Sports: Kane Williamson and the Art of Zen Cricket

Tipped by many to become New Zealand’s greatest ever batsman, 25-year old Kane Williamson has already scored 12 test centuries and 16 test half-centuries. Ben Stanley goes in search of his power, and finds the answer in the Four Noble Truths.

For Kane Williamson, it was just another shot played on the third morning of the second test against Australia in Perth.

A full, wider ball from veteran quick Mitchell Johnson was dispatched through the covers for four, taking the New Zealand score to 204 for 2, still 355 behind Australia. He held his shape, watched the ball go, and wandered down the pitch to meet Ross Taylor.

Taylor and Johnson will be the enduring stories of the drawn Perth test. Taylor’s sublime 290 is the third highest score by a Kiwi in a test, and the best ever by a touring batsman to Australia. Johnson – one of this generation’s top pace men – announced his retirement; finishing up an incredible fourth on the list of most wickets by an Australian test bowler.

But that stroke by Williamson, three balls before his 12th test century, showed yet another glimpse of That Something Special that we are used to hearing about from the Black Caps’ first drop these days.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 15:  Kane Williamson of New Zealand bats during day three of the second Test match between Australia and New Zealand at WACA on November 15, 2015 in Perth, Australia.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse - CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images)

PERTH, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 15: Kane Williamson of New Zealand bats during day three of the second Test match between Australia and New Zealand at WACA on November 15, 2015 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse – CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images)

Watch it again: the stillness of Williamson as Johnson strides in to bowl. Watch his bat-lift, timed to the ball’s release. Sense the assertiveness of his feet’s movement, leaning into the drive. The shape of his body and bat; clean and simple. The ball, so deftly struck that it would bisect cover fielders standing just two metres apart.

It was glorious cricket, the kind that causes eyes to widen; inducing a slow nod of the head from the casual and professional observer alike – each witness to something that could well be labeled as spiritual.

In David Foster Wallace’s celebrated 2006 essay on tennis in the New York Times, ‘Federer as Religious Experience,’ the celebrated American author explored the concept of ‘kinetic beauty’ in his favourite sport.

He argued, convincingly, that at his very best Roger Federer was the prime proponent of this in tennis; that the Swiss star combined style and subtlety with power to produce what he called ‘Federer Moments.’

The 25-year-old Williamson, over the last twelve months, has given Kiwi cricket fans his own moments. A few particular big ones come instantly to mind. That six against Australia at the World Cup at Eden Park. His golf-like chip over mid-wicket for four to bring up his first double ton against Sri Lanka at the Basin in January.

There are other moments, like that boundary through the covers in Perth, which appear multiple times within an innings – as spectators of his beautiful 140 against Australia at the Gabba a fortnight ago would attest to – and which pass without much direct interest from their creator.

More than ‘moments’, however, the religion of Williamson is built around faith. Faith that he will get the job done. You feel that as a fan. Steady the ship, Kane Williamson, right? His teammates feel it too: his bankable nature recently seeing the Tauranga lad earn the nickname ‘the Vault’ within the Black Caps camp.

As Kiwi cricket fans, we’ve had faith before, but probably only Martin Crowe gave it to us in the way Williamson does. Sure, we knew Mark Richardson would open the test batting and stonewall it for a couple of sessions. We knew, in one day internationals at least, that as long as Chris Harris was still to bat, there was a sniff of a chance for the Black Caps.

With Williamson, as with Crowe, the faith revolves around his mentality, and his intent. He doesn’t block out the first few overs to ‘get his eye’ in. If the ball is there to be hit, he hits it. Though that mentality will be explored later, part of this is down to just letting the ball come to him.

“That’s the beauty of Kane Williamson – he never really chases the ball,” former New Zealand test bowler Simon Doull tells The Spinoff.

“He waits until it is under his eyes. That’s the art of picking up line early, length early, and just having the ability to know your game so well that you can either defend or attack.”

Fostering that ‘time’ aspect is a combination of several things, believes Grand Bradburn, current Scotland national coach and Williamson’s first first-class coach at Northern Districts.

“It refers to lots of things,” he says. “It refers to his ability to observe and to take so many cues from the bowler.

“It refers to the timing of his pick-up, which I know is a significant thing for him. He’s obviously one who has a bit of a waver in his stance, with his bat. The timing of his back lift, in relation to the release of the ball, is important to him.”

If Williamson has the same impact on the viewer as Federer once had, one must look beyond the shape of his body or bat when he strikes the ball. Any international batsman who has earned their test spot can look good at the crease, and hit beautiful shots.

So if we can readily acknowledge the fine and flawless technique, let us instead revisit Foster Wallace’s notion that watching Federer was akin to witnessing some religious occurrence, and ponder how faith is fostered in a batsman.

What puts a person in the state of mind to play such shots – beautiful shots – over and over again? Maybe we have to look at the nature of cricket itself, before considering Williamson’s personal approach to his own game.

Like any sport, cricket boils down to moments of absolute pressure and tension. But unlike any other sport, the majority of a cricket match is comprised of the long pauses between those moments. A ball will be bowled, and for the batsman and bowler – and to a slightly lesser extent the fielders and wicketkeeper – the entire universe contracts into that action, of the ball, and how it is played.

Then nothing happens, for a fair while. And then there’s another intense moment. This goes on for hours, and, in the case of a test match, days. To that end, cricket is absolutely binary, lacking as it does in a potential null state: in cricket, either something is occurring, or nothing is occurring.

In rugby, you can be waiting on the wing, doing very little, while all the action is in the front row of a scrum. But the game is moving – it is in play. The winger might not be doing much, but important events still transpire. Even in tennis, Foster Wallace’s sporting passion, the moments are drawn out into rallies spread up to a minute. An action, and then a reaction, over and over again until the ball goes out, or a player can’t return a volley.

Not cricket. The success of the great batsman lies in his ability to live in the one moment of action,  to forget what has just happened – a poor shot, let’s say – and to disregard anything that may happen in the future, like calculating runs required for victory, run rates, or the fact he might be sitting just one short of a fifty, a century or a double.

Clearly, Don Bradman had it. Sachin Tendulkar – Williamson’s childhood hero – did too. Crowe did. Brian Lara could summon it, at times. Williamson, it seems, is in the process of mastering it.

The ability to detach completion from the result, and focus totally on the process, is essentially typical to the practice of Zen Buddhism – and to the pursuit of nirvana.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 15:  Kane Williamson of New Zealand celebrates after reaching his century during day three of the second Test match between Australia and New Zealand at WACA on November 15, 2015 in Perth, Australia.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse - CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images)

PERTH, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 15: Kane Williamson of New Zealand celebrates after reaching his century during day three of the second Test match between Australia and New Zealand at WACA on November 15, 2015 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse – CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images)

Zen Buddhism – a school of the larger religion – was founded in China nearly 3000 years ago, and revolves, largely, around the tracking of the Four Noble Truths to engage in the ultimate form of enlightenment, known also as nirvana or satori.

The Four Noble Truths can be worked into cricket framework, and perhaps be used to help explain Williamson’s improving ability at the crease.

The first of the Four Noble Truths says that to live is to suffer. Cricket is the same. Despite all your preparation or hours in the nets, there will be times when you will get worse than you deserve. A first-ball duck from a screaming yorker. A catch on the boundary after a fluent twenty-odd runs, after one poorly timed shot.

Anyone who has been near the Black Caps camp will tell you that Williamson is one of the hardest working, most well prepared batsmen you’ll ever find. For a tour to India, Williamson will put pebbles and stones on a net pitch surface so that deliveries will bounce off at unusual angles, simulating the at times unpredictable spin of sub-continental conditions.

Heading into the current Australian tour, he is said to have cranked the bowling machine up to 160km per hour, and faced ball after ball to simulate what he was going to get from the likes of Johnson and Mitchell Starc in Perth and Brisbane.

“Nobody prepares mentally and physically for a test match better than Kane Williamson,” Doull says. “There are no surprises for him.”

Yet Williamson is not exempt to mistakes, or bad shots. After scoring his test first century at Lord’s in June – something his hero Tendulkar was never able to do – Williamson gritted out a tough spell by the English quicks, only to lose his wicket to an unnecessary feathered shot to leg slip off Moeen Ali.

Williamson cocked up at the WACA too. The 24-year-old, in an otherwise chanceless first innings, lobbed a short, wide Josh Hazlewood delivery to Johnson at mid-on on 166. If he’d stuck around, there’s no reason why he couldn’t have reached a total like the one Taylor compiled.

A hand on his helmet as he walked from the field in Perth indicated that, no, he wasn’t happy with the shot. To play is to suffer.

Attachment is the cause of suffering, the Second Truth dictates. For a batsman, this comes in the shape of statistics, and in the notion that success is scoring a fifty or a hundred, or scoring better than a run a ball, or breaking personal records, or long-held international ones. Put stock in these things and, as a batsman, you will always suffer.

