Kane Williamson is back, and his second peak could be as good as his first
@Aadya_Wisden 5 minute read
Kane Williamson‘s 2023 continues to get better. He has now scored a double century to go with two hundreds in narrow New Zealand victories, and the post-captaincy period could turn out to be Williamson’s finest ever, writes Aadya Sharma.
“I happen to be Kane Williamson’s grandmother … he’s one of 20 of my grandchildren. The person who called in I think was doing a little bit of stirring.”
In January, the late Joan Williamson-Orr, the former Mayor of Tapo – a town in New Zealand – made it clear she was not standing down to criticism of her grandson, Kane Williamson. A radio caller, targeting Williamson’s recent form, had said that the former captain looked “disinterested” in games, and had done “absolutely nothing” for two years.
The last two years have indeed been rocky for Williamson, but it’s important to also understand the what and why of it. In IPL 2021 & 2022, his strike rates stood at 113.19 and 93.15 respectively, and his struggles in getting going were evident. Further, he’s stuttered in T20Is with a strike rate of 118.18 since the start of 2021. A long-standing elbow injury has forced him in and out of the team – he played just two ODIs in 2020. In December, he quit as New Zealand’s captain.
For many in the world who admired and celebrated Williamson’s every move, he was suddenly scratching around for runs against the white ball. He wasn’t the zen-like, inspiring leader everyone yearned to have. And he sat out more often than not – his elbow just not healing. There were days he felt like “chopping his left arm [off] with a hacksaw”. Imagine that kind of frustration.
Even through the bleak phase, probably the most difficult of his career, Williamson certainly did not do “absolutely nothing”. The constant in and out wouldn’t have helped, but Williamson continued to operate at a fine level of excellence in Tests: since 2017, his average has comfortably exceeded 50 each calendar year. In 2020, 2021 and 2022, the average stood at 83.00, 65.83 and 74.00. He’s hit a double century every calendar year since 2019. And of course, he has led New Zealand to the World Test Championship title – all while battling with an elbow so painful he wanted to hack it off.
Stepping down from captaincy is a concept that has always held an inherently negative connotation. When Williamson wasn’t faring well, criticism followed, as did the advice to drop captaincy and elongate his career. In Williamson’s case, though, the timely decision to snap a six-year stint could indeed actually help propel his career towards greatness. Based on his recent, post-captaincy run, it looks like he’s already on course to chart mightier territories.
The signs have been clear. Since stepping down in mid-December, he averages 94.50 from six Test innings. That includes a risk-free, unbeaten 200 in Karachi, before bouncing back from a mini-blip and cracking an invaluable 132 in a thrilling one-run win against England. Then, last week, he shepherded a chase for the ages, navigating his way through obstacles and eventually a direct hit, to sneak his side through against Sri Lanka. It came days after the memorial service of Joan Williamson-Orr, after which he joined the squad late. With runs and runs alone, the grandson really justified all the support she mounted for him in her last months.
And he’s only getting better. On Saturday, he took down the same Sri Lanka attack once again, cracking a double century to power the hosts to 580-4 declared. Each passing day, each stroke and each innings is uncovering a newer, more assured version of Williamson. It seemed greedy to wish for a better version of a batter held in as high regard worldwide as him, but it’s happening.
On the second day of the Wellington Test, Williamson kept getting incrementally better, reaching one milestone after another with a string of boundaries. He brought up his fifty with the most pristine of cover drives – copybook balance, divine timing. Soon after, he pulled Lahiru Kumara for back-to-back sixes to gather speed. Another cover drive, this time with a big stride out to spin, brought up his three figures.
A flick off his toes, later in the day, took him to 150 – and a lofted version of the same stroke took him to a double century, his second in four months. He was dismissed 14 runs later, but not before he had become the first Kiwi player to 8,000 Test runs. He is now level with several all-time greats of the game who have scored the most double-tons in Tests. Sachin Tendulkar, a player he reportedly sought help from during his elbow troubles not too long ago, also has six to his name. Among active players, only Virat Kohli has more – seven.
From the start of 2020 to the end of 2022, Williamson missed nine out of New Zealand’s 20 Tests. Since the start of this year, he has played all five, and had starring roles in both wins. The 215 in the second Test came at a strike rate of 72.63, the second fastest among all his 200-plus innings. He’s now crossed 100 three times this year, the first time he’s done so since 2017. And we’re still in March.
We could well be in the midst of Williamson 2.0, the run-machine that is gathering momentum at admirable pace. He’s 32, a couple of months older than Joe Root, the youngest of the Fab Four. If the elbow doesn’t trouble him again, Williamson could be looking at a period of sustained success. It puts him in prime position to carry New Zealand forward through a tricky phase – one that has been afflicted with retirement and injuries, and a botched title defence of the World Test Championship.
If he is to do that, he will do it without being captain, but still being what he’s always been – New Zealand’s leader with the bat in hand. Maybe he’ll be even better at it than ever before.