Let’s start with this July 14 video.
(Caution: Heartbreak Alert)
Sticking to cricket. One gruelling day, two attempts to determine the champions and both ended in a tie. From quality cricket to ridiculousness, England benefitted because they had scored more boundaries. Considering this rare probability, the million-page World Cup rulebook could have decided to count wickets lost or country with more sheep or the captain with more facial hair – and we would have a different World Champion.
The smile that Kane Williamson usually wore vanished. We don’t associate too many emotions with the Kiwi skipper, but he stood devastated. The neutral world that supported New Zealand fumed. England were a better ODI side, but on that day, New Zealand deserved better.
After the game, Kane accepted the runners-up medal graciously. Did he hide his disappointment?
“What did they win it on, boundaries? While the emotions are raw, it’s pretty hard to swallow when two teams work so hard to get to this moment in time. We had two attempts to separate us and still couldn’t -- it is what it is, the rules are there from the start and they probably never thought they would have to use them,” the trademark Kane-smile followed the chuckle. But he made it clear to the world that ‘rules’ were ‘rules’ and were agreed to abide by all – knowingly or unknowingly before the tournament.
Kane’s conduct in the post-match press conference had won the journalist fraternity. One of them got carried away with the emotion and shot, “Should everyone be a gentleman like you?”
He laughed again before blurting out the quote of the year: “Everybody is allowed to be themselves. That is a good thing about the world. And everybody should be a little bit different as well.” He paused for a moment and continued, “That is probably my best answer. Just be yourself and try and enjoy what you do.”
England walked away with the World Cup and New Zealand with all the standing ovations.
From London, rewind to Mumbai, 2011
It was one of our regular strolls during our office lunch hours at the Palladium Mall in South Mumbai’s Lower Parel when we were greeted with a pleasant surprise. Several members of the New Zealand cricket team, who were in the city for their World Cup games against Canada and Sri Lanka, had made their way to the mall. It was a fanboy moment for both, my friend Suraj and I, avid New Zealand supporters.
I had returned from New Zealand a year back and as luck would have it, Suraj would go on to live there five years later.
On this day, we were busy gazing at our stars. Brendon McCullum alongside brother Nathan waved at the crowd that cheered the Kiwi cricketers. There was Shane Bond too. He was a part of the support staff. I wondered how formidable New Zealand would be in the tournament if Bond’s career wasn’t cut short due to injuries. Then there was the Ross Taylor, comfortably poised to become the greatest Kiwi batsman of all time.
Around half-an-hour later, the Kiwi cricketers were exiting. We stood at the mall’s first floor, blocking the down escalator and looked down at our heroes.
“Excuse me,” we heard a faint heavily-accented voice. We didn’t realise it was directed at us before there was a light tap on my back. A wiry young Caucasian boy (at most 5 feet 6 or 7), in a white t-shirt, seemingly in his mid-teens, sheepishly smiled at us and said, “I need to rush down or else, I will miss the team bus.”
We apologised and made way immediately. He sprinted down before merging with the Kiwi team.”
“Team bus? Is this kid with the Kiwi team?” asked Suraj.
“Maybe,” I replied before the thunder of realisation struck me, “Oh wait! That was Kane Williamson!”
Little did I know that years down the line, he would be one of the reasons I still love the sport.
Williamson, then 20, was half a year into the national side. He would easily pass off as a 15-year-old. He had played four games in that World Cup, scoring 102 runs at 51 as New Zealand’s campaign ended with a defeat in the hands of Sri Lanka in the semi-final. Meanwhile, Williamson’s childhood hero, Sachin Tendulkar, another child prodigy of the 1980s, won his maiden World Cup, a dream that he fulfilled after playing for India for 22 years.
Less than six months back, Williamson had made his Test debut against India at Ahmedabad and struck a resilient ton. A teenage prodigy, he was earmarked for great things.
Two years back, in 2009, in my trip to Tauranga, one of the school cricket coaches there told me that our’ own Tendulkar is gearing up for the big stage’. The ones around New Zealand cricket knew Williamson had the potential to be the country’s finest batsman.
