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Tuesday, December 01, 2020

There’s nothing Kane Williamson can’t

Neither Nice Guy nor Mr. Cricket will do enough justice when describing Kane Williamson. The Sunday Express on the people and places who made the Kiwi captain cricket’s endlessly endearing mascot.

Written by Sandip G | Updated: February 16, 2020 1:14:27 pm
There’s nothing Kane can’t New Zealand captain Kane Williamson. (Illustration by Suvajit Dey)

A thick, chest-high fence demarcates the Pillans Point School and the house the Williamsons lived in for years before they shifted to the upscale Mount Manganui neighbourhood. The Maxwell’s Point, where Williamson’s character and quiet genius for batting were formed, is a quiet, leafy neighbourhood, undisturbed by vehicular noise or human chatter. Leap over the house’s back wall and you are straight into the play ground of the school where students play everything from rugby, volleyball, cricket to football.

At the corner of the ground was once an artificial wicket, which Williamson’s father Brett built when his cricket-crazy son was around nine. It was not just for Williamson that he installed the facility, but for the entire neighbourhood and the school. Since there was no turf wicket in the locality, the kids just played on the street and the ground, or had to drive down to Tauranga. So he dug deep into his own pockets for the money and then some of his friends contributed to mount a turf wicket in the school backyard.

“He always believed in doing things the right way, giving the proper facility to the kids, so that their growth is organic. He did all those things, not because he was obsessed about seeing Kane play for New Zealand, but just to provide him with the right environment,” says Susan Braid, one of their neighbours, and mother of rugby’s Braid brothers, Luke and Bryn, the former already an All Black with the latter knocking on the doors.

Brett would impart training and give throw-downs to every kid. So the Williamson twins, Logan and Kane, the former who has long stopped any form of the game but is a playstation addict, and the Braid brothers, would always be around the ground. “While training, he was not Kane’s father, but more of a coach. He would give the same advice to all the kids. He’s just like Kane, sweet and simple, a bit reserved, doesn’t talk much until he gets to know you really well. Kane’s character is a replica of his. He was a talented cricketer too.”

Brett, a sales manager, nursed cricketing ambitions when he was young, but had to confine to the club level because of an eye condition. He was around 17, by then he had already represented the Northern Districts U-17 side, when he got diagnosed with Keratoconus, a degenerative cornea condition. He needed a cornea transplant back in the day when techniques weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. But in pushing Williamson to play cricket, he was not trying to fulfil his own lost dream.

He encouraged him to play every sport, be it rugby or football, volleyball or surfing. But it was over cricket that the father and son bonded the most. “He was always his cricket partner, because his twin brother (Logan) was not much of a sports guy, and his sisters weren’t much into cricket, though they played basketball and softball,” says Braid.

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It’s where Brett’s cricketing background, too, kicked in and proved beneficial for Williamson. The training was scientific even back then, the old but efficient methods like hitting a ball in a sock dangled from a washing line, and the combination of stump and golf ball, wherein a hole is drilled through the ball and a string is tied through it. When there was no bat, he would grab his grandad’s golf clubs and bat with a bat shaft.

So by the time he started taking formal lessons, his hand-eye coordination and muscle memory were set, observes his childhood coach David Johnston, who had ditched his dairy farm in Matamata to embark on a cricketing coaching career in Tauranga. “I first met him when he was around 10 or 11, and I was literally shocked to see the kind of technique and movements. He waits until it is under his eyes. He picks up the line early, length early, and knew his game so well. The fundamentals were all in place. I thought he had some kind of training, but he told me he had none, expect the father giving tips. I wanted to meet his father straightaway.”

Kane Williamson watching the T20 match between New Zealand and India with Virat Kohli from the sidelines at Bay Oval. (Source: AP Photo)

Brett downplays his own influence. “’Just a tap here, or at the school, just for fun,’ he told me. But I knew it was more than that. Later, as I understood him deeper, I realised it was just the father’s humility or simplicity. He’s just like Kane, quiet and soft-spoken,” remembers Johnston.

But one day, when he dropped in at their home, he saw them tapping the ball in the car-port. “I watched their intensity, and I was like wow. Then Kane’s mother took me to the garden and pointed out to a flower pot they had broken and then to the back wall to show me the red marks of the cricket ball on the wall. Brett would yell, ‘I will paint it myself, no worries. It was a happy family and that reflects on his character,” he recollects.

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He was not just throwing balls, he would make technical observations too. “He analysed a problem with many New Zealand batsmen of his time, that they are not good playing on the back-foot. So he would feed him with short balls, thus honing his back-foot technique. He would also lob the ball in the air and advise him to step out so that he built the game to play the spinners,” he says.

A son built in the father’s mould is an image you can’t escape. No conversation about them in the locality is complete without the “oh he’s just like his father” line. Even if you press for a break-the-mould anecdote, there isn’t any. As Susan says: “Whatever you see of Kane is real. And he got it from his family.” And perhaps the locality he grew up in too, quiet and idyllic but brimming with sporting talent. Williamson carries a slice of his family and Maxwell’s Point wherever he goes. Even if he tries, he could not have, for there’s so much of the town in him.

Though the artificial turf his father installed has long deteriorated—albeit replaced by a new one—it still exists metaphorically in the mind of Maxwell Point residents.

***

Between all the myriad games he played—a sporting polymath in its broadest sense—he excelled in academics. But one subject was difficult to crack, economics. For the lessons, he would turn to his best friend and competitor for the coveted sports captain’s honour, Peter Burling, a helmsman sailor in the 49er who won gold at the Rio Olympics after a silver at London. So prodigious were both of them that the principal of the Tauranga Intermediate College, Robert Mangan, always used to be in a dilemma as to who he should make the sport’s captain.

Williamson was the skipper of the cricket team and an accomplished fly-half in rugby. Burling was already winning laurels in international sailing tournaments and was touted as an Olympic champion. To pick between the two was difficult. But after much nerve-wracking, the principal found a solution. He made Burling the sports captain and Williamson the head boy, an equivalent of prefect. “But neither of them were worried or bothered about the post. Both of them had no ego, very understated boys, who kept on bringing more accolades for the college.”

There’s nothing Kane can’t When home, the Kiwi skipper also finds time to visit his coach David Johnston.

The only concern for Mangan was whether Kane was taking too much a sporting load on his shoulders. Initially, he reckoned that he would make it big in rugby. A diminutive fly-half, he was quick, used to wade through tackles and fly like an eel. He played the Roger Mills tournament and was adjudged the best fly-half. Then he thought, he would become a basket-baller, after he was named MVP at the mid-northern junior secondary schools tournament. “He was a damn good shooting guard, always at the right place at the right time kind of a guy. He was extremely good with three pointers too.”

Basketball, in fact, was the first sport he played, when he was barely one-and-a-half-years old. He always slept with a basketball. “What surprised me was that he excelled in all. It was not like he was good at one and okay in the rest. He was equally prolific in all. Maybe, he would become a dual sportsman, I thought. But I know it’s difficult in this day and age,” he admits.

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But a concussion in a rugby game led him to stop the game. Johnston remembers that day. “It was perhaps the only time I have seen him a bit worried. He got a terrible blow on his head, and I wouldn’t say he was scared, but he got an aversion to the sport. I told him, well you can devote more time to the cricket, though I would say that he never compromised his time on cricket,” he says.

The love for basketball with an eye on the Tall Blacks eventually, which he got from his mother, died a natural death. What it meant was more time with Johnston. If previously, he faced a 1,000 balls a day, he would now face 2,000. And the news of an ever-smiling young boy ransacking runs and breaking age-group records travelled far and wide.

By the time the final year winked, he was hardly in the college, as he was always touring with the New Zealand U-19 team and captained his country in the 2008 edition of the U-19 World Cup. The same year, Burling went to the Beijing Olympics. Mangan was excited but at the same time sad. “Oh, now we have neither our sports captain and head boy, and we had keenly contested annual sports events coming up.” Burling then went onto win silver in the 49er class in London before upgrading it to gold in Rio.

A decade later, he’s smitten with another dilemma. Who does he give the Old Boy of the decade award to? “They would recommend each other’s name, I am sure.”

