Rapier thrusts, sizzling cuts, deft pushes and deflections, majestic drives, dainty glances, strong pulls and hook emerge to make a kaleidoscopic formation where the sum of the parts add up to a staggering work of beauty and precision.
Williamson’s strokes describe not just technical virtuosity but also wonderful imagination and a deep-rooted ambition to excel without which consistent high scoring would be impossible.
I had been waking up at an unearthly hour in the past fortnight or so to watch the Test series between New Zealand and Bangladesh primarily to see Williamson bat, and my appetite has been whetted further with what I saw.
An unbeaten double hundred in the first Test, in the course of which he became the fastest Kiwi to 6000 runs, was an absolute delight for the quality, ease and range of strokes. The splendor of his shots and the economy of effort made it a spectacle where even the most bleary-eyed simply had to be roused into rapt attention.
In stark contrast to the brutal hitting of Neil Wagner and Colin Grandhomme as New Zealand galloped to a 700-plus score, Williamson was sublime, scoring runs through every bit of space available on the field, leaving bowlers and fielders wringing their hands in haplessness.
There is not much a fielding side can do when batsmen, reveling on a flat track, are smiting the ball out of the park. But it is even more terrible agony when a batsman is scoring runs through nifty strokes, beating the field repeatedly with fine placement.
Unbeaten on 93 overnight, Williamson scored 107 runs off just 125 deliveries on the third day before reaching the landmark and declaring. He hadn’t hit a single six, but each of his 19 boundaries was exquisitely executed, and at a strike rate that the team needed to put up a speedy declaration.
In the second Test, despite suffering a shoulder injury while fielding, Williamson stroked his way to a splendid 74. There was no evidence of any discomfort as he tamed the bowlers with a skillful display of batsmanship that evoked admiring oohs and aahs from spectators.
The gait and general demeanour of the fielding side meant their resolve had sagged. There’s not much that can be done when a protective field is breached repeatedly with a clever twist of the wrists, or a late improvisation. Another century looked imminent until Williamson’s dismissal came against the run of play.
It may be argued that Bangladesh are among the weaker sides in the cricket world at present, especially when playing overseas. That is fact, but not germane to this article, which is not so much about the quantity of runs scored by Williamson (though that has its own relevance as explained later), rather how he makes them.
All cricket lovers and aficionados have their favourites among batsmen, and usually, this hinges on the strokes they come to fancy from them. These become strongly associated with the batsman: indeed, in some cases that stroke defines their cricketing identity.
Former South African captain Dudley Nourse (Senior) highlights this best in this evocative passage on Wally Hammond, the great English batsman, and his penchant for the cover drive in the book, The Joy Of Cricket:
``I can see him now, right foot travelling across to meet the half-volley. There was power, yet accompanied by grace. One did not immediately become conscious of the force of the shot until it hit the rails. Just as a single stroke can outlast the memory in an innings of mammoth proportions, so that one stroke, the cover drive, refused to be erased from memory.
``Grace and power had become intermingled. Timing was a new theme to me. The ability to persuade the ball on it sway adding to the impetus imparted by the bowler’s arm became a new discovery’’.
Across eras, fans have picked their favourites for distinctive, trademark strokes that expounded their batting virtuosity. These strokes helped build a stronger identity and loyalty for the batsman in their own minds.
Gundappa Vishwanath’s square-cut, the straight drive of Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman’s flicks to the onside, Zaheer Abbas’s silken square drive, Viv Richards’ explosive strokes over mid-wicket, M.S. Dhoni’s `helicopter’ shot, Virat Kohli’s off-drive played on the rise et al are examples of this.
The sheer variety of strokes possible will obviously demand different descriptive prose, but the broad sentiment expressed by Nourse remains constant. There are some things about a batsman that get embedded in the mind of the watcher forever.
Like Nourse had for Hammond, I am fascinated by Williamson's cover drive. It is a model of perfection, right from the transfer of weight in footwork, to the wonderful arc made by his bat before it meets the ball with mellifluous timing. Of slender build, timing rather than force is the key in Williamson's batting, and nobody in the modern game has a sweeter sense of this.
Make no mistake, batting, all said and done, is about scoring runs, particularly when they are most needed, and to be most cherished when they lead the team to victory. Good batsmanship is about technique, timing, power but also temperament, courage, resourcefulness, intelligence and heart.
Within this broad spectrum, however, there is a genre of the `touch player’ that is perhaps the most gratifying to watch. Their methods are refined rather than raw and are based in sensibilities that see contest between bat and ball as a duel of minds and technical one-upmanship rather than power and strength.
Williamson belongs to this genre. There is a balance, poise, finesse and serenity in his approach that raises batsmanship from the single-minded pursuit of making runs into an art form. In itself, irrespective of the result, his batting becomes an experience to cherish.
By now, there can be no doubt that I am an unabashed Williamson fan. Have been since I saw him make a Test century on debut, at Ahmedabad circa 2010 when he arrived on the international scene as a callow 20-year-old with pretensions of being an all-rounder.
His off-spin, however, was quickly diagnosed as having fundamental flaws. He was banned from bowling for a while till he ironed out his action. Which he did, but in the process, he lost the bite, bounce and turn which makes spin bowling effective and has since become only an occasional trundler.
Perhaps just as well. Compelled to give up on his aspirations to be a world-class all-rounder, Williamson has been able to focus on his batting, which has since blossomed into such supreme ability that he is now touted as the best Kiwi batsman ever, surpassing even the redoubtable (sadly late) Martin Crowe.
Greatness in cricket, however, is subject to consistency. A flash in the pan performance, however brilliant, does not bestow this plaudit on a player. How regularly this brilliance is repeated is the defining characteristic which separates the truly great from the impostors. There are umpteen examples of players with seemingly extraordinary ability fizzling out prematurely.
Williamson has crossed that threshold successfully in the years since his debut. He is not only New Zealand’s best batsman today, but is currently clubbed with those batsmen considered in the highest echelons viz Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Joe Root.
In fact his double century against Bangladesh brought Williamson hot on the heels of Virat Kohli as the ICC’s No.1 ranked Test batsman. After the second Test, he was placed No. 2 at 915 points, just seven behind the Indian captain, and could conceivably achieve the top spot when the major teams resume playing the five-day format after the World Cup.
Rankings do not necessarily ratify a player’s true worth, but can be a good indicator of performance over a period of time. A volatile ranking would suggest sudden crests and troughs, and such inconsistency would erode the stature of a batsman.
Williamson’s ranking, in step with his runs and centuries, has improved with a rhythm and pace to reveal a batsman from the topmost drawer who could, if he sustains his current form, notch up not just several more records, but go down as one of the best-ever not just in the current era, but in the history of cricket.
First Published: March 17, 2019, 8:40 AM IST