Patrick Noone looks at how the New Zealand captain has quietly gone about his business on his way to successive World Cup centuries.
Kane Williamson is not an obvious modern-day batting superstar. He doesn’t possess the power of Andre Russell, the swagger of Virat Kohli or the innovation of Glenn Maxwell. He is an old-fashioned batsman in a modern world, breaking the mould in the most measured way imaginable.
Williamson might lack the obvious charisma and rock-star status of some of his contemporaries, but that should never be mistaken for timidity or meekness. Beneath the calm exterior is a sharp cricketing brain, a steely mental resolve and, above all, a relentless thirst for runs.
Since New Zealand’s tour to England in 2015, Williamson has played 12 ODI innings in the UK across that bilateral series, the 2017 Champions Trophy and the ongoing World Cup. Only twice has he failed to pass 50, and even on those occasions he made 40 and 45. That is an astonishing level of consistency for a player in foreign conditions over such a prolonged period of time.
It speaks volumes that even after such a long run of success, Williamson has arguably elevated his game to a higher level in this tournament, having played two of the finest innings of the competition so far. First, against South Africa at Edgbaston, his ice-cool hundred got the Black Caps over the line in a difficult chase, before he repeated the trick in the next match against West Indies, rescuing New Zealand from a precarious position at 7-2 to take them to what turned out to be a match-winning total.
With the exception of the ten-wicket win against Sri Lanka, New Zealand have lost their first wicket within 5.1 overs of every innings they’ve batted so far in this tournament. On two occasions – against Afghanistan and West Indies – Martin Guptill has been dismissed from the first ball of the innings, leaving Williamson to come in as a de facto opener.
Against South Africa, Williamson was afforded slightly longer as Colin Munro lasted 2.1 overs with just 12 runs on the board in a chase of 242, but his task was the same: rebuild, consolidate, accumulate. But that’s not to say Williamson was negative or was guilty of getting bogged down. In a relatively brisk partnership of 60 with Guptill, the skipper was happy to attack when South Africa over-pitched or erred with a wide line. He scored at 5.40 runs per over in his first 30 balls, quicker than any subsequent chunk of his innings, until his final match-winning flourish.
Rather than building a platform and kicking on, Williamson instead played the situation, reined his innings back as wickets began to fall around him and continued to score at a measured, but remarkably consistent rate throughout.
This was a batsman showing complete faith in his technique to get his team over the line. It was far from Williamson’s most fluent innings – the 15% false shots he played is the highest he’s ever registered in any of his ODI hundreds – but he knew that if he was there at the end, he would get the job done. And so it proved.
Three days later at Old Trafford, Williamson again strode to the crease with his side in trouble. 0-1 from 0.1 overs promptly became 7-2 after 0.5 overs and The Black Caps were left to rely on their two most experienced heads to get them out of another difficult situation. Williamson, alongside Ross Taylor, rebuilt the innings and drove New Zealand towards a competitive total.
But Williamson would not have it all his own way. His battle with West Indies left-armer Sheldon Cottrell, the other outstanding performer in the match, made for compelling viewing. After serving up a juicy full toss that was dispatched for four for Williamson’s first ball, Cottrell would then bowl 14 dots from the remaining 17 balls he bowled to the New Zealand captain in his opening spell.
Williamson picked his moments to score off Cottrell – his only boundaries coming from the occasions when the seamer was too full, too short or angling into his pads. A further illustration of Williamson’s judiciousness is the nature of the balls he opted to defend. When Cottrell hit the line and length just outside his off-stump, Williamson showed no interest in scoring during the early part of his innings. It was only during the death overs when looking for quick runs that he played an attacking shot to a ball in that region, costing him his wicket and giving Cottrell a victory of sorts.
Williamson is already rightly considered one of the finest batsmen New Zealand has ever produced. Perhaps only Martin Crowe can rival the current skipper for that particular gong, but what sometimes gets overlooked is his prowess across formats and across conditions. Williamson was the leading run scorer in the 2018 IPL, has the most Test hundreds by a New Zealander (20) and averages 51.44 in ODIs since the 2015 World Cup. You can make a strong case that, alongside Virat Kohli, Williamson is the greatest all-format batsman in the world.
And that’s before we even consider the mental strength of the man. As is often the case, the numbers are informative, but they only tell half the story. Williamson’s finish at Edgbaston was reminiscent of the Eden Park thriller of 2015, when he held his nerve to hit Pat Cummins for six over long-on to beat Australia. For a player not renowned for his power, to have hit a decisive six in a high-pressure World Cup run chase not once, but twice, only serves to highlight the calibre of batsman we’re talking about.
After hitting that six in Auckland four years ago, Williamson celebrated with a gentle fist pump before embracing Trent Boult in the middle. At Old Trafford on Saturday night, Boult again was involved in the winning moment, taking the catch that ended Carlos Brathwaite’s onslaught. Once again, Williamson was as calm in the victory moment as he had been with his captaincy in the overs leading up to the finale.
Nothing seems to faze him on or off the field. While 20,000 people in the Old Trafford crowd were losing their minds, while the New Zealand fielding was becoming ragged and while cracks were starting to appear in his charges, Williamson kept his cool. It was an all-round performance that epitomised the emotions of both Williamson the captain and Williamson the man.
New Zealand so often fly under the radar, but in Williamson they have an indisputable world great leading them. In each of the last two World Cups, they have been a team built in the image of their skipper and, while they might lack the fireworks and the brutality of the McCullum regime, the 2019 Black Caps vintage have quietly gone about their business in a manner befitting their captain.
Williamson has taken his team to almost certain qualification for the semi-finals, not quite single-handedly but with a single-mindedness that few in the game can match. Williamson is always under-stated, often under-rated but after the tournament he’s having, he will never be under-appreciated.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.