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'Be who you are, play your best cricket, make the best decisions you can'

Kane Williamson talks captaincy, batting, and how Sunrisers Hyderabad made it to the IPL playoffs

Nagraj Gollapudi
Twenty-eight runs needed off 12 balls. Kane Williamson is at the crease, along with Yusuf Pathan, against Delhi Daredevils on May 5 in Hyderabad.  Williamson's  New Zealand team-mate Trent Boult pitches full outside off, but the length is good enough for Pathan to get the ball high over long-on for a six. Boult pitches accurately next delivery and thinks he has Pathan plumb in front of leg stump. The umpire raises his finger.
Williamson furiously urges Yusuf to review. Turns out, the ball pitched a fraction outside leg, giving Yusuf a second chance. He blasts the next ball, a low full toss, wide outside off stump, for a four. Minutes later, Williamson hits the winning boundary with a delicate flick, to help Sunrisers chase down their highest target at their home ground.
Ten days later, reminded about the review, Williamson lets out a chuckle. "Yeah, yeah. That was quite high-stakes," he says. "Yusuf, he thought he was out. I know Trent well, and he obviously wasn't going to be swinging the ball back. So I thought there might be a chance, so use it and see what happens. Thank goodness, it was just outside the line and he [Yusuf] went on to hit a few more boundaries. It is amazing how fine a line these games can be at times."
That victory was part of a six-match winning streak achieved by Sunrisers, the longest by any team this IPL. It began in Mumbai, where they defended a paltry 118 against the defending champions, and stretched to Delhi, where Williamson and Shikhar Dhawan counterattacked to get to a 188-run target with seven deliveries to spare.
Though they lost their last three league matches, Sunrisers were the first to make the playoffs, and for the first time, they finished in the top two on the points table at the end of the league stage. That they were able to reach such heights was in large part due to the captaincy of Williamson, who currently happens to be not just their best batsman but also the most prolific one in the IPL this year.
Kane Williamson's run-scoring in IPL 2018
Balls range Runs Balls faced SR Balls per boundary Dot% Dismissals
1-10 169 137 123.4 5.48 40.9 2
11-20 146 122 119.7 8.13 32.0 2
21-30 164 101 162.4 5.05 22.8 1
30+ 206 117 176.1 4.88 18.8 7

During the six-match winning run in the middle of the league phase, Sunrisers defended some of the lowest totals by any team this season. A day after winning in Mumbai (who were embarrassingly bowled out for 87 in that 118 game) Sunrisers' batting failed again - this time in Hyderabad, against Kings XI Punjab - folding for 132, but Sunrisers still won by 13 runs. Then in Jaipur, against Rajasthan Royals, Sunrisers set an under-par target of 152, but eventually Ajinkya Rahane, Royals' captain, had to swallow the bitter pill of an 11-run defeat despite a fine 65 by him. Williamson got a duck in one and fifties in two of those three low-scoring games, including a Man-of-the-Match award in Jaipur.
A big factor this season has been the pitches across the venues, Williamson says, which have given bowlers some capital to play with. "As a team, the most impressive part has been adapting to conditions. And that has been very important this year, because the conditions have varied a lot. Previous years, you got some very consistent wickets, but this year they have been very different to one another."
Williamson says the challenge of defending small targets is finding the right balance between attack and defence. "Because on some of these wickets, although they appear to be low targets, they can be very, very challenging to chase. A lot of the times we have defended them because of the nature of the surfaces. Yes, you have opposition getting partnerships, but you continue to apply pressure and things can happen very quickly."
His captaincy has had a part to play. Take the example of the Mumbai match: defending 118 on a Wankhede pitch gathering dew fast, where the ball, hard to grip, slid onto the bat, he deployed an attacking field at all times. A slip was in place for an extended spell, and duly gobbled up Rohit Sharma and Kieron Pollard. Williamson also did not push the fielders out of the 30-yard circle once the Powerplay was over, tempting the batsmen to play their shots.
Simon Helmot, Sunrisers' assistant coach, talks about the game: "Taking wickets was paramount. [Williamson] had set fields with the bowlers that gave us optimal chance of taking wickets, and that is what we did.
"It is not just a matter of being attacking. It is a matter of recognising situations and knowing when the best form of attack is defence. That is the art of captaincy."
Sunrisers have consistently fielded a five-man bowling attack this year, and regardless of the numbers, Williamson has largely stuck to Rashid Khan, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Siddarth Kaul, Sandeep Sharma and Shakib Al Hasan. It was important for him, then, to make sure he used his attack optimally, figuring out the match-ups and deploying the right man to exploit any given batsman's weakness.
In Sunrisers' home match against Daredevils, Rishabh Pant, currently second on the runs table for the tournament, was threatening to unleash himself as the death overs started. Shakib had bowled three overs and had one left, but Williamson, realising the left-arm spinner would be fodder for the left-handed Pant, brought Rashid on for his final over, and was rewarded with the wicket of Pant. Shakib returned to bowl against a right-hander, Dan Christian, and finished his spell with a tight over, restricting Delhi to a manageable target.
Players and coaches agree this has been the most competitive season of the IPL since the league was launched in 2008. A crucial contributing factor has been the presence of quality leaders: MS Dhoni (Chennai Super Kings), R Ashwin (Kings XI Punjab), Dinesh Karthik (Kolkata Knight Riders), and Williamson. The last of those is unique in that, before this season, he had not clocked as much match time as the rest had. But he has learned fast on the job.
Mike Hesson, the New Zealand coach, who has been working as an expert for the IPL's broadcaster, says Williamson's most impressive quality has been his calm. "Often you are calm as a batsman when you are in the zone, but even as the captain he has been particularly calm in how he has operated. In a number of pressure situations, whether it be chasing or defending, just his clarity of thought has been really impressive to see. It looks to me like all his players are really clear around their role. They look like they are making good decisions under pressure, which starts with the captain."
Hesson says the IPL success has made Williamson an attacking leader. "More so now than previously. That is a confidence thing. He can be an aggressive captain, and the fact that he has done it and has got some rewards will lead to more confidence and more willingness to back his instincts. That is part of his development as captain."
For his part, Williamson says instinct plays a big role in T20 leadership. "Put your best foot forward and hope that if you play with that positive frame of mind, things will hopefully unfold in your way. We have lost a few games in the tournament but that is the nature of T20 cricket. It is important to go out and play each game positively."
Even a die-hard Williamson fan wouldn't have put him top of the list in their fantasy league at the start of the tournament, but like he has done elsewhere before, Williamson has once again busted the myth that to make an impact in T20, you need to out-muscle the bowler. He has eight fifties from 15 innings, the most by any batsman this IPL. In the middle overs, he has averaged 92, scored 460 of his runs, and been dismissed five times. His Smart Strike Rate (one of ESPNcricinfo's new Smart Stats metrics) in the middle overs has been 177.39, the third best among batsmen who have faced at least 150 balls. His dot-ball percentage in that period middle overs is 24.08%, the lowest among 23 batsmen who faced at least 100 balls.
Like Virat Kohli and Steven Smith, to name two of his peers, Williamson relies on proper cricket strokes in T20.
"I just try and bat as best as I can to the team situation," he says when asked about keeping up with the scoring rate. "Sometimes wickets have fallen early, so as a group you need to regather, and that might reflect in strike rates. And then from that point the next task is [looking at] where do we want to be as a team and then trying to achieve that as best as we can. And once again, a number of times we have had time to bat on challenging surfaces and we have had to chase down low-ish totals on some tough surfaces.
"And if you are chasing a total, it is important to bat for the team rather than perhaps your own stats. You could be batting at a slower strike rate, to make sure we are getting to the right or the best position we can as a team, and sometimes you try and go out and bat a lot faster. It is very much about the team situation and trying to push that in the right direction as best as you can.
