating and then you let go and sometimes you have a good day and you make sense of it all (smiles). It's the sort of game we play and failures are (there) in everyone's life, not just a cricketer. (After) dealing with that, having more experience and having failed a lot, hopefully you become a bit better at dealing with them. But it's not easy. A challenge, but important to accept as well.
FP: Does Kane Williamson ever get frustrated?
Williamson: Yeah, yeah (smiles)!
FP: We haven't seen it on your face on the field.
Williamson: When I am at home for two days and there are no waves to surf, it's pretty frustrating. (Laughs). No, you always get frustrated. You are always trying your best, wanting to help the team in the best way you can, but it doesn't always happen. That can be a bit frustrating.
FP: On some days when you are sitting at home, watching the highlights of your innings...
Williamson: (Laughs) I don't really do that.
FP: Don't you go, "How do I play such a lovely back foot drive through the covers?"
Williamson: (Laughs) I'll honestly say that I never thought that. I watch other players and think, "How do I do that? That would be lovely if I am able to do that!" But no... I don't really think that.
FP: You don't?
Williamson: No... no... sorry.
FP: And how does Kane Williamson switch off?
Williamson: It's always nice spending some time at home. When the schedule is so busy, time with friends and family is high on the priority list. I live near the beach, so I like spending time on the beach, going surfing and reading books.
FP: Has a bowler walked up to you in the nets and said, "It's really difficult to get you out, I am getting frustrated" in SRH or any other team you have played in? I have heard many bowlers say that it's difficult to get you out even in the nets.
Williamson: (Laughs) I don't know, they haven't said it to me. No... I don't think so (shy smile).