By Saurabh Somani, ESPNcricinfo,
How do you fit Kane Williamson into a T20 side? On the one hand, there is the undoubted class. On the other, a T20 strike rate of 125.00 stares you in the face. When teams are looting 80 runs, 90 runs in the last four overs, when Andre Russell has twice got his side over the line with 50 runs needed in the last three in IPL 2019, where is the space for someone who’s scoring at Williamson’s rate? Even anchors need to be quicker in T20’s quickly changing dynamic.
Williamson is a highly intelligent cricketer, so it’s fair to assume he has worked this out. He’s also a highly skilled cricketer, and the results of his working out could be seen when he took the field for the first time in IPL 2020, against the Delhi Capitals. Coming in at 92 for 2 in the 12th over is more Rishabh Pant or Hardik Pandya or AB de Villiers territory. But Williamson dived into the innings as if he had been performing the role of a finisher for seasons. At the other end, Jonny Bairstow struggled to pierce the gaps or clear the boundary, even as Williamson kept the Sunrisers ticking over.
If you had not watched the game and were told a third-wicket stand between Bairstow and Williamson produced 52 runs in 39 balls, with one batsman contributing 14 off 17, and the other carting 38 off 21 – who would you have thought fulfilled each role? Williamson not only outscored Bairstow, but he also outpaced him by more than double.
Of course, that Williamson has done it once is no guarantee he can do it repeatedly, or even once again. But there is a precedent with Williamson and the IPL. Whether it’s to do with the competition, his franchise, or his new role wherein he isn’t the team’s primary batting hope, we can only guess – but in the IPL so far in his sixth season, Williamson averages 38.37 at a strike rate of 135.65, both substantially greater than his career T20 numbers.
This is despite not finding a regular spot in the XI, save for IPL 2018 when David Warner’s ball-tampering ban meant Williamson captained and played all through. That year, in fact, marked a watershed in Williamson’s T20 career. Until then, his numbers in T20 cricket were bleak: an average of 26.72 at a strike rate of 118.01. But at the Sunrisers in 2018, something clicked into place and starting with that tournament, he has been averaging 41.07 and striking at 141.52. Those are elite figures for an anchor, which is what Williamson has largely remained.
Mike Hesson was one of the Select Dugout commentators that year. He had just relinquished his duties as New Zealand coach, and he felt that what unlocked Williamson the T20 player was the security of his spot in the XI coupled with the greater freedom that playing for the Sunrisers brought, as opposed to the weightier responsible role he had to take on for New Zealand. “He has grown more confident taking on the boundary fielders because when he plays for New Zealand his role is not that,” Hesson had told ESPNcricinfo then, analysing the reasons for his success. But once he discovered the T20 batsman in him, Williamson seems to have run with it.
Perhaps that’s what led to him effortlessly slipping into a new role, albeit with his own method. Before he got out, he had faced just two dot balls in 25. Now, in T20 cricket, it’s been well established that boundaries are a lot more significant than dot balls, but where Williamson prospered was in achieving a blend of boundaries and busyness at the crease. Running hard and converting ones into twos can keep a player busy, but it won’t be the ideal outcome towards the end overs. Williamson, though, hit every fifth ball he faced to the fence too. He was looking to manipulate the field, being inventive with his shot making and moving around freely, either down the wicket or sideways, to create an angle that could be exploited.
And, not that he got extra runs for doing it, Williamson did it while appearing supremely unruffled like he always does. He could probably radiate serenity while fighting dragons, so this was not surprising. The dynamics of Williamson’s inclusion, though, made this particular zen mode more impressive.
He was facing one of the 2020 IPL’s strongest bowling attacks and three overs from its most potent death bowler in Kagiso Rabada. He had been included ahead of Mohammad Nabi, not only an acknowledged T20 hitter but an allrounder whose primary suit is his offspin. That meant two things: one that the Sunrisers would have to find four overs from non-frontline bowlers, and second, that they didn’t have a skilled offspinner against a batting line-up that had four left-handers in their top seven: Shikhar Dhawan, Rishabh Pant, Shimron Hetmyer and Axar Patel. Warner would later agree that it was a “big call” picking Williamson.
So Williamson didn’t just have to score to justify his inclusion, he had to score enough to cover for four overs that the Capitals could potentially attack. And he had to do it with a batting partner who was struggling to put the ball away.
What helped him was that this was not a pitch on which you could plant your foot across and ransack the bowling, and the outfield was big enough that sixes wouldn’t be the norm. The Sunrisers won’t get such conditions in every game. But as the tournament goes on, with the natural wear and tear the venues – particularly Abu Dhabi and Dubai – will be subject to, there is the distinct possibility of having more games where 160-170 is the par score rather than 200. And in those circumstances, Williamson’s brand of quietly efficient batting could serve the Sunrisers well.
So how do you fit Kane Williamson into a T20 side? If you’re the Sunrisers Hyderabad, you get the right conditions, and a man whose recent batting belies his overall numbers, and completes your middle-order jigsaw.
Main photo: Kane Williamson found gaps with surgical precision (BCCI)