Humanness makes sports a lifelong pursuit. Statistics fade with time, but the finer emotions leave a lasting impression. Kane Williamson seems to have become a master producer of those in his nine years of international cricket.
Did you notice the pat he gave a Pakistan player outside the boundary line and gestured him to proceed first to the dressing room after New Zealand’s 2-1 Test series win? Or his dry wit at the presentation ceremony when he kept the winning photograph session real, caring little for the sponsor display cheque?
These images will flash while reminiscing New Zealand’s first away series win over Pakistan after 49 years, just like Williamson’s excellent handling of his bowlers and his own masterclass 139 to set up the victory would after the series was tied 1-1. His partnership of 212 with Henry Nicholls in the third innings of the match in testing conditions after New Zealand were 60 for 4 could be compared with the magic of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in that famous Kolkata Test of 2001.
It was Williamson’s third century in a Test win in Asia, the other two having come against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 2012 and against Pakistan in Sharjah in 2014. The first two had helped New Zealand level the series, but the third will define his greatness.
He is now the only active non-Asian batsman with three Test-winning centuries in Asia, and is one behind the elite trio of Alastair Cook, Adam Gilchrist and Jacques Kallis. He is also now the first New Zealander with eight centuries, and one of three with more than 3000 runs, across formats in Asia. Williamson’s matured leadership where he backed his rookie spinners – Ajaz Patel and William Somerville – and did not fall back on the experienced seamers even when Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq were going well, gives new head coach Gary Stead space to work better.
“If cricket doesn’t help bring nations together, nothing else will. It’s a way of life. You don’t play this game, you live it,” Bishan Singh Bedi says towards the end of 2 Nations, 1 Obsession – a documentary movie on the cricketing relationship between Australia and India.
Don Bradman, Garry Sobers, Vivian Richards, Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne, and Brian Lara are some of those who have brought nations together. At a time when opinions are divided over how players carry themselves on the field in the name of aggression, Williamson, still in his 20s and without a Twitter handle, easily fits into that bracket.
A leader with a saintly body language always shy to speak about his game, but never hesitant to praise the teamwork behind the success. You know it isn’t a practiced gimmick. It’s a natural trait he possesses, not always common among sportsperson who are taught at a very young age to prioritise their own needs to climb up the ladder.
Not everyone finds the right balance as the competition gets tougher, and it traps them within their own facade. Williamson is not a prisoner of that mindset, and that is one of the reasons why his winning percentage as New Zealand captain despite not always having optimal resources for all conditions is a respectable 51.85.
“My captaincy is certainly a collective approach,” Williamson had told reporters in October last year. “The thought is what does this team need, how are we going as a group and how best to make sure it keeps moving in the right direction.”
Most captains speak from the same sheet, but, unlike many who can be intimidating and difficult to be around after losses, Williamson’s equanimity makes his personality likable.
The remarkable aspect about his leadership is that even before he was given full-time captaincy in 2016 following Brendon McCullum’s retirement, he has projected himself as the team’s go-to man in crisis.
A century on Test debut from No 6 in a drawn encounter against India in Ahmedabad gave a glimpse of his preparedness to tackle spin in the subcontinent early in his career. His stature grew with an unbeaten 102 over 327 minutes – his second Test century after more than 14 months – on a chilly Wellington day against a rampaging Morne Morkel to save the game against South Africa.
He has always prepared himself to be an all-condition player. It is just that New Zealand don’t play enough Test matches for Williamson to be continuously spoken about like some of his contemporaries. Only two batsmen – Virat Kohli (17659) and Hashim Amla (13189) – have made more international runs than Williamson’s 12332 since his debut in August 2010.
Clubbed with Kohli, Steven Smith and Joe Root as part of the modern-day batting quartet, Williamson stands out for adapting himself to be an all-format expert without losing the simplicity of his game. Kohli and Smith never had that problem, and Root has not got enough opportunities in the shortest format after a stellar 2016 World Twenty20. Williamson, though, understood the criticality to be the batting leader of a country where the supply of talent has never been abundant.
The turning point was the 2014 Champions League in India where he, as captain of Northern Districts, topped the batting charts with 244 runs, including a century, at a strike-rate of 151.55. That dispelled notions about him being a misfit in T20s.
Sunrisers Hyderabad bought him at the 2015 Indian Premier League auctions, and since then he has also become a key member of that unit too. This year, in the absence of a suspended David Warner, he captained the side brilliantly. His table-topping 735 runs that took Hyderabad to the final as well as his experience as a captain to defend smallish totals like 118 and 132 must have come handy during the Pakistan series.
New Zealand have waited a long time to have their next great after the exit of Martin Crowe, who too had his flaws. Chris Cairns, Stephen Fleming, Daniel Vettori and McCullum were very good, but none broke new ground in a way they would have wanted to. Williamson, only the second New Zealander after Ross Taylor with 30 or more international centuries, is half-way there to be counted among the all-time legends.