Kane and able: Kiwi skipper reasserts greatness with a knock to remember
During the confusing, closing moments of the epic World Cup final between New Zealand and England in 2019, the cameras panned to Kane Williamson. Seconds away from perhaps his biggest professional agony, he stood frozen in the revered Lord's balcony, giving little hint of the turmoil within. He couldn't be faulted for being outwitted by the rules, but when the tragedy ultimately unfolded, Williamson betrayed no visible hints of grief or regret.
Two years later, in a vastly different format, in a topography far removed from the fickle English summer, as Glenn Maxwell's reverse hit blazed to the third-man boundary putting the ludicrously lop-sided final to bed, Williamson stood defeated again. Beaten at the Home of Cricket in 2019. Beaten at the headquarters of cricket in 2021.
There was, of course, the inaugural World Test Championship title in between, but for a batsman of his stature and for the incredible potential of the team he helms, being on the wrong side of the result does seem a bit perplexing. It is easy to trip onto the tired trope of Kiwis being the underdogs, nice guys, good humans, perfect role models and so forth. Sure, they are earnest triers, but they also happen to be ridiculously good at their craft. You don't make a hat-trick of ICC finals just by being polite, and no one epitomises this high-quality Kiwi outfit more than Williamson. A technically gifted artisan who has the game and mindset to adapt to varying match situations, his touch play is an intoxicating, all-consuming exhibition of batting at the highest order.
Sunday night was just another testament of his undisputed class in the long list of match-defining innings that have flown from his blade since his century on Test debut against India 11 years ago. He came to bat in the fourth over after New Zealand lost Daryl Mitchell, and departed in the 18th. The Kiwis ended with the then highest score in a T20 World Cup final, but their batting effort can be summarised with a simple comparative stat: Williamson, 85 off 48, 10 fours, 3 sixes. Rest, 78 off 73, 5 fours, 3 sixes.
Williamson was initially strangled by an excellent Josh Hazlewood and a very effective Pat Cummins, scoring only five off his first ten balls. However, like all world-class batters, he sussed out the opposition and the conditions quickly enough to mount a counterattack. He chose Mitchell Starc for special treatment, creaming the left-arm pacer for 22 runs in the memorable 16th over.
The treatment to Starc was not a madcap sensory assault, but an example of clinical efficiency and awareness. He played the field, and two of the chancy fours--mistimed shots that beat the short third-man fielder--were attempted with knowledge that the mishits won't likely land with the fielder. He created his length by staying deep in the crease, knowing fully well that Starc will go for his preferred yorkers, and when the Australian bowled a full cutter that pitched within the stumps, Williamson simply walked across and thumped him over the leg side for a six.
Overall, against Starc, his carnage yielded 39 runs off 12 balls. Williamson has made a habit of it. In the WTC final, he was the only batter between two sides to aggregate 100 runs across both innings. In the 2019 World Cup semi-final against India, his half-century was crucial in propelling New Zealand to a winning total, and while he could muster only 30 in the final, his 578 runs, scored at an average of 82.57 earned him the Player of the Tournament award.
In UAE, he ended the T20 World Cup as New Zealand's leading scorer (216 runs). His strike rate in the final (177.08) was significantly higher than his overall strike rate at this World Cup (115.50) as well as his career T20 strike rate (123.98). In fact, it was higher than anyone who faced more than seven balls in the match.
In another certificate of his all-format greatness, Williamson remains the only Kiwi in the top-10 list of batsmen in ICC's ODI (where he averages just below 50) as well as Test (where he averages above 50) rankings.
Williamson's current T20I rank (40) is a gross undervaluation of his potential, but that ceased to matter on the night when he set aside his pesky left elbow--it has been troubling him for a while now, causing him problems in gripping the bat and extending the arm--to conjure a memorable innings, albeit cruelly, in a losing cause.
As the shadows lengthened in Dubai and decibels rose from the Australian change room, Williamson, as is his wont, spoke like a statesman untouched by grief that must have gnawed at him.
"There was a lot of heart shown, always nice to get to the big dance," he said. "But credit to Australia again. Some high hopes coming in, some good cricket played, so we're feeling it a bit. There are only two possible outcomes, shame we couldn't get the job done."
No doubt, his chance at the big dance will come again.