In July last year, New Zealand faced one of the biggest heartbreaks in the history of cricket. One that is bound to take a lot out of an individual and necessitated time to get over from. The loss in the final of the World Cup would have affected none more than the Kiwi skipper, Kane Williamson, who championed them throughout the tournament.
Post World Cup, Williamson, clearly baked and still not over the World Cup despair looked out of colour in Sri Lanka. In their second assignment of the World Test Championship (WTC) in Australia as well, Williamson was miles away from his best. To make matters worse, Williamson was getting out to uncharacteristic shots – playing with hard hands to spin early on or attempting an expansive pull. He scored only 81 runs in seven innings on the two tours before being out of the third Test at Sydney due to flu.
With only one win in five WTC matches, New Zealand were under pressure ahead of the home series against India. A 0-3 drubbing at the hands of their neighbours across the Tasman Sea fuelled the distress even more. Amid the growing voices, Williamson even offered to step down as a captain if that guided the team’s cause.
New Zealand were firmly on the back foot but putting all of it behind and focussed on the job in authentic Kiwi fashion, they dominated the first day against India after winning a crucial toss.
The second day too witnessed the same plot where everything in the game had gone in the way of all but one Kiwi player. With the score at 151/8, Mohammed Shami attempted a casual slog to a Tim Southee outswinger. The ball hung in the air for a few seconds before reaching the reverse cup of Williamson at mid-on and on the ground after hitting his palms. Williamson would have been left wondering whether this was going to be another one of those days.
Shami though was dismissed soon after with India bundling out of 165. The visitors, however, struck early with Ishant Sharma striking in the 11th over and Williamson found himself at the forefront yet again. The lanky pacer, buoyed by the wicket, bowled a bouncer first up to Williamson. Not managing to react in time, the ball hit his thumb, requiring immediate medical attention. The Kiwi skipper played the rest of the over shaking his hand in pain after every contact.
Maybe this was the wake-up call that Williamson needed. Thoroughly switched on and forced to concentrate more after the blow the New Zealand No.3 looked a different batsman from the very next over. On a surface, where batsmen were increasingly finding it tough to get in, Williamson remained unperturbed. A batsman who loves to hang on the back-foot and adept to play with soft hands, Williamson dug a tent at square of the wicket on the off-side.
Severe to anything bowled at length outside off, Williamson played late and deployed the cut and the steer gleefully to collect four boundaries, one three and a couple of twos in that region against India’s pace troika. Typical to the case with great batsmen, a tricky wicket with a spongy bounce appeared flat with him on strike.
Against Ravichandran Ashwin, Virat Kohli opted for a defensive field with long-on and the fielder on the leg side deep at the boundary. Williamson used this to full advantage by milking the off-spinner for 28 runs of 41 balls. Completely unfazed by what Ashwin had to offer, Williamson took 14 easy singles off him, cut two half trackers for a couple of threes on the off-side and hit two boundaries, one of which – a calculated drive in the air on the leg side - brought his 32nd Test fifty.
While the Indian bowlers did manage to make some breakthroughs at the other end, Williamson stood firm. Whenever they attempted to alter their length, going fuller to induce a false drive, Williamson hit four boundaries with such ease that they will be cherry-picked for a highlights package. The Kiwi skipper was so perfect with his drives on the second day that he played most of them with 100% control.
To give an idea of the level at which Williamson was batting, his aggregated control percentage in his innings was 94.8%. The next best for New Zealand among batsmen with 20+ runs was Ross Taylor – 83.1% with whom the Kiwi skipper stitched a 93 run partnership, their first 50+ stand against India in 8 innings.
For India, the best was for Ajinkya Rahane (92.8%) but he batted with almost half the strike-rate of Williamson – 33.3 vs 58.2 - and scored much lesser - 46 vs 89.
Williamson’s boon turned out to be his bane as the only time when he could not transfer his body weight forward to a drive led to a mistimed shot to the fielder at cover. The Kiwi skipper missed a well-deserved century but is clearly back and is certain to haunt India in the series.