He ought to be special. He was just 17 when he led New Zealand Under 19 in the 2008 World Cup in Malaysia. Though the Kiwis exited in the semis, the young Kane had a quiet tournament. A beardless Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson are unthinkable in today’s times, but that remains one favourite memory from the semi-final, the other being the latter getting dismissed by the former in the same game.
The ones within the Kiwi circuit spoke highly about Williamson for the technique he possessed. Many were sure that he would even surpass Martin Crowe, the batsman. I had my doubts. The advent of the T20s was marking the rise of the power players. McCullum was leading the way. Taylor was in his prime. A 21-year-old Rohit Sharma was clearing stadiums, and many such exciting young players were following the suit.
‘Would Williamson be a three-format certainty? Being a great comes much later,’ I wondered.
Two days after his 20th birthday, he earned his New Zealand cap. He debuted in an ODI against India and fell for a nine-ball duck. Just like his hero Tendulkar, the young Kane began his ODI career with two back-to-back zeroes.
Williamson epitomised the typical likeable New Zealander, but the batting monster in him stepped up from 2014. The year saw him average 70 in ODIs at a strike rate above 87. He had eight fifty-plus scores in the 12 innings he batted. In Tests, the year was the first when breached the 50-mark in terms of batting average. He averaged almost 64. The year also saw Williamson earn a regular place in the T20I set-up.
One of the most challenging tasks in cricket is to get the better of a Pakistan side in their adopted home of UAE. Williamson’s comfort in tackling the Pakistan pace and spin battery in the 2014-15 series against Pakistan was probably the decisive moment for the critics who now believed that this bloke belonged to the big league.
For me, that moment came earlier that year when India toured New Zealand. Kohli, MS Dhoni, Martin Guptill, Rohit Sharma and Ross Taylor were the men to be watched out for in the ODIs. Williamson outshone all of them, slamming five consecutive fifty-plus scores in the ODI series to help New Zealand win the series 4-0. It was a massive achievement because India were then the World Champions and had also won the Champions Trophy a few months prior.
But the Pakistan series in late 2014 has a special place in my heart. New Zealand cricketers don’t have the wages to flaunt about when compared to their Indian, Australian, or English counterparts. After the ghastly Peshawar school attack, he and his teammates made financial donations to help rebuild the school and donated their kits. Williamson was leading the ODI-leg of the tour, and his conduct and speeches reflected genuineness towards a cause.
The legacy only scaled thereon
Later that season, Williamson orchestrated a coming-from-the-back win against Sri Lanka in the Wellington Test. In what can be considered as one of the finest Test knocks, Williamson slammed 242 not out in the second innings of the Test. Despite conceding a 156-run first-innings lead, New Zealand pulled off a memorable 193-run victory.
A month later, with Williamson, would New Zealand pull off a win against rivals Australia in a memorable low-scoring World Cup clash in Auckland. Quite uncharacteristic of Williamson, he sealed the game with a six. He still considers that 45 not out as one of his favourite innings.
After decades of semi-final exits, New Zealand did make it to a World Cup final, and that was when their winning streak ended.
By the end of this season, Williamson had won a fan in me. He didn’t become another Tendulkar as that coach prophesied but the game’s first Williamson.
Williamson’s international record
Young Kane was a brilliant fly-half in school rugby and one of the most valuable basketball players from his school. Considering his frame and built, rugby and basketball are the sports you wouldn’t really associate with this man. Same with the format of T20I. But, then there’s the lesson of mental strength here. If you believe in yourself, you have the bridge to cross over from excuses, and there’s the foundation stone towards building a legacy.
Young Kane was the Head Prefect in his final year of school. In an interview with New Zealand Herald, his coach Josh Syms had said, “He had a thirst to be phenomenal, but not at anyone else’s expense. It was more this is what I love, this is what I’m good at, so I’m going to do that. He’s calculating; he boils things down to nuts and bolts. He’ll take the emotion out of it and ask: If I do this, what will be the outcome? He identifies the problem and how he’s going to solve it. He works out what’s going to happen.”
Fair, strong-willed and a problem solver. There was no reason why Williamson wouldn’t be the man to take New Zealand cricket forward.
