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Feature

How Williamson looks at big moments and takes their power away

The New Zealand batter has a system that insulates him from the make-or-break nature of his sport

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
15-Mar-2023
Kane Williamson dove to safety and gave New Zealand the win, New Zealand vs Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Christchurch, 5th day, March 13, 2023

Kane Williamson often finds himself in the thick of it  •  AFP/Getty Images

On July 15, 2019, Kane Williamson cracked a joke about still being able to crack a joke.
He was standing in front of a group of journalists, all of whom were all but ready to drop the professional act and give him just the biggest hug.
So Williamson defused the tension.
Of all the things that make up this man, and we see very little of him beyond his artistry at the crease and his modesty on the mic, this is the most incredible one.
The way he looks at big moments on the field and takes away their power.
Then-New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said the nation had all "aged" watching the Super Over. James Neesham sent out a PSA for kids not to take up sport: "Die at 60 really fat and happy." Williamson understood the significance of it - of how close they were to becoming the first Black Caps team to win a World Cup - but he wouldn't let it define him. Heck, he wouldn't even give other people that opportunity. And so a press conference with the losing captain the day after he took part in the greatest ODI of all time turned into something oddly matter-of-fact.

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Williamson is staring at the big screen just like everybody else. If he is anxious, he is hiding it well. The replays are focused on his dive to get to the non-striker's end. It's uncomfortably tight.
"He's got him," someone says in the commentary box. "He's safe," says someone else.
The tension's rising. Slow motion isn't helping. And then comes the roar. The Hagley Oval crowd bursts into applause. Several of them are on their feet. They are all toasting a second Test match win for the ages in the space of two weeks. And yet the man who orchestrated them both celebrates with just a small, little smile.
If ever there was a time to get carried away, it was this. And yet all he did was bow his head in sweet relief. Honestly, people open their mail with more excitement than Williamson winning a five-day match off its final ball.

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MS Dhoni introduced the word "process" into our world as a way to take his players - who are expected to be nothing less than perfect by over a billion taskmasters - out of their heads. It wasn't necessarily revolutionary but it was coming from an authority figure who for some strange reason wasn't so worried about the results. It was like sitting in class and hearing your teacher say exams don't matter so long as you actually learn something. It was freeing.
India give a lot of their power away to the game; players and fans alike treat it like it is the only thing that matters in their lives. And that's neither helpful nor healthy. The greatest trick Dhoni ever pulled had nothing to do with sixes hit in the last over or trophies won out of nowhere. It was breaking all of cricket down and rebuilding it as a series of events that he and his men could control; a series of events that they had power over.
There is a New Zealand team that has to deal with such extremes, but it's not the one Williamson plays for. The demands on him, the scrutiny on him, are kinder.

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A chase of 285 comes down to the last over. The equation is five off three. Pretty much everyone is out on the fence. Asitha Fernando is in the middle of an inspired spell, going nose-or-toes-nose-or-toes. The margin of error - for the batting side especially - is non-existent, which only means the potential for things to go wrong is at its peak.
Williamson has a system that insulates him from this toxicity. A home that reminds him his value as a person doesn't depend on his success as a sportsman. And a workplace that marks wins and losses in almost the same way - by getting together and having a beer.
All of this gives him clarity and that clarity unleashes his genius.
What happens when one of the best players in the world realises he doesn't have to look back and feel haunted by the matches he could have won? That he can just take pleasure from the fact that he was good enough to be in those places.
Based on the events in Christchurch, it puts Williamson in a state of mind where he can harness all his talent, all his hand-eye coordination and all his timing and hit a game-breaking boundary, beating not one but two deep points, even though they had a 50-metre head start on the ball and there was barely a gap between them; at best it was the length of a pitch. Power and precision don't usually go so well together without help from a green screen.
Williamson has now been central to three of the greatest Test results of the last five years. In Abu Dhabi 2018, as his gamble on a debutant paid off and Pakistan collapsed from 130 for 3 to 171 all out in a chase of 176, he was seen walking towards the huddle with the energy of an extra trying not to mess up the shot instead of the hero who should be taking curtain call. As if to him it was all just academic. Ajaz Patel was a spinner. It was a day four pitch. He had just taken three wickets in four overs. The last pair was in. One of them was Azhar Ali who doesn't match up well against slow left-armers. The other was a No. 11 and they sometimes find the temptation to hit the ball in the air extremely hard to resist. In such a high-pressure situation, Williamson was able to let logic in, and it helped his team win; it would have helped reduce the burden if they had lost too.
The same thing happened in 2017. Australia's ninth wicket had fallen when they were 61 runs off. Now they needed seven. Williamson went to Tim Southee and hatched a plan. You bowl full. Make the guy on 146 not out hit straight. I'll be at short mid-on and try to run out the No. 11 who, given it's the last ball of the over, will be trying to do everything he can to stay off strike. Hazlewood strayed. Williamson pounced.
Staying calm and alert and centred. This is what he does and perhaps the most famous instance of his doing so was in 2015 when he launched Pat Cummins high into the night sky and sent a stadium that the All Blacks frequent - so they should be used to seeing amazing things - into rapture. Forty-thousand people were busy losing it but the man in the thick of it all would indulge in a fist pump that was almost apologetic when there was grounds to be apoplectic. This was victory over the arch-rivals with just one wicket to spare and he acknowledged it by being slightly more than deadpan.
Each of these times New Zealand lurched from losing a game they fought so hard for to winning one they had no business doing; from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs, and yet they had absolutely nothing over Williamson. He actually forgot all about the run-out in 2017 because when a seven-year-old asked him about it, he began talking about an entirely different match altogether.
In some ways, Williamson is well placed to be this way, to escape the bonds that come with greatness. Virat Kohli can't do that. He can't even be sure of the privacy inside his own hotel room. Joe Root can't do that. He scored all the runs in the world in 2021 and still all anybody asked of him was why his team kept playing so badly. Steven Smith can't do that. He once made a mistake that made the Australian prime minister mad. It is perhaps the one critical advantage he has over the rest of the fab four. He can afford to be detached. It doesn't mean he doesn't want to win. Just that, more often than not, he is in the best headspace to do so.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo