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Can Williamson achieve greatness in captaincy?

Somewhere around bored o'clock during the third Test between New Zealand and South Africa in Wellington in March 2012, after Kane Williamson had been struck on the shoulder, the arm and the box, but before he raised his bat to a match-saving century, one member of the media pack, who had spent lunchtime imbibing in a sponsor's box, spoke the most memorable sentence of the tour.

"That guy," our colleague with a voice that scratched like sandpaper said. "He's gonna be a great player."

The rest of us shot each other sideways glances of bemusement. The local journalists had seen Williamson score a century on debut, and not much after then. The foreign ones, myself included, were impressed by his stoicism against a fiery South African attack, but we didn't think he was that good. If anyone knew that Williamson had 40 hundreds to his name by the time he left school, they didn't say so. Instead, some of us rolled our eyes, others giggled under their breath, and even when Williamson saw out the draw, we were far from convinced.

Williamson's century was not enough to earn him the Man-of-the-Match award - that went to Morne Morkel - so our only interaction with him was the next day, at the airport. Some of us from the press corps had a brief chat with him and he wished us well on our travels. We concluded that he was a nice kid, soft-spoken and thoughtful, but we still didn't see any signs of greatness.

When the South Africans next encountered Williamson - in a Test series in early 2013 - nothing about New Zealand seemed great. They lost both matches by margins of more than an innings and appeared completely out of their depth.

Things started to change towards the end of the trip, when they redeemed themselves, and Williamson was responsible for it. He struck an unbeaten 145 in the second ODI, in Kimberley, to give New Zealand a first series win in any format in South Africa. Williamson's innings was an aggressive but polished display that combined his ability to punish anything overpitched and to play spin. Suddenly the phrase "great player" did not seem too much of a leap.

"He has his own thoughts on the game, yet will be a very inclusive captain. He will find that right balance between being one of the lads and the leader"

Jason Gillespie

At the time, Brendon McCullum called Williamson's and the team's achievement "phenomenal", and said Williamson's innings was "as good as we've seen from a New Zealander". No one knew it then but that tour would also be the catalyst for a complete change in New Zealand cricket.

In the two years that followed, they went from being a fractured group that was unable to settle on a captain after Ross Taylor was sacked, or command respect for the coach (one of the few on the circuit who had not played professional cricket at any level), to a united outfit. They stole hearts and put smiles on faces during their magical run to the final of the 2015 World Cup, in a campaign defined by the power of dreaming big and having fun.

Central to all that was Williamson. Although he operated mostly in McCullum's shadow, he racked up runs in series wins over India and West Indies, and in a closely contested drawn outing against Pakistan in the UAE. He scored carefully in Tests and quickly in shorter formats, and quietly climbed the batting rankings.

These days he sits second on the Test rankings, fourth on the ODI charts and sixth in T20s. It is believed that he will finish as New Zealand's best batsman ever.

If he can translate that potential into his other job - leadership - he may be their most successful cricketer. That's a lot of expectation for a 25-year-old to carry, especially as he only sits on the eve of his captaincy debut, but those who know Williamson don't think it's too much for him to handle.

"He is very mature and does not let much faze him," Jason Gillespie, Williamson's coach at Yorkshire, told ESPNcricinfo. He has the right personality and temperament to lead New Zealand in all formats. It is the right time for Kane to make the step, and I have no doubt he will be a very good captain."

Although Williamson did not captain at the county, Gillespie has seen in him all the qualities to do the job. The one that stands out is a willingness to learn. "He has his own thoughts on the game, yet will be a very inclusive captain and be open to suggestions and feedback. He will find that right balance between being one of the lads and the leader," Gillespie said. "What he will do well is take on board advice, suggestions and feedback, but no one will be left in any doubt who is in charge. He communicates very well, from what I have seen at Yorkshire in his time with us."

Williamson has the advantage of having inherited from McCullum a team on the up, with an ingrained culture that does not need much tweaking. "Brendon is someone Kane has and will continue to look up to and seek advice from," Gillespie said. "They are really good mates and I see Kane simply looking to build on to the culture that New Zealand cricket already have."

Already Williamson has spoken about how McCullum's ideology of smart cricket will serve him on his first assignment, which will be tricky if only because it presents so much of the unexpected. New Zealand have not toured Zimbabwe for a Test series in five years, and even then it was only for a one-off Test. Bulawayo has not hosted any Test cricket since then, so no one really knows what to expect from the conditions except that they are likely to be slow and low and favour a more old-fashioned style of play than what we have become used to in recent years.

The strength of the opposition aside, New Zealand will want to get the better of the conditions. "We are looking to play smart all the time, as the team did under Brendon, who was obviously fantastic and we've all learnt so much playing under him," Williamson said. "We are looking to be aggressive but at the same time skinning it. In certain countries you do it differently."

"Williamson seems to understand how to separate work from his personal life. He does not have a Twitter or Instagram account, which allows himself a degree of privacy"

Then they move on to South Africa, the scene of that embarrassing display early in 2013. This time, though, New Zealand could even consider themselves favourites. They are ranked fifth, a place above South Africa in Tests, and will have game time under their belts, unlike the hosts, who have not played a Test since January. The Zimbabwe experience will also ensure New Zealand are better equipped for early-season conditions in South Africa. All things considered, Williamson could eye this as a chance to claim a massive scalp early in his tenure and he knows it.

"There's so many opportunities that lie ahead. For us as a team, it's very much about the next game and the next series and we are looking to continually improve as a team. We know if we are doing that, we will be playing better cricket," he said.

But with everything Williamson has to look forward to, he will undoubtedly also meet some obstacles along the way, chiefly around the structuring of his own schedule. "Kane's biggest challenge is to find that cricket-life balance," Gillespie said. "He is captain in all three formats of the game, and of a country that travels more than any other, in part due to their geographical location. New Zealand have a heavy itinerary over the next period.

"The life of a modern cricketer is fantastic - lots of options and opportunity. However, we have to remember that first and foremost they are people, and while it can be a glamorous lifestyle with lots of perks, at the end of the day everyone needs a recharge every now and again."

Williamson seems to understand how to separate work from his personal life. He does not have a Twitter or Instagram account, which allows him a degree of privacy. He has also showed an awareness of the importance of time out. He asked to sit out a first-class match for Yorkshire, citing mental fatigue, which could also have been related to his form. Williamson scored just 42 runs from four first-class innings before taking a break. He has since declared himself ready for the African adventure and the chance to become the great player someone once predicted he would be.