It was a matter of time that Williamson would take over the captaincy reins from McCullum. The worry was the fact that he was peaking during this time (2015). Was the added baggage required? But then some men are made for the big stage. Nothing seems to affect or stir this lad. Unfailingly polite, he would wear a smile to celebrate a victory. The defeats would still see him smile, but that will follow a chuckle. In the age of machismo and win-at-all-cost attitude, here’s a guy unaffected and irrespective of the result would take his dog out for a walk or hang out with his mates.
He would never walk away from the camera if it needs him to be there. But he’s not for the camera or the superstar the cricket world has created of him. He would do the philanthropic goods off the field, but not for the camera. When he’s in Mt Maunganui, he’s with mates, catching up over coffee or doing something he loves – surfing.
The transition to captaincy was rather smooth. The McCullum void was, of course, felt – for all the theatrics and the larger-than-life aura.
There are times it seems that Williamson isn’t in complete control of the team. Or, he’s just too laidback for the top job. But then there are results. The odd moments – like the 2019 World Cup or the India tour of New Zealand 2019-20 – which make you believe that there’s no better man to do the job than him. A rugby-obsessed nation with less than five million people, the talent pool in New Zealand is limited, but the nation’s success in international cricket is praiseworthy.
More than the wins, the sport is about moments, and New Zealand cricket gives them aplenty. While giving them, they win fans with their goodness and no wonder the side is the most respected in world cricket. It all starts with their captain – Kane Williamson, whose team is the leader’s reflection.
New Zealand beat India in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, a defeat that still pinches Indian fans like no other. When India toured New Zealand earlier this year, Kohli was asked if the Indian team would like to settle scores. Always up for the challenge, the otherwise sweltering Indian captain replied with a smile, “Honestly, even if you want to think of revenge, these guys are so nice, you can’t get into that zone. They are probably the side that has set the right example for teams to play at the international level and how they should carry themselves. They’re a quality side, and we have a lot of respect for them and vice versa as well, I think they have a lot of respect for us. I don’t think this is about any kind of revenge at all; I think it is just two quality sides playing good cricket. It’s a challenge for us to beat New Zealand here and something that we are totally up for.”
Usually, Kohli would be on his opponent skipper’s face all the time during an intense tour. There will be glares, headlines, heated exchanges, etc. The captains still managed to make headlines but for sitting on the side-lines and having a friendly chat when their sides contested on the field.
Unnoticed, Williamson emerged as one of the stars in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) had a huge task in 2018, i.e. to cope up with their skipper David Warner’s ban. Williamson took charge and filled the gigantic void. He was the top-scorer in the tournament with 735 runs, and those runs came at a strike rate of over 142! He led the team to the final and again it ended with the runners-up medal.
Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings (CSK) won the trophy and Williamson walked away with the ovations. That season won him millions of Indian fans.
Back to July 14, 2019. Williamson was awarded the World Cup’s Player of the Tournament. He reacted to the decision with a surprise as if he didn’t expect it and it was some sort of consolation prize being awarded to New Zealand.
He collected the award from Tendulkar, his hero and a man who knows about ending up as a World Cup runner-up and winning the very same award. The way the pattern has followed for Kane and Sachin, Kiwi fans will hope that someday like the Indian maestro, the Kiwi sensation will end up winning cricket’s most coveted trophy.
“The best thing about Williamson is the ability to stay calm. He doesn’t lose his composure in any circumstances. It was unfortunate that he could not win the World Cup, but it did not reflect on his face,” Tendulkar later told about the moment when he awarded the prize to the New Zealand captain.
“Smiling doesn’t always mean you’re happy. Sometimes it simply means that you’re a strong person,” this quote from LJ Smith quite aptly fits Williamson’s World Cup moment.
True, the world’s great with its diversity because we all are allowed to be ourselves. But the world would undoubtedly be a better place to dwell in, if we all were Williamsons in our trade.
Not too far from Lord’s, on July 14, at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, there stood another man, without the trophy but all the ovations – Roger Federer, who at his career’s twilight, had emptied his tank to produce a classic against Novak Djokovic.
Both Williamson and Federer left London without the gold but more adulation than the winners. Probably, it has to do with their birth date, or maybe not. But both the sporting icons turn a year older on August 8.