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Kane Williamson and Tim Southee with the World Test Championship mace in 2021 (Photo: Getty Images / design: Tina Tiller)
Kane Williamson and Tim Southee with the World Test Championship mace in 2021 (Photo: Getty Images / design: Tina Tiller)

SportsMarch 8, 2024

100 not out: Kane Williamson, Tim Southee and the end of summer

Kane Williamson and Tim Southee with the World Test Championship mace in 2021 (Photo: Getty Images / design: Tina Tiller)
Kane Williamson and Tim Southee with the World Test Championship mace in 2021 (Photo: Getty Images / design: Tina Tiller)

As the two modern greats become the fifth and sixth New Zealand cricketers to reach the 100 test milestone, James Borrowdale reflects on the experience of watching them get there.

The path led from the small farm where I was staying and into the olive trees, then sloped towards town between dirt-coloured hills, leading past the old decaying mill and among the spring-fragrant orange groves on the edge of the village, through whose foliage the twin spires of Parroquia Expectacion de la Virgen came into view. In the shade cast by the church sat an internet café run by an Ethiopian woman. She brusquely accepted a coin from my dwindling supply of €2 pieces so I could check my emails – and what had happened in the cricket. It was 2008, the town was Órgiva, Andalucía, close to the southern edge of Spain: well outside the usual bounds of Cricketdom. I was 22, hitchhiking around Europe with all of adulthood before me like undiscovered country.

Something vaguely profound happens in a young cricket fan’s life when, casting one’s eyes over an international scorecard, players your own age or younger start to appear. The pedestal from which heroes – the Nathan Astles, the Jonty Rhodeses, the Alan Donalds and the Waqar Younises – have peered down on you throughout childhood and youth loses a few inches; and with your contemporaries now competing on that even plain of adulthood, your own ever-wobbly self-conception as an also-adult grows a little more assured. (Something similar, usually absent that shade of heroism, occurs in early middle age when the faces of politicians begin more and more to resemble those of your peers.) 

So it was when I first read the name Tim Southee – then a fresh-faced 19-year-old scooped from earth of a small Northland farming community – on the scorecard of the third test of the England tour of New Zealand, which had just drawn to a close on the other side of the world to my stool in front of a hired computer. Beside his name were numbers – five wickets, including three of the top four, in the first innings, and a rapid 77, including nine sixes, in the ruins of a lost cause in the fourth – that indicated a bright future.

Tim Southee on test debut vs England in 2008 (Photo: Marty Melville/Getty Images)

Just how brilliantly he would glow from the firmament of a golden generation of New Zealand cricketers could hardly be guessed; that those achievements could be outshone by a New Zealander in the same team could hardly be dreamed. Two years later, Kane Williamson debuted as an impish 20-year-old behind earnest eyes, with a century in India. Two future greats – both veterans of the same U19 New Zealand team, along with Trent Boult – had found a home under the Black Cap.

A decade and a half later, Williamson and Southee have become only the fifth and sixth players to reach 100 test caps for New Zealand. They’re also just the fifth and sixth players in the history of test cricket – after England’s Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart, and South Africa’s Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis – to play their hundredth test alongside a teammate doing the same. Southee does so as the man with the second most test wickets in New Zealand history, Williamson the man with the most runs. When they joined each other in the ranks, two of the first bricks on which the success of a team that would have a legitimate, if fleeting, claim to be the best in the world were laid beside each other. 

At the time of writing, Southee has 378 wickets, including 15 five-wicket hauls, at an average of 29.49; Williamson, 8675 runs at an average of 55.25, with 32 centuries. But the crude mean obscures as much as it illuminates; it is easy to forget that after the dual marvels of their arrivals in the test side – Willamson’s 131 on debut came against an attack containing Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan – both were promptly cut down to size by the rigours of the game. Southee saw his bowling average balloon to the mid-forties as he came and went from the team, regarded as something of an enfant terrible of New Zealand cricket. Similarly, Williamson found his average alarmingly out of synch with what the eye suggested was his level of skill – Dylan Cleaver writes that there were “whispers that perhaps his talent had been oversold to the public”. 

Kane Williamson on debut vs India in 2010 (Photo: Getty Images)

Both would dispel these whispers with watershed performances. Southee, back in the team for the second test of the 2012 tour of India, took 7 for 64 on a placid pitch, a haul that included his fiftieth wicket. They remain his best bowling figures. For Williamson, it was a brave hundred to draw the third game against the touring South Africans in the same year: against a peerless fast bowling attack, having moved up the order to replace an injured Ross Taylor, coming in with the one run on the board and two batters already out, Dale Steyn bowling fast and fiercely enough to split his box in two with a delivery that nipped in off a length, he remained unbeaten at the day’s close, with 102 beside his name. Two performances that feel, in hindsight, like the first rungs of the ladders that would lead them to the high plateaux of their fulfilled potential. 

