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Revitalised Williamson returns to scene of his debut heroics ready for fresh IPL challenge

After an IPL to forget in 2022, he has a new franchise, a fit-again elbow and - having given up captaincy - a freed-up mind to help him find his best form again

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Kane Williamson says he is not "burdened" by his elbow anymore  •  Gujarat Titans

Kane Williamson says he is not "burdened" by his elbow anymore  •  Gujarat Titans

As you enter the lounge area of the Gujarat Cricket Association (GCA) inside the Motera complex in Ahmedabad, you see plenty of cricket photographs adorning the walls on all four sides. Kane Williamson is seen in the background of one of them, in which India's prime minister and then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is seen shaking hands with Jeetan Patel.
That picture is from 13 years ago, from the same Ahmedabad Test where Williamson became New Zealand's youngest debutant centurion. That day, as he removed his helmet to acknowledge the applause of his team-mates, all Williamson managed was a shy smile along with his raised bat. In fact, Daniel Vettori, his captain, was the more animated of the two as he ran over to put his arm around the youngster's shoulder, embraced him in a big hug and handed out a few pats on his back.
That baby-faced, fresh-out-of-teens kid who didn't even have stubble back then now returns to Ahmedabad for the first time since that hundred. Still, he's as calm as a sage, but now he comes with a with a full-fledged beard that he often tends to as he speaks at a media interaction organised by Gujarat Titans, the reigning IPL champions. One second, he's reminiscing about his debut in the city, the next he's speaking of being part of two thrilling Tests within a month and hopping onto the next flight to India.
He's also asked about his prospects of being in Titans' starting XI, and the hurt of not being retained by Sunrisers Hyderabad. Williamson is focused and unhurried. When there's chatter in the foreground, he stops and waits patiently before he continues. And, as he speaks, as always, there's an air of calm around him.
"My cricketing brain certainly hasn't been switched off," he warms up with a laugh, when asked about how life has been since he decided to give up Test captaincy in December. "When you're out on the field, you're trying to do as much as you can for the team. Whether that's assisting where you can when you're called upon for your ideas or otherwise.
"It's quite a natural thing to be engaged in the game but having said that it [the decision to step down as Test captain] has taken a little bit off my plate, which was a large part of the reason for making that decision. Often, it's the parts around it [captaincy], where you get a little bit more time back. I've always thought it was never a 'forever job', it requires a lot of energy, and I really enjoyed my time in that specific role. I do enjoy being involved in leadership, which is basically helping where I can."
"Less commitments off the field" has come as a relief. "It's been a really enjoyable thing in terms of playing under Tim Southee, who is captaining the Test team and doing a great job," Williamson says. "Having said that, there's transition involved [of going from captain to just a player] without a doubt, there's perhaps less commitments off the field.
"It's still a change, something that I'm experiencing at the moment and working through. I'm fortunate to have a number of leaders in the New Zealand environment. And then to come here and have Hardik [Pandya] captaining the side, it's something I'm excited about as well."
Williamson isn't just reinvigorated in mind, but he's also no longer worried about his "niggling elbow", which for so long had forced him to manage his workloads and sometimes even curbed certain shots or long throws at training.
That elbow certainly appeared to have an effect on his batting. At IPL 2022, Williamson scored just 216 runs in 13 innings. His strike rate of 93.50 was the slowest among batters who faced at least 100 balls in the season. This time around, Williamson believes he's in as good a physical state as he's been before.
"My cricketing brain certainly hasn't been switched off. When you're out on the field, you're trying to do as much as you can for the team. Whether that's assisting where you can when you're called upon for your ideas or otherwise."
Just because he's not captain anymore doesn't mean Kane Williamson switches off in the field
"Yeah, it was something that was improving slowly all the time, it was requiring management," he explains. "It's a lot better now and it's not something that is restricting me in terms of training loads, playing and all those things. Although no injury is ideal and often injuries require time to heal, working through this was no different. It's nice to be back playing, training and not be burdened by it."
Think Williamson and the IPL, and it's hard to not imagine him in the orange uniform of Sunrisers Hyderabad, whom he had played for since 2015 and captained since 2018 before being let go after the 2022 season. But a change of teams and perspective, and being unshackled by leadership duties, could just free him up to play a key role, possibly at the top of the order with Shubman Gill.
If Williamson pulls it off, helping Titans extend their debut-season success, chances are he'll find himself in another big photo frame in the GCA lounge, with himself more front and centre, when he potentially returns to the Motera later this year for the ODI World Cup.

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo