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Out of McCullum’s shadow, captain Kane Williamson takes on the world

The first week of the World T20 has come and gone and the Black Caps have already beaten two of the pre-tournament favourites: India and Australia. Alex Chapman assesses the captaincy of Kane Williamson and the bold selections behind the success. And he sounds a warning ahead of Pakistan, too. 

When Simon Doull suggested a no-result would be good for New Zealand, I couldn’t help but agree with him. Like the rest of the cricketing world, Doull, the former New Zealand bowler turned commentator, thought it unlikely that the game against Australia on Saturday night would go ahead. It had rained all week and looked likely to continue to, thus there was little chance of starting a match, let alone completing one.

Doull’s assertion was simple. New Zealand could take the one point for a no-result, add that to their two points from their first up victory over hosts India and all would be okay ahead of their next two matches against Pakistan and Bangladesh. Sounded reasonable.

The rain went away, the game most definitely happened. And New Zealand won it. So much for thinking a no-result would have been a good thing. Then again, not even the most dedicated Black Caps fan would’ve thought the Black Caps were capable of producing this kind of bowling display against what is a monstrous Australian batting order.

Shame on us for being surprised.

The opening week has been all about the ball for New Zealand. A brilliant effort by the three spinners of Nathan McCullum, Ish Sodhi and Mitchell Santner against spin lovers India in the opener heralded a new belief in the bowling ranks. All up the spinners collected nine wickets defending a below-par 126, and bowled out India for 79.

DHARAMSALA, INDIA - MARCH 18:  Ish Sodhi and Kane Williamson of New Zealand celebrate after the ICC World Twenty20 India 2016 Super 10s Group 2 match between Australia and New Zealand at HPCA Stadium on March 18, 2016 in Dharamsala, India.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images,)

Ish Sodhi is congratulated by his captain, Kane Williamson. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images,)

On Saturday night they followed up that sterling bowling effort with an eight-run win over Australia, defending a very middling 142. Both wins have come off average batting efforts, neatly compensated for or, more accurately, salvaged by, the men in the field backing up tight and focused bowling. And that has been orchestrated by the quiet maestro, Kane Williamson.

I’ll be the first to admit I was worried about Kane Williamson’s appointment as captain for the Black Caps for this tournament. And, despite what New Zealand Cricket may say, we all know that captaincy is likely to continue post-event. There is no standout option besides Ross Taylor, and we all know what happened last time with that.

This is why I was concerned: how would the Black Caps react to the quiet, thoughtful leadership of Williamson after the bullish captaincy of Brendon McCullum – a man universally admired for his hustle and pep?

Williamson’s record as New Zealand skipper was nothing to be sniffed at, of course.   He had led the side in 46 matches for 31 wins, including seven wins from 12 in T20 internationals. Still, the nagging feeling was there. Did Williamson have the drive to carry his team?

DHARAMSALA, INDIA - MARCH 18:  Kane Williamson of New Zealand and Steve Smith of Australia meet for the toss during the ICC World Twenty20 India 2016 Super 10s Group 2 match between Australia and New Zealand at HPCA Stadium on March 18, 2016 in Dharamsala, India.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images,)

Kane Williamson and Steve Smith of Australia meet for the toss. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images,)

Williamson’s captaincy has elements of his predecessor’s. There is certainly aggression (picking three spinners is ballsy), but Williamson seems to wield his more like a chess master than a backyard brawler. There are no outrageously attacking fields of two slips, a gully and men hovering in close, for starters. Williamson doesn’t intimidate players like McCullum did. At least, not overtly.

However, with the full time role has come a different kind of Kane Williamson. Now having the arm band as his own, as opposed to keeping it warm for Brendon McCullum, has Williamson less jittery, less on edge, and seemingly more relaxed. Two games into the World T20, it seems he most certainly has the drive of B-Mac.

What Williamson has grasped so quickly is this: while he knows he’s got McCullum’s job as skipper, he doesn’t have to fill the void left in the batting department. He can just do what Kane does best – bat with control, ease and timing. It certainly helps knowing what his fellow opener Martin Guptill can do. A man with an ODI double hundred can certainly strike the ball. The intent is definitely there to score big and quickly, as shown by hitting Ravi Ashwin for six off the first ball of the opener, and bludgeoning four sixes in his 39 against Australia; a la Brendon McCullum.

