Match Analysis

Masterful Kane Williamson keeps calm and carries on

There was a period in the middle of the chase where New Zealand's captain kept hitting the field. That is a rare sight. But there was no panic, he knew what was needed

Kane Williamson ties the scores with a six, New Zealand v South Africa, Birmingham, June 19, 2019

Kane Williamson hit a six over midwicket to level the scores and followed it with a four to third man  •  Getty Images

It is the 25th over of the chase. Kane Williamson has caressed his way to 45 off 56. It is a slow pitch where every batsman has struggled because of the dual pace, but he has been smoother than the others. Lungi Ngidi runs in, Williamson punches sweetly again, but he hits straight to mid-off. Two balls later, another punch-drive, straight to mid-off again. Imran Tahir bowls the next over. A superb dive from Aiden Markram at cover denies Williamson runs. Williamson sweeps next ball, finds short fine this time.
Very rarely do you see a batsman of Williamson's skill hit the fielders four times in a row. "They were coming out of the middle too, which is seemingly enjoyable," he even says. Yet he is struggling with the placement. The problem is the team is four wickets down, South Africa are bowling straight lines, and he knows if he opens the face or hits across the line to try to find the gap, he is taking a risk because of the conditions. Jimmy Neesham, at the other end, is facing similar issues. The asking rate has gone from 5.42 to 6 in four overs, but the ESPNcricinfo forecaster has actually increased their chances of winning from 42.11% to 43.08%.
Williamson doesn't need a forecaster to tell him that. His mind has one. Four good shots for no run, eight straight dots, but he takes a calm single next ball. Not thinking of the possible 16 runs missed, but the 60 to get that can take New Zealand through. This is a master at work. In the 27th over, he hits what looks like million-dollar drives straight to mid-off and mid-on, but he is not anxious.
By the 30th over, the asking rate has gone up to 6.26, but the forecaster has taken them to a 55.24% chance of winning. However, Williamson is now reaching a slightly more urgent stage of the innings. He is going to target Andile Phehlukwayo because Kagiso Rabada is getting extra bounce to go with the slowness in the pitch. The whole 30th over is full of frustration. He hits straight to point, he mis-hits one to mid-off. He takes a break, walks to Neesham, knocks gloves, refocuses. The next ball he tries a pull, and the ball squeezes under the bat. He goes down, knocks the pitch with his bat. The next bottom edge narrowly evades the stumps.
When he is finding the timing, he is struggling to place the ball; when he is trying to place the ball, timing has deserted him. He batted with a control percentage of 82.14 in the first 24; in this phase it has come down to 71.05. And even when he is control, it is not yielding runs: strike rate from balls he is in control has gone down from 76 to 41.
The internal forecaster, though, is working. It is telling him it is all down to him. When Neesham's wicket will fall in the 33rd over, the forecaster will fall down from backing them 65.9% to 48.5% in one ball. Imagine if Williamson gets out at this point. That's not an option even if the asking rate keeps going up.
There are question marks on this batting unit outside himself, Ross Taylor and Tom Latham, and he is the only one left to answer those questions. No matter how in control of the asking rate you are, these continuous dot balls can be suffocating. You feel the walls are moving closer. You want a release.
In that moment only the real good ones have the clarity to do the right thing. Sometimes there is no right thing. Sometimes you get out trying to transfer the pressure back. Sometimes you eat up too many dots and then get out to leave the following batsmen a high asking rate. You just pick one thing and go with it. Williamson has clearly decided he is going to bat through the innings.
In Phehlukwayo's next over, Williamson tries to cut hard, and gets a bottom edge for four. He tries to whip across the line but still finds mid-on. He is hit on the back arm because he is early into a pull off Chris Morris. And this is not a slower ball. He is hit in the elbow later by one that skids off. This just is not a day for a pretty innings. The third man area - where he tends to score a high percentage of his singles - is plugged with a wide slip. He keeps trying that shot by instinct, but his soft hands keep making sure the ball falls in front of that slip.
There is not a lot else he can do right now except wait for the death overs where there are fewer decisions to make. His second 56 balls have brought just 31 runs. He has hit just 28 runs in boundaries in his first 92 runs, which is the 12th-lowest out of 170 innings of 80 or above in the last five years. After beginning like Kohli, he is now in the Dhoni mode in the same innings.
It is tempting to imagine he doesn't walk despite knowing he has edged Imran Tahir because it adds to the whole story, but Williamson hasn't felt it. In fact, he is going to challenge this if he is given out on the field. Yet the replays show a scratch. There is a run-out chance missed. It is David Miller this time. It was AB de Villiers four years ago. And yet, he and the risk-taking Colin de Grandhomme have brought New Zealand close enough for these to not matter a lot. We are into the final scramble, and in recent times the bowlers are under extra pressure in these stages.
Even in the final scramble, he takes it upon himself. The plan - with 12 required off seven - is to look for a single, but he somehow gets enough bat on a dab to beat the short third man to get a four. Point to be noted is: Williamson is backing himself to get 11 off the last over. He knows it is Phehlukwayo in the last over, he knows he can slog-sweep him if he delays the shot a little.
This has been an unkind tournament. It is poorly represented, the weather has not been co-operative, key players are getting injured, and we are staring at a lot of dead rubbers. This is a tournament crying out for some silken loving from the soft hands of Williamson, but for now we have to make do with the cussedness. There is some loving in that too.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo