Sunday, 10 January 2016

King Kane: From Middle Earth to the top of the world

If you enter ‘Lord Of The Rings’ in the Google search bar, it will soon suggest the words ‘New Zealand’, where the movies were shot. If New Zealand is our world’s Middle Earth, then Kane Stuart Williamson is currently King there. No wonder then that he is referred to as ‘The King’ by his charismatic captain Brendon McCullum.

'King Kane' was finally enthroned and anointed by the rest of the world as well as the No. 1 ranked test batsman in the world - the first Kiwi to reach the top spot since the rankings were established.
On his Test debut in India back in 2010 though, things were very different. Facing a mammoth score of 487, he walked in with the score at a tricky 137 for four, against the No 1 ranked Test team in the world then, in their backyard. It was a situation that could have unnerved many-a-debutante, especially one who had made a duck on his ODI debut against the same opponent.

But he responded by becoming the youngest New Zealander to begin his Test career with a century. It was an innings that highlighted two qualities that would be written about for many years to come: his footwork, and his composure.

But for those who knew him closely, his century on debut would have come as no surprise. A natural athlete, the ambidextrous Williamson played a number of sports as a child, but cricket was always his first choice. Initially coached by his father, who played cricket for Northern Districts U-17s, the precocious Williamson stood out since childhood. He routinely played against boys three or four years his senior, as his talent demanded. At 15, he was picked for New Zealand U19, and at 19, after two standout seasons for Northern Districts, he was contracted by New Zealand Cricket (NZC), despite not having played an international game yet.
But having talent is one thing, translating it into performance is quite another. Often the difference between the two is a cool head. That is a quality Williamson has never been short of.

Cast your mind back to the ODI World Cup 2015 league game where Williamson led the Black Caps to victory in a nail biting finish that sent Eden Park into sonic boom. With only Trent Boult at the other end and six runs to get with over 150 balls remaining, Williamson quickly calculated his best option, and serenely smoked a straight drive off Pat Cummins into the stands. The celebration was equally cool, with a smile and fist pump, as if he was saving it for another victory, a bigger dream, one that was not to be.

But despite the disappointment of losing the World Cup final, Williamson has had a stellar 2015. His hundred in the last innings of the second Test vs Sri Lanka was his fifth in 2015, and took him past the record for the most Test runs in a calendar year by a Black Caps player (he now has 1172 runs at an average of 90.15). It also put him level with Ross Taylor in the list of the most Test centuries scored by a Kiwi batter (13). Both are now behind only Martin Crowe, who has 17.

He has played a huge role in the resurgence of New Zealand, along with the likes of Boult, Tim Southee and McCullum. New Zealand has not lost a Test series at home since March 2012. And given that he is only 25, he is touted to end up as their best ever batter.
It’s not just the runs he scores though - it's also the way he scores them. Irrespective of the format, Williamson’s more traditional shot selection has always worked for him. His backfoot play - naturally strong considering his hobbit-esque stature - reminds one of the clean lines made by a sabre rather that the hacking-broadsword motion so many modern batters employ. His saint-like composure at the crease has compelled the word ‘Zen’ to be associated with his batting on numerous occasions.

It is almost as if he doesn’t feel pressure at all. Indeed, in an interview given shortly before his Test debut, he said, “When the pressure is on, rather than ‘handling’ the pressure, you almost ‘don’t register’ the pressure, and then you’re in the place to score runs.” These are life lessons seasoned pros often hand out at the end of their careers. Williamson has wasted no time in wising up.
And if his foot work and composure are always apparent on the field, off the field his modesty shines through. Soft spoken and polite, he has often displayed a sensitivity rarely seen in sportsmen of this era. During the New Zealand vs Pakistan 2014 ODI series he donated his entire match fee for all five ODIs to the victims of the 2014 Peshawar school massacre. In press conferences, he rarely seems to show emotion, yet does not seem to be hiding any either. As part of the team which was sledged for being ‘too nice’ by the Australians, he is the nice guy who is finishing first.
For the man who is the captain-elect of the Black Caps, and will lead the team in the absence of Brendon McCullum at the World T20 in India, captaincy is his next Everest.

McCullum has left him a rich inheritance, one which he could nurture into something legendary. Much like the hobbits made the obscure Shire famous in J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, this middle order batter from Middle Earth has all the ingredients to make rugby-mad New Zealand famous for cricket as well.

This article first appeared in my column on 

1 comment:

  1. Having enormously enjoyed watching this master craftsman in action, I have to hope captaincy doesn't take away anything from his on-field performances. It has happened to many before, but perhaps The 'King'is better suited than most to handle the extra duty!