The cult of Kane
They speak in whispers across the nation. There is high regard, but it rarely climbs to reverence. His cricket is sensational now, "But wait and watch a few years," fans say. "Just how good do you think he could be?" No bad words are spoken. The admiration is unreserved, but like the man himself, restrained. He is small. He is quiet. He is flabbergastingly good. Welcome to the cult of Kane.
It is a sports following like few others, because although Williamson can rarely be prodded to speak on his likes, his peeves, his desires or his background, his fans feel they understand him. Often, they give descriptions that are at once entirely simplistic, but profoundly appropriate. "Kane just loves to bat," some say. "He was born to do it," say others. Many more lead with: "He's one player that doesn't just rely on his talent. For a young guy he's hit so many balls."
Little in sport is more enchanting than this confluence of raw talent and tireless refinement. Williamson is prodigious and professional; the lifelong love of the craft of batting as irrepressible as his century celebrations are muted. In an age in which maiden Test tons spark whoops, hollers, leaps and flailing, Williamson's trip to triple figures on debut inspired only a bashful bat-raise in Ahmedabad. In 13 hundreds and a match-flipping double-ton since, he has been no less measured. But that cover drive radiates affection for the game. The back-foot punch is simple but well-rehearsed. Fans love that. How refreshing for a sportsman to convey so much while saying so little.
Only so much is known of his beginnings, save to say New Zealand's cricket fraternity was alerted a new star may be on the horizon when Williamson was piling up centuries for his high school in Tauranga. His hometown is beautiful, unassuming and disproportionately favoured by the aged: the perfect setting for cricket's youngest old soul. "He's only 24, but in our group, he's already a leader," Brendon McCullum keeps saying of him. Williamson's locker of strokes has begun to expand dramatically. He is becoming an all-format performer of the modern age. But timeless sensibility underpins his cricket. The risks are wise and his go-to shots well worn. This is almost impossible not to appreciate.
He plays in a team flaunting impetuosity and skill, but watching Williamson bat is a different experience entirely, because his work always seems a reverie. All the great players of large innings enter a batting trance they say, and when Williamson enters his, little seems to exist for him but the next ball and the next run. Once, while saving a Test against South Africa at the Basin in 2012, Williamson blew a bubble with the gum he'd been chewing all day, just as he stroked Morne Morkel through the covers.
Williamson is dropped more often than other batsman, which Martin Crowe feels is a result of passive body language. "Fielding sides are not sharp when he is at the crease, often spilling catches that would otherwise be taken if a sharper focus was created," Crowe says. Perhaps that is true, but his admirers need no more reason than karma. "Who deserves the luck more than Kane?" they ask.
There is the fielding too, which is the surest way into a New Zealand fan's heart. At gully, Williamson is now almost surely peerless. Fully-flung and airborne, almost every tour he takes a catch there, like a cartoon character clinging to a speeding train. These are the moments in which he is most animated - when his teammates crowd around to ruffle his hair and lift him off the ground. Dwarfed sometimes by everyone but Brendon McCullum, he seems like the beloved kid brother. When he struck that six to win a tight World Cup match against New Zealand's most rivalrous opponents, he was kid brother to a nation.
On Tuesday, as New Zealand prepared for their seventh World Cup semi-final, Brendon McCullum batted away suggestions their opponents were chokers. "Both teams have grown up in the past four years," he said - their last World Cup meeting in Mirpur having been a dogfight of the cricketing and verbal variety. New Zealand have now embraced a philosophy of respect, selflessness and unrelenting commitment to the team cause. For men like McCullum, Tim Southee, and even Ross Taylor, whose ego had understandably been bruised by the captaincy fiasco, these virtues have been adopted over time; they were not innate.
Of all the reasons to admire Williamson, perhaps this is what fans find most compelling: he will be among the youngest to take the field on Wednesday, but he ties together humility and excellence and epitomises this new New Zealand culture. He has not yet played five years of top cricket, but by just being himself, he has shown a struggling team the way.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando