Nothing moved Kane Williamson. Not the heart-aching attempts of South Africa to stay in the World Cup. Not Chris Morris, who almost single-handedly roused South Africa into a gallant fight. Not the guile of Imran Tahir, who might not have picked wickets but tightened the noose in the middle overs. Not the tireless Kagiso Rabada raging away at dusk, trying to conjure a yorker, a bouncer, a leg-cutter — anything that could move the immovable Kane. Not Lungi Ngidi, who fought against time to recover for this game, Not Andile Phelukwayo, who tried to nag him with his disciplined lines.
Losing partners at regular intervals as New Zealand chased 242 in 49 overs, the dogged Williamson was far from his fluent best, but aided by a hard-hitting half-century from Colin de Grandhomme, kept the Kiwis in the contest. Needing seven off five balls, he settled the matter with a slog-swept six off Andile Phehlukwayo to all but eliminate the Proteas.
“Please bowl me a ball, dad”, Williamson would say when he was three. No sibling was interested in cricket and his dad would be watching news. Kane would pester and the father would relent. A few years later, the father would have to cut down a bat to make it fit enough for his son to hold. In a Test against, who else but South Africa, Dale Steyn broke his abdomen guard into pieces with a rapid blur. It didn’t move Kane. He went on to a 102 on the fourth innings to save that Test. In a Test against Pakistan, where his team-mates were struggling a bit, Kane was blowing bubbles from his gum as he batted.
South Africa tried their best on Wednesday — desperate, hungry, eager, anxious but they couldn’t remove him.
At 80 for 4, he must have been worried. No sign on his face, though. A hit wicket and a strangle down the leg side had sent back Martin Guptill and Ross Taylor. Then Tom Latham fell. Chris Morris had taken out Taylor and Latham with a bit of luck and skill. Morris had a great day; son of all-rounder Willie Morris, he has talked about how seeing poverty in India, when he came for IPL, changed his life. Taught him to appreciate his own life. He went back to his own country a chastened and a disciplined man. Paid off house mortgages for his parents, bought a house for himself, and threw himself back into the game. Two days before the game, he fired the first salvo saying New Zealand aren’t dark horses but one of the favourites to win the World Cup. Or in other words, the pressure is on them. He tried to ramp it up on match day, bowling with fire, discipline and skill. Even his pace increased. Or so it seemed. But he couldn’t move Kane.
The asking rate climbed. Morris with the ball, on a length and cutting it in, but Kane defends. A solid defensive stroke as if he wasn’t even thinking about a run. Tuk, Tuk. Then suddenly, given a hint of a room, he would late-cut, cut, drive, push, punch – and as soon as the ball would hone in on that middle stump, he would defend. Occasionally, he would let the balls outside off fizz through to the ’keeper. No hurry, what was the need, really? His admirable solidity infused confidence in his team-mates and made South Africa more anxious. They dived at near-chances – David Miller ran in from short midwicket and threw himself valiantly but couldn’t get his fingers under it.
Giving him support was Jimmy Neesham, the man who once almost quit cricket faced with personal demons. A day after he was selected for the World Cup, he talked about it. How he would open curtains and hope for rains so that there would be no cricket. Mental blues strangled him, until he sought help and recovered. He did his bit, supporting Williamson but Morris took him out with a delivery that left him — Hashim Amla, on his last lap in international cricket, diving to his left to hold a good catch.
With Neesham’s exit it was 137 for 5, and now things looked difficult for New Zealand. De Grandhomme is known for his big hits and the Edgbaston faithful remember a monster six for Birmigham Bears in the 2017 Twenty20 Blast final. This arena is his English home. Born in Harare, he played for Zimababwe in the 2004 U-19 World Cup but a talent scout spotted him and persuaded him to switch to New Zealand. Here he was playing a dreamy knock. The word was that he would hit a six or two and get out. He didn’t, He kept going on with Williamson and slowly the pair got them close.
Very close. But this wasn’t choking South Africans. There were little misfields and stuff — but those nerves would have jangled most. They kept fighting, so did the New Zealand pair — Williamson was calm. Every now and then, cameras would zoom to his face: impassive.
When 14 were needed of 12, de Grandhomme’s attacking urges took over. He went for a big one and would still have survived but Faf du Plessis ran to his left at long-on, lunged, and fell to the ground wjth the ball in his hands. Whoa!
Still Ngidi produced an inspiring last over. The penultimate one of the game. All his crafty skills that he could conjure. He not only took out de Grandhomme but kept Santner and even Williamson quiet. Just 2 runs in five balls. 12 from 7, it read and once more South Africa seemed ahead. But Williamson wasn’t moved.
At this stage, if he had gone for a big hit, it would have been understandable. A four was needed desperately. But it wouldn’t be Williamson. Guess what shot he went for? A late cut. Really. Ice-cold nerves. He opened the bat face and became Arjuna Ranatunga. And as the ball rolled through the gap between the ’keeper and short third man, many a South African heart would have sunk.
And finally when seven were needed from dive, in the last over from Phelukwayo, Williamson shuffled across a touch, waited for the slower one, went down on his knees and uncoiled into a whack. South Africa didn’t choke, they just couldn’t move Williamson at all.