“I’ve never know Kane to get fixated with numbers or milestones,” Bradburn says.

“A player like Kane is always looking for quality movements, and quality shapes. He knows they are the recipe to scoring runs. The runs will just be a by-product of moving well, and having good shape, because he’s got so much trust in his ability that runs will just come.”

Gary Hermansson, New Zealands leading sports psychologist, takes Bradburn’s point further.

“Cricket is a very mentally demanding game,” he says, “and the reason for that is it is full of outcome issues,”

Hermansson has worked with the Black Caps before, and will be the New Zealand Olympic Team’s psychologist at the Rio Games. When it comes to focus in high-level sport, Hermansson knows his onions.

“You have to get off the mark. You have to get twenty or thirty. You get into the forties, and you become vulnerable because you’re thinking about fifty.

“A lot of the mental stuff with cricket is just focusing on the task at hand. Often batsman play slightly ahead of themselves, and they can get anxious about how things turn out. When that happens, the mind and body get out of sync.”

Blackcaps coach Mike Hesson once theorised that Williamson would probably have many more personal milestones if he ever put his own statistics before the needs of the team. It was a sincere compliment.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 15:  Kane Williamson of New Zealand bats during day three of the second Test match between Australia and New Zealand at the WACA on November 15, 2015 in Perth, Australia.  (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

PERTH, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 15: Kane Williamson of New Zealand bats during day three of the second Test match between Australia and New Zealand at the WACA on November 15, 2015 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Reinforcing this point, the Third Noble Truth says suffering is eliminated by letting go of attachment. In cricket, that means letting go those goals of big run totals, forgetting them altogether, and focussing on the process. How does one react to a delivery? What shot should one play for a certain short ball, a fuller one, or a 160km per hour screamer at the toes?

“Williamson can let all that go,” Hermansson says.

“Every ball just becomes an incident in itself. He seems to be able to just break down what the demand is, at that moment.

“It’s almost like nothing is going on except the particular ball that he is facing.”

The Fourth, and final, Noble Truth lies in how nirvana can be attained; achieved through meditation, or time spent searching within. In cricket, this can come about by a complete focus on preparation and the process of technique.

Process in refining technique is just as important, Bradburn says that Williamson would come into the nets with a particular part of his batting he’d want to address and work on it over and over again, until he had it sorted in his head.

Be it accessing different areas of the field with his strokes by changing grips, or via the de-weighting of his front or back foot, Williamson could be there five minutes, or five hours – whatever length of time was required to address his query.

“The majority of players you work with, as a coach, are looking to just hit the ball nicely, or time the ball nicely,” Bradburn says. “The result is what they are looking for, whereas Kane is always looking for the process.”

With the zen template in place, Williamson’s ability, or improving ability, becomes clearer. It is all process for him. Runs? Williamson may not even be able to tell you his top five scores of all-time, or even remember what he scored in Perth in ten years time.

What he might tell you, perhaps, is how well he hit the ball behind point in that knock, or about the drive that ripped between the two fielders in the covers.

The accolades have rained down almost constantly on Williamson over the last 12 months. Crowe believes the young master will end his career as New Zealand’s greatest batsman, while legendary Australian skipper Alan Border recently noted that if he needed someone to bat for his life, it’d be Williamson.

How many runs he will score by the time he finally pulls stumps, and what records fall in the mean time are things for others to ponder. What is more readily quantifiable is Williamson’s eagerness to learn, dedication to process, and mindfulness.

“I think he can get better,” Bradburn says. “He’s young, scoring some significant runs at the moment, and that will snowball if he can keep himself physically fit.

“There’s no reason why he can’t produce bigger and bigger scores, by delaying his dismissal for even longer – because I’m sure that’s all he thinks about.”

“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty,” Foster Wallace wrote of tennis in that famous essay.

Beauty is not the goal of cricket, either. It is runs on the board, or batsmen back in the pavilion, depending on what side of the equation you sit.  For a batsman, understanding their processes at the crease better enables them to score more runs, to stay in the middle longer, and ultimately, give their team a better chance of winning.

Preparation, mindfulness and ability to reset; that is Williamson’s goal when he is batting. The by-product, though – those gorgeous cricket shots, and his shy, sheepish way of holding up his cricket bat  to acknowledge a milestone – are things of beauty.

We are all witnesses.

The Spinoff Sports is brought to you by World Golf Pass – click here to subscribe and watch the PGA, LPGA and European Tour live and on demand.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.