Likewise, Colin “Bat with the left or right” Munro at three can easily do the job, as shown against Pakistan earlier this year when he struck the second fastest T20 International half century, and fastest by a Kiwi, a record he neatly stole from Guptill who had broken the previous record in the very same match.

Add to that the middle and lower order power from the likes of Corey Anderson, Ross Taylor and Luke Ronchi, and it allows Williamson to just do what he does best. Bat patiently and stylishly. Maybe what is more concerning – certainly from an opponent’s point of view – is that Williamson still has a lot to learn.

Wiliamson has been aided and abetted by the selection panel at this tournament, too. From an outside point of view, player picks have been head-scratchers, but they reveal a deep tactical awareness that perhaps has been unappreciated until now.

Three spinners against India? Santner, McCullum and Sodhi snared nine Indian wickets. Dropping Nathan McCullum for Mitchel McClenaghan for the Australian match? McClenaghan snared three for 17 and bowled with controlled hostility in his man of the match performance. Not selecting Trent Boult and Tim Southee, the two bowlers normally first written down on New Zealand team sheets? Adam Milne, Corey Anderson and McClenaghan have done the job.

DHARAMSALA, INDIA - MARCH 18:  Mitchell McClenaghan of New Zealand celebrates after taking the wicket of Mitchell Marsh of Australia during the ICC World Twenty20 India 2016 Super 10s Group 2 match between Australia and New Zealand at HPCA Stadium on March 18, 2016 in Dharamsala, India.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images,)

Mitchell McClenaghan celebrates after taking the wicket of Mitchell Marsh. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images,)

The Black Caps have all but secured a semifinal spot after two victories, and even though they still must face Pakistan and Bangladesh. Bangladesh will be no easy beat on tracks they prefer, and the Black Caps have been troubled by the poor cousins the sub-continent before.

The result of that match may be academic should the New Zealanders get up over Pakistan on Wednesday. But it’s Pakistan. And it’s a world cup. And as is often stated, Pakistan are the cricket version of France in rugby: Dismal at times, but come a tournament setting, capable of  stepping up and finding another level.

Going into Wednesday’s match, New Zealand will know in the back, maybe even the front, of their minds that the two sides levelled their most recent T20 series, one apiece. The advantage must be with Pakistan here, as they are more than capable of a one-off victory in more familiar environs.

Pakistan also have the Boom Boom. BOOM. BOOM. The noise the ball makes when Shahid Afridi connects with his big bat and sends it flying over the boundary rope. And it pays off more often than not. Afridi can also take matches away with the ball, be it his leg spin, unorthodox fields, or his puzzling captaincy.

HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 17: Shahid Afridi of Pakistan gives instructions out during the International Twenty20 match between New Zealand and Pakistan at Seddon Park on January 17, 2016 in Hamilton, New Zealand.  (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Shahid Afridi during the T20 series with New Zealand in January. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

If ever New Zealand needed a reminder of the dangers of complacency, or the risks of underestimation, the first week would have provided several prime examples.

The West Indies have shown the cricketing world that T20 is the great leveller of the sport. Their lineup is filled with superstars of the shortest form of the game, none more so than Chris Gayle. If anyone was going to overtake Brendon McCullum for the most sixes in T20 internationals, it was going to be Gayle, who now sits just two shy of a century of big ones.

England, too, offered an illustration of how quickly teams can bounce back. Cleaned up by the West Indies in their first match, England somehow managed to chase down a mammoth 230 against South Africa. There is every chance England could win a second title, albeit with a team of all rounders.

South Africa’s struggles also act as a deterrent to over-confidence. Dale Steyn, once the premier fast bowler of the world, is as wayward as he is wounded and their only shining light with the ball is Imran Tahir. Meanwhile, AB de Villiers seems to have forgotten how to hold a bat, let alone hit with one, as has Faf du Plessis. A hard fought win over Afghanistan is hardly cause for celebration.

And one wonders if the Black Caps opening week is either. The perennial underdogs have now emerged as the team to beat. The boys in beige now have a big red bull’s eye on their back. The greatest test of Kane Williamson’s leadership is very much still to come.

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