Entertainment in cricket is not limited to run-scoring. Although, it is renowned as a batsman’s game but quite contrary to it, becomes more engrossing when bowlers are at their raging best. Calling the gripping contest on air, Michael Atherton recalled a quote from Rahul Dravid lauding the spectacle of cricket when bowlers do better.
Contrary to the snowballing numbers in white-ball cricket, the bowlers overpower the batsmen in its red-ball version. Bowling then becomes a brandish display of supremacy in favorable conditions.
On rare occasions, there are batsmen who fight it out and refuse to surrender. It is during times of these peerless battles when cricket is at its absolute best. We saw two such spells on Day 5, the penultimate day, of the World Test Championship Final which lifted the show to the level that could justify the contest as ICC wanted to label it - The Ultimate Test.
This is despite only 34 runs in a full-fledged morning session which had 23 overs. The run-rate was less than 1.5. Only 26 runs came off the bat. New Zealand skipper, Kane Williamson batted throughout the session and scored only seven of those, facing 75 balls.
While many can confuse that approach with the lack of intent, one has to understand the paucity of runs available. In fact, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that run-scoring was next to impossible. India collapsed on Day 3 to lose seven wickets for 71 runs. The conditions appeared dire on Day 5, when the ball not only swung but also bounced mischievously. It could have been for two reasons. Firstly, it was the fifth day pitch, although not a lot of cricket had taken place. Secondly, the natural length of the Indian pacers - the good length - did provide more zip in the bounce.
The conclusion states things were more challenging for the Kiwi batsmen on Day 5 then it was for Indian batsmen on Day 3. What is the best thing to do when run-scoring becomes strenuous? Stay on and wait for the conditions to get better.
The Kiwi fans wear a special hat in support of their skipper. It is a white sailor captain’s hat for their ‘Captain Kane’ with the words ‘Steady The Ship’. That is exactly what Williamson did. He weathered the storm and steered the ship to sunnier conditions of the second session. He did it by putting a masterclass of defensive batting.
It was everything you need to survive in England. He played the ball late, close to his body and with soft hands. Williamson edged two deliveries and both of them fell well short of the slip cordon. For a couple of balls, Rohit Sharma was placed further up to Williamson at second slip wearing a helmet. He strictly played close to his body, leaving 33 percent of the deliveries he faced in the session.
The most remarkable thing was how late he played the ball. On one occasion, he had planted his front foot down for a forward defence on a ball angling in but was able to counter the late outward movement by leaving the ball at the last moment. It stands in stark contrast with Virat Kohli’s dismissal on the final day when he fiddled at a delivery he should have left.
In the commentary box, Nasser Hussain pointed out Williamson watching the ball come out of the bowler’s hand while standing at the non-striker’s end. On the striker’s end, he was leaving the ball so late that he would actually watch it go into the wicket-keeper’s gloves.
With the sun out, conditions bettered for batting after lunch. Williamson continued with his defensive vigil but with more run-scoring opportunities, he cashed in on the loose balls. The lesser accomplished batsmen at the other end went for runs while Williamson held the innings and took his team into a vital first innings lead.
In the second innings, he put together another rearguard knock, this time to see New Zealand through to the Test Championship mace with an unbeaten 52.
Prior to this Test, Williamson averaged 26.1 in England. There were question marks over his ability in one of the tougher countries for Test match batting. With these knocks of 49 and 52* and precisely with the masterclass of defensive batting on the Day 5 morning alone, Williamson has convinced everyone that he can bat in England. In fact, he can do it better than the English batsmen we saw in the series preceding the WTC final.
At the end of an embarrassing England collapse in the second innings of the Edgbaston Test, an infuriated Hussain questioned the odd techniques of the England batsmen. He asked them to stop “reinventing the wheel” and bat normally. Williamson manifested what can be attained by batting normally.
In the last session of the fifth day, Rohit Sharma exhibited a similar kind of defensive brilliance. The conditions for batting excelled in that phase but for Rohit, challenges were different. The ball was still doing enough and he was batting to prove his credentials as an opener in England and curbed his natural instinct to ensure that he batted through the session, well almost. He dropped his attacking stroke percentage marginally - from 19% to 16.1% - but there was an increase in the balls defended - 41.2% to 49.4%.
He wasn’t flustered by any bowler and defended with assurance which underlined the mass improvement in his game - from only an ODI opener to showcase propitious signs of a Test opener in England.
It took the shrewdness of Tim Southee to pin him LBW minutes before stumps. Sure he scored only 30 and Kane Williamson now has a Test average of 32.9 in England, still far away from indicating his class but when do numbers ever tell the whole story.