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Picture courtesy: New Zealand

ICC Cricket World Cup: The world found out they had read it right. One man in New Zealand wasn’t surprised. Williamson’s batting coach since the age of 10, David Johnston.

Written by Sriram Veera | Manchester | Updated: July 11, 2019 9:15:35 am
Home alone: A dejected Rohit Sharma looks on from the dressing room balcony of Old Trafford as the Indian batting unravelled in chase of 240 in the first semifinal against New Zealand. AP

“Why are you guys batting so slowly?” Ross Taylor was asked by commentator Kevin Pietersen before the start of proceedings on Wednesday. It was a casual off-the-camera enquiry. “Me and Williamson thought this was a 240 kind of a pitch,” Taylor replied. Pietersen persisted: “How good are you guys in reading pitches?” Taylor deadpanned, “We will find out.”

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The world found out they had read it right. One man in New Zealand wasn’t surprised. Williamson’s batting coach since the age of 10, David Johnston. “He is always good at reading pitches. It was a strange wicket, wasn’t it? 250 on a cloudy day on a slow wicket will challenge the Indians,”.

Johnston was right and so was Williamson. The former was also prescient in his prediction: “The extra batter in Ravindra Jadeja may prove to be a good move by your boys.”

Jadeja gestures at the commentary box on reaching his half-century. AP

This was on Tuesday night, a day before the Indians batted. We know Williamson was taught by the right men. No wonder, he has turned out to be a good skipper.

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Through the chase, Williamson kept making the attacking moves. Slips were packed in the morning. After Virat Kohli edged a ball that didn’t carry, Williamson moved two of the three slips ahead. Very close. Leaning, hands on knees and waiting for a mistake.

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Kohli wasn’t at his best. Not only was he beaten, chasing a well-outside off delivery from Trent Boult, he also kept choosing the wrong options. Williamson had a short midwicket and a man at square-leg. Boult hurled a couple outside off. Kohli is too good a batsman to not know that one will come in. And there were men on the legside. He still shuffled across and tried to turn a nip-backer to the legside and it wasn’t a surprise when he missed it. He seemed angry at the DRS but later admitted it was anger at himself. In the 2015 World Cup semifinal, Kohli had chosen to pull and was swallowed off the top edge. Now this. He would be hurting.

But before that, New Zealand had already struck the most vital blow when Matt Henry winked out Rohit Sharma. The ball wobbled away a touch, in the corridor, and Sharma was opened up. The one thing that he was wary of. The one thing that he had carefully ensured didn’t happen in the tournament so far: his balance being upset. Once that happened, and he was almost squared up, the hip turned out and the bat nicked the bat. First strike – and the best man out.

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Not many, apart from the Indian think tank, would have been surprised by the dismissal of KL Rahul. As of now, he doesn’t have the game to open in these conditions. He doesn’t get forward, doesn’t press backward and doesn’t stay still at the crease. At least one of the three is needed as an opener. He just wobbles away, plays from the crease, and is unsure of his off stump. He wanted to play, then changed his mind but there wasn’t enough time for such indecision – edge and gone.

Martin Guptill’s bullet throw from deep backward square caught MS Dhoni inches short of the crease and snuffed out India’s last hopes of a heist. (AP)

Williamson kept Boult and Henry for one more over each and then brought on Lockie Ferguson. He kept Mitchell Santner, who has troubled MS Dhoni in the past, waiting. The bowlers pegged away but Dinesh Karthik tried to resist. Then a fielder intervened. Neesham flew to his left to pluck an airy square-drive, played well away from the body, inches off the ground.

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As Rishabh Pant and Hardik Pandya applied some bandage to stop the wickets-bleeding, Santner was pressed into the attack. Naggingly accurate, and there was some turn as well. In the 23rd over, Pant’s patience ran out. Despite a deep midwicket in place, he went for a slog sweep but it wasn’t a full floater. It was a length ball and the left-hander could only heave it to the boundary fielder. Pandya stared at him for a while as he walked by.

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Now, Dhoni was in and Santner kept pressing on with his stuff. A drifter, the one that turned away, and the occasional arm-ball that Dhoni would manage to keep out at the last instant. Pandya defended on the front foot. But suddenly, his patience too went, and he skied a slog-sweep to midwicket.

For the next 17 overs, Jadeja and Dhoni attacked and anchored, tapped and ran, punched and dashed – and Williamson now had to earn this win. The team needed him to step up as a captain. He moved his cards well, didn’t worry about bowling out Santner as that was needed at that time.

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The plan was to amp up the asking rate, take it so high that Jadeja had to hit out. And hopefully, trigger Dhoni also into doing the same. But Dhoni didn’t take the bait. And Jadeja hit with control.

Time and again, the New Zealand think tank would converge. Boult with the bowler who was on with Tim Southee always hovering. Occasionally, Taylor with them. Almost always, Williamson would get in, have the final word, and disperse the group. As if to say, ‘Keep calm boys, I have this in control’.

And he certainly was in control when Jadeja’s miscue came towards him. Despite prompting later, he didn’t admit to any thoughts swirling in his head apart from the intention that ‘oh, its coming to me, I need to catch it’. Simple. And so, he took it, hands cupped to the skies.

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Dhoni was there but now saddled with the task of hitting. Already, the situation was bleak. What a change a few balls had wreaked. At the start of the last three overs, just before Boult began to run in to bowl, Kohli sat on the balcony telling someone to his left, “Ho jayega” (this would be done). The equation had read: 38 of 18. The previous over had been tough for the Indians. Under pressure, Ferguson had cooked up a superb over, giving just five runs but the Indian captain was hopeful. “Yes, I thought we had it,” he would say later.

Williamson wasn’t in concurrence with him. And he brought on Boult –keeping the weakest option Neesham for the last over. He wanted to either take a wicket or push the run rate really high. In the end, both happened. Jadeja fell.

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But Dhoni hit a six off the first ball of the 49th over. Before the third ball, that would end the Indians’ dream, Williamson hunched at extra cover, rubbed his hands on the grass, and held his knees as he crouched into his fielding position. As if he was at slips. Waiting, watching, crouching. Dhoni was surprised by the bounce as the ball smashed into his left glove, and popped behind fine-leg. He ran, and Williamson began to run towards the stumps to back up when Dhoni decided to turn for the second.

All through this tournament, Martin Guptill has been silent with the bat. But on the field, he has been everywhere, imposing, running, diving – and throwing. He ran, he swooped, and he threw. Williamson leaped as the LED lights lit up the stumps. Darkness in the Indian camp. Joy for New Zealand. “Surprise to me but Black Caps to final,” pinged Johnston. Not sure whether his boy Williamson would have been surprised at the result. He and Taylor knew it was a 240 kind of a pitch and Indians had a hole in the middle.

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