***

The Eddies and Elspeth on Terrace Avenue is always bustling. The chef is Adams, flaunting his chiselled biceps and tattoos and tonsured head, the kind with a don’t-mess-with-me-kind of demeanour. He’s a busy man, but he keeps his chores aside when Williamson drops in at the cafe, which he does whenever he’s in town. “Spends a lot of time here, when he’s in town. Sits in one corner quietly, that is when I’m not there and does his own thing. Here in the Mount, people don’t intrude into anyone’s space. They might identify him, but at the most they would say hello,” he says.

Adams, too, is a cricket buff. But cricket scarcely slips into their conversation. It’s mostly cuisine-talk. “We always discuss food, the different varieties of food that I make and the type of cuisine he has tasted in the different parts of the world. He likes the sort of stuff I make, a lot of fusion and gluten-free stuff. Sometimes, we cook together,” he says.

There’s nothing Kane can’t Chef Adams keeps his chores aside whenever Williamson drops in at his cafe. Often they join hands to fix meals.

Williamson, he says, is not a foodie, but a decent cook. “He makes excellent lamb, I have had it a few times. Like me, he also likes to experiment, that’s why we hit it off.”

For coffee, he heads to The Luca on the Maunganui Road, where he grabs a magazine, reclines into the chair and sips the favourite flat white. Extra hot. But here he sticks to his regular brew. Hot coffee and cool demeanour. The recipe of Williamson’s success.

***

But the conversation between Johnston and Williamson, even now, is purely on cricket. There’s little else much between them. “He’s half my age, several generations apart. Of course, we will talk generally about the town and other stuff, but mostly it’s about cricket, not like a mentor-student thing, but about some technical thing.”

Like recently, he had an issue with stance, and he realised that the front-shoulder tended to droop a bit. So, they worked together for a week and corrected it. “Though he is away mostly, I keep watching him. Not only because I enjoy watching, but just to check if he’s doing everything correctly. It’s one of those childhood coach things. He’s always a child to me, and he’s very receptive to my suggestions, as he always was,” he says.

The irony is striking, because his batting when he was a child looked like a man’s. Not just his technical abilities but also his mental bearings. Attests former New Zealand cricketer Llorne Howell, in whose father’s academy Kane trained: “A lot of kids have the game, but not the mental strength or composure. They fall apart once they start failing. But Kane was elevated in that sense. He was a man among boys. Whether he had scored a hundred or a zero, he would react the same way. That’s what you call mental equilibrium. He’s like Sachin Tendulkar in that way.”

It could also be that he was not failing at all. In one season, when he was only 13, he plundered 700-odd runs in seven single-innings two-day games. Almost 500 of those, he scored with a bat that Graham Thorpe had once used.

Kane Williamson led New Zealand to their second successive World Cup final in July 2019. (Source: File Photo)

The England batsman had gifted it to Mark Patterson, who had played for Surrey. When he started playing for the Northern Districts, he handed it to Jim Irwin, a Mount player. He, in turn, gifted this to his friend and an ex-player Charles Aldrige, whose son Graham went on to play three matches for New Zealand. But rather than giving it to his son, he decided to give this to the most talented young cricketer around.

As it was too heavy for him, he shoved it in a corner. But a day before the match, he broke his old bat and there was no time to buy another. So he dusted up the old bat and it worked like a lucky charm. “The bat wouldn’t have mattered. He would have scored with a golf club,” says Johnston, chuckling.

Forget failure, he never even feared failure. “I have never seen a more mentally sorted guy. He might be extremely humble or soft-spoken, but he has a lot of inner steel,” says Howell. So he calls him Buddha.

***

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The day New Zealand lost the World Cup in the most heartbreaking fashion, the town didn’t mourn or shed tears. A week later, when Williamson returned home, they put up banners all around the town that read: “Welcome back, Kane. We won’t weep for you. You are a champion.”

The words spoke stronger than commiserations. The quiet stoicism they displayed symbolised the spirit of Kane Williamson. The next day, he was back on the street, haunting his haunts, sipping coffee and cooking lamb. “He gave me a call and we had a pleasant chat. He didn’t sound tired and was cheerful,” says Johnston. It was so Williamson. The unpretentious son of an unpretentious town.

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