The joy has been in watching how each man completed their ascent. And cricket, as Sir Neville Cardus, the grandfather of modern cricket writing, reminds us, offers unique insight into not only players, but people too. “It is because cricket does not always hurry along, a constant hurly burly, every player propelled here and there by the pace of continuous action, that there is time for character to reveal itself. We remember not the scores and the results after years; it is the men who remain in our minds, in our imagination.” 

There was a passage of play in last week’s test defeat to Australia, instructive of Williamson’s character, one felt, by its contrast with the calmness he seems usually to radiate. He has pushed the ball towards mid-off and followed its path for a quick single. His partner, Will Young, turns to watch the ball, and then turning back to complete the run, finds Williamson in his path. They collide. Marnus Labuschagne throws down the non-striker’s stumps. Williamson is run out for a duck. On his trudge back to the dressing room, there is what almost looks like anger in the posture of his body as he glances around behind him, head shaking, the Black Caps’ hopes quickly deflating. 

For usually, Williamson has accepted cricket’s slings and arrows with something approaching Zen – the sort-of loss, when he was captain, in the 2019 Cricket World Cup final springs to mind – which is the attitude in which success seems to find him too. Look at last season’s final-ball victory against Sri Lanka: Williamson had guided the chase home with precision, another century to his name, a scrambled bye from the final ball enough for a famous victory. “If ever,” Alagappan Muthu wrote on ESPN Cricinfo, “there was a time to get carried away, it was this. And yet all he did was bow his head in sweet relief… People open their mail with more excitement than Williamson winning a five-day match off its final ball.” 

Kane Williamson and Neil Wagner after the Black Caps’ final-ball win over Sri Lanka in 2023 (Photo: Joe Allison/Getty Images)

You can see him in the mind’s eye, that calm brought to the physical act of batting. He unconsciously spins the handle of the bat as if to reinforce just how loosely it rests in his hands, taps the crease, nods at the bowler, and rises on his toes to meet the short-of-a-length ball, venom sucked from the delivery by his soft blade, the ball guided between slip and gully. Four runs: no ego, just effect. As former Black Caps opener Mark Richardson said, in the aftermath of a Williamson double century during that same Sri Lanka series: an in-form Williamson is “as close to batting perfection, I think, as you get – technically, tactically and mentally”. He’s like a creature, when that mood is upon him, moving through a different element. 

Southee will never reach the same level of the sublime: fast bowling is too physical an act for that. His brow is furrowed by the twin stressors of bowling and captaincy as he trudges back to his mark, passing a forefinger across his hairline to transfer its sweat to the ball’s shiny side. There is something of a spinner’s cunning in late-career Tim Southee – the orthodoxy of his outswinger now interspersed with the three-quarter ball cutting into the right-hander, his position along the crease shifting as he probes for weakness, or drags the batter to where he wants him. If Williamson is calm personified, Southee is something of his foil in the dynamic of the team – see the optimistic impetuosity with which he will call for an umpire’s review, the big grin and one arm raised aloft with which he greets his wickets as he follows through, or the pure expression of his batting, which seems to deal not in runs as its primary currency, but in the distance he is able to whack a cricket ball.

Tim Southee at the batting crease (Photo: Getty Images)

All of this is to say, these are not merely cricket players to me, but characters in whose unreciprocated company I have marked off the years of my own adulthood – through the hungover twenties, the productive thirties, and now into fatherhood as I approach my forties and rarely find myself with a day to sit in front of the cricket. But that’s what I’ll be thinking about as these two great stalwarts both bring up a century of test matches, and I – between errands, between trying to keep up with children, between whatever games their minds invent on that day – get a chance to sit down for a few minutes in front of the cricket, at least until the two-year-old climbs onto my lap: “Cricket, Papa?”

Cricket, darling, the last test of the season, and a chance for the Black Caps to end summer on a high after a dispiriting thrashing in the previous game. “The passing of cricket,” Cardus reminds us, “is a proper theme for sentiment, because it goes out with the end of summer.” This may be less true than it was in Cardus’s day – does contemporary cricket ever end, or just mutate into the Indian Premier League and move to the subcontinent? – but the last test of the summer retains the sorrow of season’s end. The days – hot in the middle, but with a cool underbite eating at their edges – tell us we are moving into winter’s kingdom; we are conditioned to so-long summer and then this change in the flavour of the days, of an injection of a new essence into the air, washes over us like sadness.

Which only serves as another reminder, in the autumn of these two careers, to cherish them while we have them: it’s not often New Zealand produces a truly great cricketer, even rarer for their careers to overlap. “The writer dies twice,” wrote Martin Amis, “once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies.” The same holds true for the athlete, and for Southee and Williamson, 35 and 33 respectively, that first death is on the horizon. Age has already eaten away at a team that took New Zealand cricket to unprecedented heights – BJ Watling, Ross Taylor, now Neil Wagner – and it will one day come for Southee and Williamson. “There is nothing so fleeting as sporting achievement, and nothing so lasting as the memory of it,” wrote Australian historian Greg Dening. It’s a sentiment both discomforting and consoling: hold tight to the memory of these two greats and perhaps the latter will win.

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