Meet Kane Williamson, the quiet man poised to shatter every New Zealand batting record
There is no blinding revelation in the story of Kane Williamson's ascendancy. There is no Disney storyline of a boy from Tauranga fighting the odds on his way to the top. There are no mean streets where Williamson grew up. There was no flashpoint that took Williamson from good to potentially great. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Kane Williamson is poised to become New Zealand's greatest batsman, both in Tests and limited-overs cricket. How he got to this point is a mixture of talent, drive and sheer hard work. And yes… a little luck.
The first great piece of fortune that Williamson, and by extension New Zealand cricket, received was that he was just one half of a surprise package. Kane and Logan Williamson were born on August 8, 1990, as undiagnosed twins.
With three daughters already on board, the prospect of twins would have made Brett and Sandra Williamson blanch.
"There were complications with the pregnancy and no one could work out why," says Brett, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday. "Sandra spent three nights in hospital and the doctors still couldn't work out what was wrong.
"Kane popped out first, a few minutes later Logan's head appeared. It was pandemonium in the ward."
It might not have been the way the Williamsons drew it up in the playbook, but it had a huge positive: each boy was guaranteed a permanent playmate.
"They might not look like twins, but they've got something," says Brett. "I've never heard them argue or fight. It was cool to see them grow up together and take pride in each other's achievements."
The second piece of fortune for young Kane was that he grew up in a family that put a premium on sports, not just for fitness and recreation but for forming lifelong social bonds.
"He wasn't like other kids. They played for fun but Kane played for a different reason - he played to succeed. That was how he had fun"
Brett was well known in club cricket in the Bay of Plenty and Sandra was a representative basketballer. Kane's sisters Anna and Sophie represented New Zealand in age-group volleyball, while Kylie also played to rep level.
Their love of sport was passed on to the twins and Brett soon shelved his club career to coach the boys. Practice was fun, it always had a point and it was, effectively, on tap.
The third piece of good fortune was that the Williamsons' Maxwells Road property backed on to a school, Pillans Point, in a middle-class suburb in the beachside city of Tauranga, a two-and-a-half-hour drive south-east of Auckland. Space to play was never going to be a problem, nor was the weather: the Bay of Plenty is known for its sun and surf.
And this was not just any school. Pillans Point was the only primary school in Tauranga to run its own cricket programme not affiliated to a club. In a school of around 300 kids, there were a staggering nine teams.
The fourth piece of good fortune was that the Williamsons weren't the only sporting family on the street. The Braids - father Gary played rugby for the All Blacks, as has son Daniel, while younger son Luke is still trying to cross that threshold - lived a couple of houses away. Trent Boult lived fairly close by and Doug Bracewell was a childhood friend of the twins before he shifted down country.
Given New Zealand's relatively small population (less than a third of Mumbai's), this would amount to an extraordinary cluster of talent in such a small area. It was a suburb where kids learned the value of playing outside, where, in friendly competition with each other, they quickly developed fine motor skills and, perhaps just as important, they discovered pride in winning and performing well.
"It was great, we spent a lot of time outside," says Williamson, speaking at a café near the Napier shoreline, before the Afghanistan match during New Zealand's epic, one-short World Cup campaign. "Our whole family was into sport. The girls were right into their volleyball. Logan and I played a variety of sport, and that was our childhood really. There were a few families that lived around the school and we had the run of the place."
Driven: Williamson is fired by the desire to get better every time he practises
Driven: Williamson is fired by the desire to get better every time he practises © AFP
Four pieces of sporting serendipity, none on their own particularly revelatory, but when combined have increased the odds of creating a boy genius. That's a description Williamson would hate, but the sort of tag that gets thrust upon you when you're playing senior representative cricket at 14, first-class cricket at 16, have scored a reported 40 centuries by the time you've left school (Williamson himself cannot remember the figure), and are scoring a century on Test debut aged 20.
Those of you with a bent for sociology and its relationship to sports will have noticed the unmistakable strains of Malcolm Gladwell in this story so far. If you haven't, Gladwell's best-selling book Outliers takes a cudgel to the established belief that success is a direct result of hard work and ambition. He argues that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them - at such things as their family and birthplace.
So we have and, yes, Williamson had the perfect environment in which to thrive. But Logan had the same opportunities and didn't catch the cricket bug to anywhere near the same extent, excelling in accountancy instead. So it can't be entirely true, can it?
Williamson has been described as the most naturally talented New Zealand batsman of his generation, but the man himself, who is unfailingly and at times painstakingly modest, is less convinced.
"It's hard to know what natural is," says Williamson in a rare moment of animation. "Talent or 10,000 hours [of practice], which one is it? Everyone is gifted, I guess, but you get some that seem exceptionally so. I'm not one of them. You get others that spend a bit more time practising; I was constantly playing and practising from a really young age. I didn't necessarily look at it as practice, I was just having fun.
"The ball in the sock, dad giving throwdowns, anything I was doing then I was putting a lot of time into it - basketball, rugby, volleyball, soccer. It wasn't just cricket. I'd tried doing everything for as long as I could but cricket started to take over."
"Kane had a toy basketball hoop and a mini ball in his cot. One day when he was two we walked in and noticed he was shooting, proper basketball-style, the ball into the hoop from two or three feet away"
The Gladwell analogy is apt because it provides a robust framework for Williamson's emergence, but there are still things in the backstory that defy rational explanation.
