New Zealand’s most reliable batsman Kane Williamson and their most reckless willow wielder Tim Southee practised in tandem at the Ferozshah Kotla Stadium on a hot Wednesday forenoon. First Southee would face a few deliveries from different bowlers while Williamson would watch from the non-striker’s end, then the roles would reverse.
Now, New Zealand are known to use unconventional methods at practice sessions as they simulate a variety of situations — expected or unexpected. Once, ahead of their tour of India, they practised with loudspeakers at the stadium as they sought to replicate a typical, noisy Indian venue.
One may be reading too much into an innocuous batting session, but it was hard not to see Wednesday’s exercise as a way of New Zealand bracing up for potential scenarios in the forthcoming Test series. If the pitches are going to be anywhere similar to those that were rolled out for South Africa last year, the Blackcaps captain, their best player of spin — actually their best player, full stop — may find himself firefighting with the tail.
He has been here and done that. In 12 Test matches in the sub-continent, Williamson has scores 1000 runs, with four centuries and half centuries. And he has scored against them all: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. However, with the inspirational Brendon McCullum gone, Williamson this time has the added responsibility of leading the team on what New Zealanders are unanimously saying as the toughest place in world cricket to tour.
On the previous tours to Asia, McCullum not only provided impactful contributions with bat often, his aura in a way shielded his teammates, Williamson included, from the harsh spotlight. His presence allowed them to quietly go about their business. New Zealand benefitted, and Williamson flourished. In the last three years, the man from the Bay of Plenty has accumulated 3008 runs at an average of 71.6, with 11 hundreds. Williamson has established himself as one of the foremost batsmen in contemporary cricket.
But now comes the harder part, of having to strike the balance as the team’s leader and batting mainstay.
Williamson, though, is undaunted. “I suppose you take the (captaincy) hat off and you are very much a batsman and you have a role to play in the team. I see them as slightly different things, so that to me is the focus,” Williamson told the media conference on Tuesday.
On the batting front, the signs are encouraging. In the four Test matches, since McCullum’s retirement, Williamson has made 356 at 89, with one hundred and three half centuries. But as captain, the results have been mixed. New Zealand expectedly beat Zimbabwe, but lost 1-0 in South Africa.
Captaincy is a flipping tough job. Many a gifted batsman has seen his performance flag when saddled with this responsibility. Sachin Tendulkar’s name comes to mind. Why, Hashim Amla renounced captaincy midway through the England series in January which followed a disastrous tour of India. Once unencumbered, though, they were back to being the prolific scorers that they were.
But then there are batsmen, too, who thrive in leadership roles. Their batting appears to find an extra gear with captaincy. Steven Smith, for example. Or, closer home, Virat Kohli. Two batsmen with whom Williamson is constantly compared.
Groomed for the job
Additionally, what may help Williamson is the fact that he has been groomed for this job. New Zealand coach Mike Hesson, therefore, believes — even though on the evidence of two short series — that the transition from McCullum to Williamson has happened seamlessly. “Kane captained, I think, 36 games before he took over full-time. Even during the time that Brendon was captain, for a number of tours or part of the tours, Kane came in and it was a very seamless change,” Hesson told reporters after New Zealand arrived in New Delhi.
“I think the key to any captain-coach relationship is to making sure that we use each other’s strengths. Kane is very thoughtful, methodical, (as a) player likes to plan well, but also likes his own time. Brendon wasn’t hugely dissimilar to that; he prepared really well. He was probably a little bit more of a high profile, sort of ‘out there’ character, especially in New Zealand. As you see, Kane is probably slightly more of a backseat (kind) but within the team they operate in a very similar fashion.”
But the biggest endorsement for Williamson has come from the McCullum himself. In his MCC Spirit of Cricket lecture earlier this summer, Baz lavished praise on his successor, confident that Williamson will carry on his legacy.
“…when I retired from international cricket the New Zealand team, through the contribution of everyone, has rediscovered its soul. It’s now a team that our country is proud of. Our followers know that New Zealand won’t win every game or be the world’s best team, but I think they are able to look at the team as a representation of our culture,” McCullum had said.
“The team now has a magnificent player and leader in Kane Williamson — he will rightly stamp his own leadership style on the environment but I am certain he will always play the game with a strong influence of being a New Zealander — humble and hardworking. Like Sir Edmund Hilary.”
India can be a mighty mountain to climb for a visiting team — and South Africa can attest to that — but it has been incredibly kind to Williamson. He made his Test debut here six years ago and, belying his shy schoolboy looks, scored a magnificent century. Earlier this year, at the World T20, he led the team full time for the first time. New Zealand, brimming with ideas, defied odds as they entered the semifinals. There is no good reason to believe he can’t do it again.