April 1, 2012

Williamson's a star in the making

His second century drew praise from the likes of Neil Harvey and Barry Richards. New Zealand will be served well if he keeps it going

The acclaimed 1941 American drama Citizen Kane was said to have been "majestic, elegant and noble". Such words might well apply to New Zealand's latest batting hero, Kane Williamson. His match-saving, brave unconquered 102 against a quality South African attack at the Basin Reserve in Wellington the other day was truly magnificent.

At one stage he was hit in the nether region, his protective box split, leaving him writhing on the ground in pain and copping a few unkind words from the fieldsmen about him. But the youngster settled down and gritted his teeth, displaying a John Reid-like determination to bat on regardless.

The South Africans launched an all-out assault on Williamson. He was peppered with bouncer after bouncer and he weathered the storm stoically, every now and then launching a cover drive, savage pull or deft back-cut - shots of which the elegant Michael Clarke would be justly proud. In fact, Williamson reminds me of the young Clarke. As Clarke opened his Test account with a century on debut against India, so too did Williamson, hitting 131 in Ahmedabad in November 2010.

This week's century, his second, one that anyone at the Basin Reserve who saw it will never forget, was made with the same bat he used to flay the Wellington attack at the same venue to the tune of 284 not out last summer.

Until his latest Test hundred, Williamson had disappointed his many admirers in that he often got starts but had mostly failed to capitalise on those promising beginnings. Often he would fall when you had the feeling he was right on top. But this time the 21-year-old blossoming champion matched wits with the clever Dale Steyn, whose Test record (54 games for 272 wickets at 23.18) almost beggars belief.

Steyn has a beautifully balanced approach but he operates (England, please note) from close to the stumps all of the time, shaping the ball away. Williamson discovered, as the canny old fast bowler Alan Davidson, who sat with me at Basin Reserve, observed, that Steyn did not at any stage use the width of the crease. Had he done so, his outswing would have been far more effective, for delivering from wider of the crease would have enabled him to angle in towards the right-hander, then straighten or even go slightly away, thus luring the batsman into a forward push and giving him a greater chance of catching the edge. Similarly Vernon Philander, who operates from close to the stumps, would benefit from using the width of the crease. Too often Steyn and Philander wasted chances in Wellington because they bowled too wide of off stump.

Not so Morne Morkel. He bowled with sustained pace and took all wickets to fall, including Dean Brownlie and Daniel Vettori with consecutive balls, both deadly yorkers.

Williamson has a solid defence and an array of strokes, including flowing cover- and off drives, and an ability with shots off his pads to consistently find gaps on the on side. His old-fashioned late cuts, which surely must be a throwback to those seen in the days of Victor Trumper, Charlie Macartney, Jack Hobbs and Denis Compton, gladdened the heart of Neil Harvey, arguably Australia's greatest batman since Don Bradman. Williamson's artistry and good old-fashioned guts brought generous praise also from former South African champion Barry Richards, who was at the ground as a TV commentator.

In 12 Tests Williamson now averages a shade above 36, but those figures will rise markedly in the next few summers. New Zealand might need a bit more steel in their bowling line-up, but the batting is starting to take on a look of class and depth.

Opener Martin Guptill has a lot of ability, and can bat for long periods. However, against South Africa, while he looked as solid as a rock, he almost batted himself into a state of inertia. He wasn't going anywhere until he finally got one that kept low in the first innings, and batting a second time, he was caught in the gully when his defence had looked virtually impenetrable. To move forward as a Test match opening batsman, Guptill must learn to rotate the strike. That way he will score many more runs during his time at the crease. If a batsman gets totally bogged down against quality bowling, it is only a matter of time before the first false shot ends in disaster.

Ross Taylor is a class act with the bat, so too Brendon McCullum, although Taylor has something of a dilemma in just where to bat McCullum. His natural way is all-out attack, and Taylor needs to discover whether to use him as an opener, at No. 3 or in the middle order. On his day McCullum can flay any attack, but often his shot selection falls off the radar.

The little dynamo keeper, Kruger van Wyk, showed he can bat in a crisis; so too Doug Bracewell, who has all the attributes of the tough and talented Bracewell clan.

Vettori is having a problem with his bowling, which can be easily fixed, so watch for improved performances from the talented left-arm spinner. He provides lots of grit in the middle order with the bat.

Let us hope that coach John Wright has free rein to teach and encourage in the way he knows will be successful and that there is no interference from others close to the team, for New Zealand are heading in the right direction, and Williamson is one young gun with success in his sights.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

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