India vs New Zealand: Kane Williamson's batting woes suggest captaincy may be weighing him down
Is it getting to the stage where he feels the burden of inspiring a bunch of players who are down and out at the moment? All it takes is one spark of inspiration, and most teams look at their best players at such times
"No overseas tour is easy, and coming here is certainly one of the biggest challenges in world cricket at the moment," said New Zealand coach Mike Hesson, upon the team's arrival in Delhi.
Hesson was sitting with skipper Kane Williamson, and the duo was surprised at the media gathering that was in attendance. The New Zealanders aren't used to such commotion preceding cricket matches back home. But then again, this is Indian cricket, and just the onset of a long season at home.
The googlies and bouncers from that media contingent were nothing in comparison to the ones they encountered from Ravichandran Ashwin and Mohammed Shami over the course of a tough three-Test series, which the hosts won 3-0. And it is no wonder that India won the contest. The surprise lies in how convincingly they won. Years from now, scorecards will only tell the 3-0 scoreline, and that they lost by 197 runs in Kanpur, 178 runs in Kolkata, and 321 runs in Indore.
But let it be said here that this was a more comprehensive series win than the one registered against South Africa last year. It didn't come on raging turners, all three wickets laid out were certifiable Indian pitches and not doctored ones. More importantly, New Zealand had the hosts under pressure on quite a few occasions. It's just that they didn't follow it up with the kill.
At Kanpur, India collapsed twice, only for New Zealand's tail to collapse even quicker. In Kolkata, they were in trouble in the second innings before Rohit Sharma played the rescue hand. Even in Indore, the scorecard read 100/3, before Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane batted them out of the game. Three Tests, three times India were under pressure from the Black Caps' bowling attack.
In the first Test, their three spinners were doing the trick; in the second, their three pacers took on the duties; in Indore, it was a mix of the two. Different bowlers did the trick on different occasions, but the reason they couldn't progress was a lack of runs. A mountain of those would have made for a sterner test for India. It didn't happen.
"I am not going to single anyone out in terms of performance but they should contribute with the bat, bowl and in the field. Try and put in more energy," said Trent Boult, ahead of the second ODI in Delhi. "As a unit, we are looking to get more runs. If we get more runs on the board, we can put more scoreboard pressure on a good Indian side."
Maybe cohesion in the dressing room doesn't allow him to talk about specific names. Perhaps that will be left for the post-mortem after the end of the tour. But for those watching from beyond the boundary ropes, there are no such qualms. As such, it is only too easy to point out the failures of their experienced batsmen, in particular Ross Taylor and Martin Guptill.
Starting with the latter, it can be seen why he has been persisted with. He possesses a certain threat to the spinners if he gets set, but luck and poor form didn't let that happen. But even when he's out of form, he remains an honest trier, as was seen in the Indore Test. Sooner or later, he is bound to come good, and when that happens, he will punish any bowling attack — even the Indians.
But Taylor's failures sting more. He scored 364 runs, unbeaten, in three innings in Zimbabwe. Afterwards, against South Africa and India, he has scored 92 runs in nine innings. There is a nonchalance in his batting. He promises a lot but doesn't deliver enough. He is like Rohit Sharma in that regard, only older and more experienced. As a consequence, it should hurt New Zealand's interests harder.
The failures of these two senior batsmen puts the spotlight on Kane Williamson. There is no doubt about his rating as being among the best in the world. But fans are left wondering if the dual responsibility of being New Zealand captain and the team's best batsman is pulling him down and holding him back.
This is also where comparisons with Brendon McCullum come to light. It's been said many times that Williamson is a completely different character from his predecessor. Being an aggressive batsman is fine, but certain players feel the need to change their game when responsibility is thrust on them. That heaps unwarranted pressure, but McCullum wasn't one to be included in that group. His attacking intent didn't allow him to step back, even when faced with defeat, for he only knew how to grab the game by its collar and move forward. The 2015 ODI World Cup final against Australia will always be testament to that aspect.
"The way Brendon led the team, I don't think anyone could do it as well as he did it. He set his own tone, we all know what kind of explosive batsman he is," Boult said, when asked about this aspect of their leadership.
It puts the Dharamsala debacle in focus. While the majority of the batting line-up was too circumspect, Williamson's own dismissal seemed careless in comparison. Possibly he tried something different but it didn't work. A loose uppish cut to a wide delivery and out caught at third man — how many times will you see a batsman of his calibre and intelligence get out like that? Not too often.
It begs the question that if he was starting to try too hard. Is it getting to the stage where he feels the burden of inspiring a bunch of players who are down and out at the moment? All it takes is one spark of inspiration, and most teams look at their best players at such times. Williamson is that man. But is he feeling too perturbed in this dual role?
"Kane is a classy player and has been ranked as a top batsman for a reason. In a way, he has had pretty tough time walking into the role of captaincy. It has been a learning experience for the whole team to be honest. We are stacked up with lot of quality players in the side and we need all of them to stand up and put in good performance," replied Boult, when this question was put to him.
Thursday will be another chance for the visitors to get their faltering tour on track. Will one man help them rise back up, or will they fall together again, with onlookers left wondering what if McCullum was still around?
Whether Kohli took the decision to quit T20I captaincy to purely manage the workload or the criticism got to him will remain a mystery for a while, but all things considered, it appears a bold move that should only benefit Indian cricket and him.
International cricket in Pakistan was suspended in the aftermath of terror attacks on the Sri Lankan side in 2009, but has been slowly revived over the past two years.
Latham said his counterpart, Pakistan captain Babar Azam, had been very excited about the tour.