Most international batters are smart operators, but some use their smarts more than others. Kane Williamson
in T20 cricket is one of them. He has never been a great six-hitter so he has found a way around it, picking on certain bowlers, using bowlers' pace to his advantage. He has not only fashioned himself an IPL career, but has also been a full-time captain. Teams at the IPL do not lightly let someone hold down one of the four precious overseas slots while also guaranteeing them a spot in the XI.
With time, though, Williamson's T20 cricket returns have dwindled. That he still holds two important captaincy positions - in the IPL and with the New Zealand international side - despite a whole year full of scoring at barely over a run a ball tells you the faith decision-makers have in his batting and his captaincy. His strike-rate in 2021 wasn't much better either.
New Zealand merely need to beat Ireland to be almost certain of a semi-final spot. It would be their fifth straight semi at an ICC world event, however, Williamson remains a question for them. He said he wasn't sure the word "anchor" was the apt description for what he was doing.
"It's just trying to utilise the skill sets that you have to try and generate a strike rate, and sometimes it's one boundary, two boundaries away, and as a batter that's what you're trying to explore and achieve when you're out in the middle and bat, complementing the player at the other end," Williamson said.
In three innings in this World Cup, Williamson has scored 71 runs off 76 balls. Going by Williamson's words, add a six and a four to each innings, and you have 101 runs at a strike-rate of 123, which is strictly okay, and that too at this T20 World Cup where teams have preferred to have a platform. Still Williamson doesn't have the gears that Virat Kohli
has to have a history of making up for slow starts. He is mostly banking on providing others that platform to take off from.
"I feel like there's some good parts, but there are definitely some parts I want to keep touching on."
Let's not call them anchors just to avoid the endless debate it generates. Let's call them batters who put a heavier price on their wickets. Kohli and Dawid Malan
are what you aspire to be if you are looking to sell your wicket dearer. Kohli is among the best strikers at the death so his slow starts have a promise of a payoff even though it is still debatable if such a high-risk strategy is the way.
With Williamson it becomes all the more risky, as was apparent in Brisbane
against England, where for a change, it was a pitch where hitting became tougher as the ball got older. Williamson put all the eggs in his basket, and eventually his run-a-ball 40 left the others no time to adjust to a slow surface in their 20-run defeat.
Williamson was at his best in 2018, 2019 and 2020 when he struck 137, 124 and 142 per 100 balls. It is possible the elbow injury has hampered him. He is still trying to find the most efficient way to score quickly. There is possible game awareness at play that he is not trying too hard to score quickly. But where is that leaving the team? Assuming he doesn't get out when he did and carries on, he still needs Glenn Phillips to do the heavy lifting. So Williamson's primary utility in this tournament lies in providing the stability of a set batter for the hitters to hit.
"Context is really important, so it does depend on conditions," Williamson said. "Partnerships as well, and really where you want your team to be at certain points in time, and if that is run-a-ball, then that's of value if the team is moving forward with that. And if it's not, then obviously you need to keep exploring; there's different areas to get those boundaries away. It is dependent on the situation.
"In the other night and the other game there were partnerships that were of value, and it's just trying to take that little step further really, and so for me that's a focus for continuing to develop my game after being out for a little while is to keep just pushing it, looking for those other options and just making those small tweaks."
Williamson is not unmindful. Perhaps he is not in the best of rhythms. "With the bat, there's a number of phases or gears to go through," Williamson said. "I definitely want to keep touching on those third and fourth gears where you are exploring some different areas of the ground, which when in full rhythm is something that comes reasonably naturally. When you're not, you're working very hard to try and bring that into your game whilst factoring in your role in a partnership and trying to help position your team in a place where perhaps you have momentum and you're ready to start the next phase as a team.
"I feel like there's some good parts, but there are definitely some parts I want to keep touching on. I sort of see it as one or two boundaries away, where you start sort of building some momentum throughout an innings."
This has been a World Cup where teams have moved to new conditions and ground dimensions every third day. It is a challenge to adapt on the go because they hardly get any training time, more so with the weather this time around. Williamson knows enough about batting to be able to do that and all things considered, this should be a T20 World Cup where Williamson is much more useful to a team than in easier batting conditions.
Williamson is aware the team needs much better than a run a ball from his bat despite the conditions. There is a fine line between providing a platform for the hitters and dragging the team down. And when you happen to be the captain, it becomes that much more difficult to judge which side of the line you are on.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo