In one of the less noticed moments of his innings at Southampton yesterday, Kane Williamson watched a spiteful Bumrah delivery rise up to his chest from an awkward spot. The Kiwi skipper chose the last possible moment to play the snorter with soft hands.
He was ready to face the next; the uneventful delivery sums up the great technician. But he is an even greater craftsman, as his backfoot punches to the cover boundary reminded us.
“He doesn’t only score, he creates masterpieces,” the great Martin Crowe once said about the young Williamson. He created them twice at Southampton: two miniatures of 49 and an unbeaten 52 under difficult batting conditions in the final of the World Test Championship against India.
Even if the taut Kiwi pace attack paved the way, it was befitting that Williamson partnered the old warhorse Ross Taylor in a crucial stand to reach the modest but tricky victory total. In his own way, Taylor embodies some shades of New Zealand cricket over the last decade and a half: unfancied, underrated, but quietly ticking important boxes. The championship win in the inaugural edition of the two-year long world title for supremacy in test cricket, still rated the highest format of the sport by players, is up there as the most defining moment for New Zealand cricket.
There was always a temptation to see the world title as redemption for the Kiwis missing the 2019 World Cup by the closest of margins and a weird rule. That, however, loses sight of the place this title has in its own right – a reward for the way the Kiwis have played the most testing format of world cricket in the last 24 months. In doing so, the Williamson-led squad developed into a grinding, disciplined and skilled unit ready to overcome the challenges of the longest format.
The fact that New Zealand managed to scale the summit with a team that doesn’t have many stars in its ranks – as their captain pointed out in his post-match comments – fits into the process. The team curated its available pool of talent and tried to be very competitive at the highest level. In doing so, the idea was to compensate for the lack of big names with a frills-free efficiency. The philosophy hinged on the idea of a team effort becoming something more than merely a sum of individual parts. That is a process that began in the later phase of Brendan McCullum’s captaincy in the last decade but got wings under Williamson’s tenure from 2016.
In the past too, New Zealand’s test teams had only a sprinkling of world-class stalwarts: Glen Turner, Sir Richard Hadlee, or Martin Crowe, to name a few. The current team, with a mix of seasoned quicks like Southee and Boult and the promising Jamieson, and three batsmen averaging above 40 in the middle, seems its most formidable unit. If one also factors in the leadership that a modern batting great like Williamson provides, the team can certainly claim to be the best eleven that New Zealand has been able to stitch together in its test history. None other than the in his jubilation over the Kiwi win.
In taming the zenith of test cricket, New Zealand can take pride in the fact that there aren’t many who would grudge their victory. By all means, they are seen as the most likeable side in the international circuit. That isn’t an easy feat for world champions in any sport. This could be because in the Kiwi team, one may still find the quaint charm of a league of extraordinary gentlemen. This might have been decades in the making but in recent years, a lot of its credit goes to the way Williamson has cast his team in his own image: unassuming, unflappable, and world-class. The way he conducted himself and the team, both on and off the field, exudes a zen-like mindset but with a steely resolve to fight for every inch. He wasn’t only the player of the tournament in the 2019 World Cup but also won a lot of admirers for the exemplary calm with which he handled their heartbreaking loss in the final.
Far from being merely a consideration for what was once called the perennial underdogs of world cricket, the admiration for New Zealand is rooted in what we contrast it with. We tend to juxtapose it with a team like Australia, which evokes a glorious cricketing history and top-notch infrastructure as much as it does an aggressive and sledging-laced brand of cricket. Moreover, for the cricket-loving millions of Indians, the distinction between the Williamson-led Kiwis and the Kohli-led Indian team could be as sharp as that between ice and fire. There is understandable awe in finding the Kiwi skipper deliver results without excesses of tongue and usual spells of fist-pumping. Seen against the new normals of playing styles and mind games on the field, the cherished values of sporting conduct find a rehabilitation in the Kiwi team. That partly explains why only a few are rankled with a New Zealand victory.
In the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, Kane Williamson has been a statesman of world cricket. But, being modest to a fault, he would brush aside such a sobriquet with his trademark shy smile. When the sun shone throughout the last day of a rain-hit final, the New Zealander finally had his place under the sun in test cricket. It was literally, as much as metaphorically. For a team that has received the warmth of millions of cricket followers for its affable conduct and fierce play, a warm and sunny day never looked out of place.