On 5 July 2012, with Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum being unavailable, Kane Williamson became the youngest man to captain New Zealand in ODIs. Having impressed at the U-19 World Cup a few years earlier, Williamson was seen as a future captaincy prospect from the beginning of his international career. But even considering that, rarely does a player captain an ODI team before their 22nd birthday – in fact, in men’s cricket, only seven players have done so.
Williamson’s first ODI as captain didn’t exactly go according to plan. With batting mainstays Taylor and McCullum missing, the Blackcaps were handed a hiding by the West Indies. A defeat followed in the second ODI as well and it was in his third game as captain that he finally managed to lead his team to victory.
The then-bigwigs returned to the team and Williamson had to wait for more than two years for his next shot at captaincy in ODIs. After his first tryst with the role in 2012, for most of the next few years, Williamson was the understudy to McCullum and this was the ideal learning curve for the Tauranga-born cricketer.
McCullum, whose brand of attacking cricket was not just limited to his batting but also shone through his captaincy, retired from international cricket at the start of 2016 and Williamson was the obvious pick to take over at the helm. By this time, the then-25-year-old was already among the world’s elite when it came to batting, so there was no doubting his quality as a player. But not all great cricketers in the past had turned out to be outstanding captains, so there were no guarantees.
In 2015, New Zealand famously reached the World Cup final after playing some exhilarating cricket along the way. The team was playing in the mirror image of their then-captain McCullum. While they didn’t win the tournament, it was a noteworthy run which cricket fans across the globe will fondly remember for a long time to come.
Four years later, the Kiwis once again made it to the final of the marquee ODI event. This time under the leadership of Williamson, they’d fall short – in Ian Smith’s unforgettable words – “by the barest of margins”. After 50 overs each and a Super Over, England and New Zealand couldn’t be separated in terms of runs. But the rules were such that the former won as a result of more boundaries scored, a rule that has since been changed.
At the end of the final, New Zealand – especially Williamson – were applauded for the grace in which they accepted defeat despite the heartbreaking circumstances in which it had come about.
There were huge differences between the 2015 and 2019 runs to the final though. In the World Cup in their home continent, New Zealand were loud and played a brand of cricket that constantly had you on the edge of your seat.
In England, in 2019, it was the opposite. Their scoring rate had dropped greatly compared to the previous World Cup. In fact, it was much lower than the aggregate run-rate at this particular edition of the tournament with only Afghanistan scoring slower.
The approach might have changed from four years earlier, but the results went in a similar direction. Without creating much of a fuss, they would win their first five completed matches at the tournament. If the 2015 campaign mirrored McCullum, here the Blackcaps were performing much like Williamson – not very loud but incredibly efficient. When tight contests came along, they knew how to get over the line.
There was a blip in form in the latter stages of the league phase, but that didn’t stop them from qualifying for the semi-finals where they defended a total of 239 by 18 runs against a strong Indian batting line-up. Thereby, once again displaying great efficiency in a close contest.
New Zealand’s performance during the 2019 World Cup of course can’t be spoken about without mentioning Williamson’s batting at the tournament. After scoring 578 runs at an average of 82.57, he was named the Player of the Tournament – a feat another great New Zealand captain, Martin Crowe, had managed in 1992.
Williamson currently averages 49.56 in ODIs while playing as captain which is the highest by any New Zealand skipper and the fifth-highest overall (minimum – 20 innings). If you ever required an example for the commonly-used phrase ‘leading from the front’, then you needn’t look far from Williamson.
Under the 29-year-old in 50-over cricket, New Zealand have currently won 41 matches and lost 33 which results in a win/loss ratio of 1.24, the joint-second best among all Blackcaps skippers who’ve led in at least 20 ODIs – an excellent return.
New Zealand’s three most impressive World Cup performances have arguably come in 1992, 2015 and 2019. A striking resemblance to the three campaigns is that they had inventive captains who effectively got their teams to play in their own styles. Over the last three decades, the Blackcaps have been blessed with some exceptional captains – Stephen Fleming and Daniel Vettori included – and with time on his side, Williamson has the opportunity to become the most successful of them all.