Kane Williamson: The monk who meditates with a bat

An epitome of concentration. Photo credit: Reuters

When New Zealand reached the final of ICC World Cup 2015, the world marvelled at their brand of cricket. The Kiwis were aggressive, assertive, an outfit prowling for a single opportunity to dominate the opposition, led by the maverick firebrand Brendon McCullum. Four years ago, they demolished every opponent before being thwarted by eventual champions Australia in the final. As the saying goes, "you live by the sword, you die by the sword."

Kane Williamson was McCullum's deputy and the two were like chalk and cheese. While McCullum was exciting, pulsating and at times blatantly threatening, Williamson was and still is an epitome of calmness. Amidst the fast-paced battle, he stood like a monk.

A monk who would lead New Zealand to their second consecutive World Cup final in 2019.

Seldom does anyone consider the Kiwis a favourite to win the World Cup. They fly under the radar, often flattering to deceive in crunch situations. Their ODI history lacks the jewels of their Trans-Tasman rivals, the glories of India or yesteryear's West Indies. Before the start of the 2019 edition, they were like that student in a class who lives in a middle of nowhere, neither in the elites nor among the dregs. A state of in-between, where one can smell the stench of existential crisis, and sense the desperation to belong somewhere. Jaws were hardened, belief strengthened. The squad took the field against Sri Lanka in the first match of the campaign. This time, led by the determined monk, a little more bearded than what he was four years back.

New Zealand was criticised of smothering only the relatively weaker teams. They defeated Sri Lanka, a rejuvenated Bangladesh, an inexperienced Afghanistan, teams not highly placed in the pecking order of power. They struggled to beat a hobbling South Africa (the Proteas endured a miserable tournament). They scraped through to the semifinals, despite suffering three consecutive loses against Pakistan, Australia and England.

The critics were out with claws in hand. In the middle of the chaos, amid the desperation for salvation stood Williamson. Calm and composed as ever, stroking his beard, contemplating his next move. The onus was on him to drag his team from the hellhole, as he has done many times in this tournament, like an experienced captain steadying the ship against a raging storm at sea.

Williamson bats at number three for his team. But in this World Cup, he is practically playing as an opener. In six out of the eight matches in the group stage (the match against India was washed out), Williamson arrived at the crease before the fifth over of New Zealand's batting innings. In five of those, Williamson had to come out before the third over. This was due to the poor form of New Zealand's openers. Only once did one of the openers manage to cross 30 runs individually (Martin Guptill 35 runs against South Africa). Against West Indies, both the openers fell for a duck, leaving the task of accumulating runs entirely on Williamson. Even the experienced Ross Taylor, who was in terrific form for the last three years, faltered when it mattered the most.

A look at the batting chart will make things clear. In nine matches, (including the semifinal against India), Williamson has scored 548 runs at an average of 91.33 and a strike rate of 76.32. Next on the list is Ross Taylor, who has scored 335 runs in nine matches at an average of 41.87 and a strike rate of 77.18. Jimmy Neesham is third with 213 runs in nine matches at an average of 35.50 and a strike rate of 79.18.

The difference between the runs made by Williamson and Taylor is 213, painting a stark picture of the burden on the captain. He has steered his team to victory time and again, often taking on the arduous task singlehandedly.

While chasing, he scored 79* against Afghanistan and a sublimely masterful 106* against South Africa, a match that the Proteas threatened to win at times. While batting first, he scored a  mammoth 148 against West Indies when his team was tottering at 7/2. In the semi-final against India, he played a crucial knock of 67 and forged an important partnership with Ross Taylor, which ultimately proved to be the turning point in the match. Even in the group stage match against Australia that New Zealand lost by 86 runs, he was the team's top scorer with a gritty innings of 40 runs.

Apart from his batting, Williamson has been brilliant in the captaincy department. He has marshalled his troops well and his use of bowlers bears the hallmark of a shrewd strategist with enviable cricketing acumen. Yes, he has the required arsenal at his disposal to execute ideas in the form of Trent Boult, Matt Henry, Lockie Ferguson, Mitchell Santner and even all-rounders like Colin de Grandhomme and Jimmy Neesham. However, even a devastating bowling attack can falter without a proper plan. This was evident in the match between India and England in the group stage, where the English batsmen carted the Indian bowlers all around the park.

Come Sunday, New Zealand will either revel in the glory of their first World Cup title or they will retreat into the gloomy world of dejection after losing two consecutive World Cup finals, a tragic feat once achieved by Sri Lanka. Amidst the light of victory or the darkness of defeat will stand a monk. In a world of his own, a middle ground. In an in-between state, with a sense of purpose. The monk will meditate at the crease every time danger threatens his team. His penance begins with a bat in hand.

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