Tonight the Black Caps will be led on to Lord’s for the World Cup Final by Kane Williamson, the most underestimated captain in world cricket, writes Toby Manhire.
Were he not so confoundingly, unshakably, even irritatingly amiable, we’d call him something like Ice Cold Kane.
Instead, the official epithet-hander-outers of New Zealand cricket, the Alternative Commentary Collective, some time ago dubbed him “Steady the Ship”. It’s a compliment, absolutely, but it’s not very sexy. The most dependable skipper on the Devonport Ferry sort of sexy. It says reliable. It says inoffensive. It says, and not without cause, he’s the guy who holds the innings together while everyone around fires hot or cold (mostly cold).
But give him a Brando scowl, a potty mouth or a low-key cocaine habit, and he’d be viewed altogether differently. Bulletproof Kane, or Razor Kane, or Carbon Steel Kane: able to withstand any kind of pressure. What I’m trying to say is that some of us are guilty of understating the Black Cap captain’s sporting character simply because he’s a pretty straightforward human character, the bashfully clever friend you just know your grandma will adore.
But he’s much more than that. He’s a very, very good captain, a shockingly, precociously wise leader, at the age of 28. And he’s getting better.
While Steve Waugh was entering what felt like his 29th hour of leafing through old photo albums in the commentary box the other night, Kane was recalibrating. While the so-called experts at Old Trafford and the armchair generals (hi!) at home were demanding that he get a bloody wriggle on, howling that there was no point in going out with a whimper, Williamson was beaming up a Sherlockian mind-palace, computing the pitch conditions, and reappraising what would make a good score.
He was right and we were wrong.
One-day cricket isn’t the same thing as 20-over sloggerama. This World Cup, thankfully, has delivered wickets that do more than unfurl as carpets to the big hitters. In the case of that crazy semi-final against India it was more like a two-day-international, a bit like a mercantile league, a bit like a Test-ODI hybrid.
For those of us stuck in the old mindset that imagines any New Zealand cricket victory is in defiance of the natural order of things, no pass was hail-Mary enough. Play Colin Munro! Bowl a part-time spinner! Find that heroic streaker from the Durham game, pretty sure it was Jesse Ryder after a week in Scotland, and put him on! Go high and hard or go home, said the idiots (again, hi!).
Meanwhile Kane Williamson chalked up his 500-and-somethingth run of the tournament and together with the other great underrated Black Cap, Ross Taylor (both have ODI averages just shy of 50), intelligently assembled enough runs that the tournament’s best bowling attack could defend, even on a pitch that was improving.
Ridiculously, Williamson was left out of the Best XI of the World Cup as judged by the estimable BBC Test Match Special, while India’s captain Virat Kholi, with a much lesser batting average for the tournament, was picked. Kane’s World Cup 2019 average? A stonking 91.33. What is more, his average is 109.6 if you apply the “Fingertip Exception”, a rule I’ve just invented in which you don’t count a wicket when you get run out by a return drive glanced by the bowler’s hand.
All that can be said in defence of TMS (specifically, Jimmy Anderson, Isa Guha, Andy Zaltzman and Prakash Wakankar) is that they were selecting their side during the rain break in the first semi-final, at which point India were comfortable favourites to progress. The listeners, wisely, selected Williamson in their team.
At the start of the World Cup, my friend and colleague Simon Day wrote a paean to Kane Williamson’s predecessor, beneath the provocative headline “Bring back Brendon McCullum”. His argument was that Williamson lacked the bullish, swashbuckling leadership, as if he were somehow just too cerebral. I mostly nodded along to that, and at the Black Caps’ most sluggish moments in this World Cup – and there have been plenty of those – I’ve longed for the cavalier swagger of Baz.
I apologise. Kane had it right all along. And tonight the Black Caps play England in the final at Lord’s.
The McCullum leadership was essential to punch New Zealand out of the doldrums, to prove that you could play relentless, aggressive, rambunctious cricket without turning into, well, Australians. (By the way and without a glint of a gloat, can I just say that had a team with Warner and Smith made the final, it would have rubbed sandpaper on the complexion of natural justice.)
The McCullum mindset is the foundation of this Black Caps side. It’s the foundation, too, of their opponents, the template on which Eoin Morgan’s English side rebuilt following its humiliation at the hands of McCullum’s Black Caps in the last World Cup. It’s the kind of spirit that makes this evening’s match-up so tantalising.
The Williamson leadership is no backward step from his predecessor. It is an evolution of that late-adolescent McCullum blooming. Most of the critical elements remain: the confidence, the aggression, the humility. But under Williamson it feels like it might prove more sustainable. It’s only the tedious arrogance of commentators from the “bigger” cricket nations, combined with the projected imposter syndrome of longtime Black Cap fans (yes, hi!), that portrays it otherwise.
That we’ve got this far without playing anywhere near our potential – certainly as far as the batting lineup goes, Williamson notwithstanding – speaks for itself. And there is a level-headedness there. Would McCullum’s Black Caps have held their nerve in Manchester’s grey-sky two-dayer? Or to put it another way: will Williamson charge down the wicket and try to hit his third ball out of the ground?
Kane Williamson is not after all is said and done just the ship-steadying guy, the dutiful student, the least hungover staff member at the trampoline park. There’s a whole lot more going on, and it suits him to get on with it while we’re seething at Steve Waugh. He’s a contract killer, the quiet assassin, but without the literal murdering, obviously.
Godspeed, Ice Cold Kane. There could be no one better to lead New Zealand out on to Lord’s.