Only the shrieking goods trains, ferrying wood from downtown to the nearby salt-processing factory, interrupted Kane Williamson’s reverie at the nets. He would knock 10 balls in a row, then stroll to the non-striker’s end. He hardly chirps, his advice to fellow batsmen is so inaudible that it seems like he is whispering a secret. Occasionally, he would give complimentary glances or a nod of approval but nothing animated.
Williamson’s batting, in a match and even at the nets, flows on uninterruptedly like the calm evening currents of the Bay of Plenty. It also has the serenity that epitomises Otumoetai, the unhurried Tauranga suburb where he grew. In a way, Williamson defines the intrinsic character of the town and the ground in as much as the way the character of the town and ground defines him. It’s as if he takes a slice of Tauranga to whichever corner of the world he steps out to bat.
Meanwhile, Otumoetai – it means peaceful waters in Maori – doesn’t believe in fussing over the local boy. There’s barely any distraction around him at the nets either, like one would expect when a cricketing superstar, arguably New Zealand’s finest, returns for a rare outing in his hometown. Imagine Virat Kohli batting at the Kotla nets.
Williamson here can enjoy the simple luxuries of life that Kohli can’t even dream of. He could walk down the streets without getting swarmed by fans; he could enjoy surfing unhindered; he could slip into cafes and still sit peacefully. It’s not that nobody cares for him or values his accomplishments, but the fans here believe in keeping their distance from their stars and don’t burden them with unrealistic expectations.
It’s said that no one in the town cried even on that fateful Lord’s night (or early morning) last year. Just a few banners were hung on the balconies near his house in Mount Maunganui: “We are proud of you.”
On eve of the India-New Zealand game, the only autograph request came from a bunch of Indian kids when he walked back from the nets to the dressing room, the only piece of semi-modern architecture in the stadium. He pauses and obliges, though he politely turns down the mandatory selfie request. The reason, he says wearing a smile: “The fence (between) would make a bad frame. I have to twist my neck, ah… one more injury wouldn’t be good for me.”
The odd groundsman or a passerby or an acquaintance would wave past him and query about his injured shoulder. He reciprocates with a reassuring smile and a candid reply: “No worries.” Another one yelps: “Off to home?” He replies: “No, to the beach, a bit of surfing, nice wind and sun.” Everything has an air of informality, nothing suggestive of a looming international match. It could be that the match is inconsequential, New Zealand having already claimed the series, but one can’t imagine Bay Oval to be any different even if the series were alive. Agrees John Stevens, one of the ground-staff: “It was the same during the first Test here (against England), last year. It was a special occasion for all of us, but we celebrated in an understated way. Quiet, laid-back. It’s the way we are.”
To understand Williamson, one needs to understand the town he grew up in. Tauranga, with its crystal-white sand beaches might be touristy round the year, but it still sleeps early. The schools wind up by 12, the cafes shut by five and by eight most roads, barring the highway that connects Tauranga to Mount Maunganui, are desolate. It would have been such a mismatch if he were bred in a bigger or more aggressive city.
Even the stadium refreshingly lacks the suffocating concretised ambience of a modern-day international cricket venue. No art deco or marble halls. No tinge of artificiality. Unblemished by irrelevant modernity. An enclosure, more than an arena, replete with an old-world charm. When charm and cricket have become estranged from each other, there is a reversal. Barring the white-roofed Carrus Pavilion, the electronic scoreboard, the floodlight towers and the sight-screen, there are no permanent structures. There are a few makeshift white tents – one of it houses the press box that wobbles when the wind turns ghoulish in the evening (the only element that’s violent), a couple of stores and neatly-trimmed grass banks. But the audience bay is almost hugging the ground and the setting is intimate. The intimacy, though, gave the arena the only blot since its inception when England bowler Jofra Archer was racially abused. “That’s simply not us. That was the day we let Kane, of all people, down. He never would have wanted the reputation of his home ground to be like this,” says Stevens.
The compliance with nature was concerted, says David Johnston, Williamson’s coach and an influential figure in Tauranga cricket. “We always wanted to build a stadium full of life, a stadium that reflects our way of life, and not a structure than people can’t relate to. Besides, it would have interfered with the beauty of our nature. Concrete structures would have kept the wind off the arena, would have trapped the air, making it hotter for the players. We have the best pitch in the country,” he observes. And of course, the best batsman in the country too.
Though not breathtakingly beautiful, the backdrop of the stadium is scenic in its own way. To the east one could spot a green mount, to the west one can see the horizon lines with medium-sized peaks. Just outside the stadium is the sprawling Blake Park, which accommodates grounds for various sports. Before the Bay Oval was constructed, when it was just an unkempt piece of land, Blake Park used to host first-class matches before the pitch was deemed unsuitable for the level.
And its beauty enhances during sunset, and as Johnston interjects “when Williamson is batting.” Only the cylindrical turbines disturb the charm, just like the wheezing goods trains, the only force that could interrupt Williamson’s reverie.
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