"Sometimes you will have come out having lost some wickets and you might need to be a little bit more circumspect. And when you get the momentum back, then you try and push things a bit because the guys in the lower middle order are the power hitters, so you are trying to help set up a situation for them to play their roles as well."
Hesson suggests in jest that the only way to stop Williamson is to bring in a "Superman 12th fielder". As we talk, he sets up a mock field to plug Williamson's favourite scoring areas but notes that the batsman would just take advantage of the gaps that opened up in the process.
As New Zealand coach, he has observed Williamson closely for many years, and seen him grow into a leader and the team's best batsman, roles he is now performing in the IPL too. "For those that have played with him in the last couple of years, it doesn't come as a surprise," he says. Last year Williamson played seven IPL matches, scoring 256 runs at a strike rate of 151.47 and an average of 42.66. Hesson says he was a "squad player" then, but now, with his spot secure, he has taken his batting to another level.
With security, Hesson points out, comes freedom. "It does come with the confidence in knowing what particular role you are going to be playing. He has been able to play so many different roles [as a batsman] throughout this IPL.  He has played on a lot of different surfaces, some pretty ordinary wickets as well, and got the job done. The fact that he has been able to adapt to the conditions and still take his side home is another step up for his development.
"He has actually stretched himself a little bit in terms of strokeplay. When the team is chasing a big target, he has often taken that responsibility all on himself. That innings he played against Bangalore was high-quality. And it was still batsmanship and nothing other than that. I think he would have surprised himself a little bit in terms of what he is capable of."
Why is that? "When you play international cricket, there is a lot of responsibility," Hesson says. "Sometimes you just want to go out and play with some freedom. There are times when you are chasing big scores where you have to play with freedom - those are times you actually find out about yourself."
Williamson has not gone down the road of being cheeky with his strokes; he has stuck to his strengths and his eagle eyes have found gaps that ordinary batsmen would not see, let alone dare target. He has, however, grown bolder as a batsman. "He has grown more confident taking on the boundary fielders because when he plays for New Zealand his role is not that," Hesson points out. "But he has just done what the team [Sunrisers] has required, and he has taken on the fielders and has been very efficient at doing that."
Helmot says Williamson was not just influential as a captain during the winning run of six matches - he proved to be a catalyst with the bat too. "Kane was the important backbone to our innings. His ability to adapt to certain conditions was important, but also key was his understanding that a 140-150 total was certainly going to be competitive."
Williamson's appointment as captain was a no-brainer once David Warner was barred from playing in the IPL. As New Zealand's captain, Williamson has the experience and tactical nous, and he showed in the handful of matches he had played for Sunrisers last year that he could hold his place as a specialist batsman. IPL fans will remember seeing Williamson in the role of Warner's sounding board over the previous two years, with the two frequently talking near the boundary. Helmot says both men are similar as captains despite being different personalities. "Both are impact batsmen. They are different characters but both are strategically clever."
He believes Williamson's best captaincy attribute is his understanding and ability to read of the game, and his calmness and ability to keep the squad together. "He is a very positive captain. He very much empowers and encourages his players."
Once he arrived in India, Williamson went about cultivating relationships with his players. Helmot says he noticed Williamson would have different players beside him in the team bus at different times, getting to know his team better and understanding them.
Williamson says he has always been his own man. Not that he thinks a captain's personality affects their decision-making. "Whether you are calm, angry, frustrated, or any other different emotions you can feel, at the same time you are trying to achieve the task as a team, which is trying to play best cricket, and when you do that and you utilise the guys you have in the team as best as you can, then hopefully you give yourself the best chance. That is how I like to do things - be me, and I suppose not try and be anybody else. And that is important for everybody - try and be who you are, play your best cricket and make the best decisions you can."
In 2019, when Warner returns, Sunrisers will have a challenge - whether to hand the captaincy back or stick with Williamson. It is a happy headache for the franchise to have. From being a facilitator in the past to Warner, Williamson has moved on to becoming the quiet enforcer.

Nagraj Gollapudi is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo