Sometime during the backend of Kane Williamson’s masterful 89, a spectator intruded the pitch, threatening to remove his clothes and touch Williamson. He was promptly out-wrestled by the guards and dragged away into the office, even as he kept on pleading: “Can I touch him once? Can I shake hands? I am harmless, you know. I will pay the fine.” His pleas went unrequited and was immediately thrown out of the stadium with a stern warning: “Next time, you’ll be counting the bars.” It’s a different story that he kept lurking around the stadium bare-chested complaining the police had torn his shirt apart and looking for any unguarded inlet into the stadium.
It served as comic relief to the crowd clutched with a nervous intensity as Williamson approached the three-figure mark. By this time, the pre-evening revelry had given away to serious cricket watching, the hitherto wandering spectators were glued to their seats, be it the plastic chair of the revamped enclosure or the wooden seats of the stadium’s antique remains. The crossovers between the stands over the sight-screen became rarer, whoever attempted was scorned, the newspapers and beer glasses, gossips and crosswords, were kept aside, and they were fully soaking in the agony and joy of watching Williamson. He is a tiny speck on the field, distant and detached, safely tucked away in a Zen zone designed to limit the highs and lows to which he is naturally inclined. And Williamson takes them through a transcendental zone of visual experience.
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Not quite the feverish frenzy that Sachin Tendulkar plunged Tendulkar-ians or the ethereal world that Roger Federer hypnotised the Federer-ites, but Williamson takes them to a trip that only Martin Crowe has hitherto taken them to. The Crowe-Williamson debates swirl on, whenever Williamson is batting. “Crowe was more elegant, though Williamson’s more diligent,” an old-timer chimes in. At the exact moment, he unfurls a gorgeous cover drive off Jasprit Bumrah, leaning into the shot and opening his bat phase at the exact moment of contact, so that he could beat the short cover. His grandson picks up the elegance thread: “Could he play a cover drive like that?” His slightly irritated grandfather gave an admonishing glare and snapped him: “You want to pick up a fight with me or watch him bat?”
It’s when watching Williamson and rugby that his countrymen shed their fabled reserve and pour raw emotions. “If Williamson were a rugby player, he would have been the greatest Kiwi ever,” opines a spectator. Williamson, a decent rugby player in school, would have looked out of place doing the haka. Not for him the brawny beauty of haka.
They’d rather take him as a batsman, whose batting on Saturday was a tessellation of skills and sophistry in the most perfect union. Every time he scored a run, they nodded, applauded, palms up and arms outstretched. A better measure of his genius might be sought in reactions like these. For all the tangibles, the astonishing stats, its the intangibles that are more eloquent. What the face registers on those occasions is nothing quite like what it might when anyone else is in action. Awe, admiration, reverence, joy, a whole gamut of emotions flickered through the faces.
In the long-room beneath the RA Vance stand, a wine glass slipped out of the bearer’s hand as his eyes were entranced by Williamson. No one bothered. No one cared. The chatter between deliveries or when he was not on strike was purely cricketing. Like is he the best driver of a cricket ball? In New Zealand. In the world? Perhaps of all time? It was the day he drove gorgeously through covers, backward point, mid-on, or wherever and whenever he could unfurl that majestic stroke of his.
Someone slipped in Virat Kohli’s name, and they mocked, referring to the way he got out trying to drive loosely outside the off-stump: “Ah we’d seen that.” Terrific as Kohli is when driving the ball, Williamson is more compact and elegant, an elegance that comes not from the minimalism of movements but from the symmetry of it. He’s always near the ball, always driving close to the body, the bat intercepting the ball at the latest moment possible.
But like with all great batsmen, you can’t pick one shot as his best stroke. It’s the metric of a lesser player. Williamson, like Kohli and their other cricketing galactico Steve Smith, has a number of signature strokes. Sample his toes-in-the air cut off Shami to get his first boundary. It was not quite short, but Williamson made the necessary adjustment to keep it on the ground. Or even his defensive punches on the back-foot off Ravichandran Ashwin.
It was meant to be a celebration of Ross Taylor’s hundredth Test match. The only cricket jerseys or t-shirts had his name emblazoned on the back. But it was always going to be about Williamson. Wherever and whenever he plays at home.
Pity that an uppish drive ended his innings, 11 short of what could have been a treatise on batting beautifully. The crowd paused, then they nodded, applauded, palms up and arms outstretched. And then they resumed the gossips and crosswords. Beer glasses were refilled and newspapers were unfolded. Williamson was gone, though the intruder was still lurking.
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