"Kane had a toy basketball hoop and a mini ball in his cot," his father recalls. "One day when he was two we walked in and noticed he was shooting, proper basketball-style, the ball into the hoop from two or three feet away. Sandra and I looked at each other and thought that was a bit weird."
It wasn't the last time Williamson's parents would be awed by Kane's seemingly preternatural gift for sport. They had a basketball hoop on a concrete driveway, as do many Kiwi families. They would be at the window and look out at Kane doing drills, dribbling and shooting, as proficiently with his left hand as his right.
"I thought, 'That's a bit uncanny'," says Brett, noting that by that stage of his life, nobody had told Kane it would be an advantage to be able to play as well off both hands. It was something he'd worked out for himself. "Was he ambidextrous or just bloody determined? We still don't know for sure."
Williamson was a pre-school friend of New Zealand fast bowler Doug Bracewell, a second-generation member of the Bracewell clan - a family renowned as much for their almost over-the-top toughness as for their talent. Bracewell, like his father Brendon and uncle John, is not one to hand out bouquets lightly. More chance a verbal uppercut than a pat on the back.
"He was such a natural talent," Doug Bracewell says of his mate. "He was good at everything he did. Every sport came so easily to him. He was miles ahead of the other kids when it came to skill and maturity. That's a big reason why he did so well."
Mount Maunganui: this beautiful beachside town, also an international venue, is now Williamson's home
© Getty Images
Mount Maunganui: this beautiful beachside town, also an international venue, is now Williamson's home © Getty Images
Bracewell went to Tauranga Intermediate - two-year post-primary schooling that readies students for secondary schools - while Williamson went to Otumoetai Intermediate, the schools just a 15-minute drive apart. Tauranga had always been the bigger, stronger cricketing school and Bracewell was king of that castle, but in Williamson he found an immovable object.
"We knew if we got Kane out early they'd struggle but he [always] scored runs," says Bracewell. "I remember bowling to him once and just thinking, 'Jesus, how good is this kid.' We were in all the age-group tournaments together and we had an annual tournament that we went to every year. I reckon he went two or three years without being dismissed. The only time he wasn't batting was when they retired him."
Bracewell has a favourite Williamson moment from childhood. It is when they opened the batting together for the Bay of Plenty Under-14s against Hamilton. They batted and batted until they reached the last over.
"Kane had told me not to get out because he thought we might have a record, but we scored 271 and I got out off the last ball of the innings."
We've established now that Williamson had a gift for sport and the perfect environment for it to flourish in. But the third part of the equation is want: that drive to be the best you can be.
"Kane just had this desire to get a bit better every time he practised something," Brett says. Or, as Bracewell puts it: "He wasn't like other kids. They played for fun but Kane played for a different reason - he played to succeed. That was how he had fun."
Brett remembers his son coming home after recently taking up rugby. He was immediately good at it and became an outstanding school and age-group first five-eighth (fly-half). "He came home and said, 'If I'm going to play first-five, then I'm going to have to be as strong as the flankers who are going to tackle me.' We had an old swing-set out the back and he'd do chin-ups off the bar to make himself stronger."
The kid with a permanent smile on his face whose teenaged exploits were covered breathlessly by his local paper has become not so much cagey as wary
If this all paints a picture of a seriously intense young man, then it's a false image.
Williamson never beat himself up if he didn't succeed, it was just all part of the process. His father says he was "never fazed by failure", and even in his relatively short international career Williamson has demonstrated an ability to remain upbeat in fallow periods and even-keeled in success.
Even when he hit a six to beat Australia by one wicket during the recent World Cup, a result that sent 40,000 at Eden Park into raptures, Williamson celebrated with the world's guiltiest-looking fist pump.
"There has been success and failure and there'll be plenty more of both," he says. "You can't hold on to success for too long or hold on to failure. You've got to let both go. It's easy to fall into the trap of getting a hundred and it felt good so you want and expect more, or you fail and you don't know why and you fall into a trap. You want success too badly. Sometimes you have to accept you're going to have both and neither will last forever. Let them come and go."
To be able to do that, you must first have confidence in your ability to overcome slumps. Anxiety is a natural byproduct of failure, even more than hubris coming after success.
"That's the challenge," he says. "It's not something that is done easily by any means. It's the challenge for everyone. It's very easy to be found wanting and sometimes the wanting is the struggle. You try to stay calm and relaxed, but like I say, I can talk about it, but the challenge is to live it."
Cricket is a complex sport, where often individual and team success diverges. One of the remarkable things about Williamson, according to those who share a dressing room with him, is it is never about him. He has no idea what his ESPNcricinfo page looks or reads like.
How does one celebrate sealing a one-wicket win with a six in an immensely intense World Cup game? With a sheepish fist-pump, of course
© Getty Images
How does one celebrate sealing a one-wicket win with a six in an immensely intense World Cup game? With a sheepish fist-pump, of course © Getty Images
"Not at all, that's not why I play. Playing for the team situation is the most important thing, contributing to the team. That's for me what makes the game so much more enjoyable. You can enjoy others' success much more when you do play for these reasons," he says, before pausing and wondering if that comes across as a little conceited. "Sorry, there's no right or wrong reasons, but that's why I play the game that way as opposed to judging yourself on a knife edge every day based on [stats]."
He needn't worry about knife edges. Williamson, after a patchy but by no means difficult start to his career, has been noted for putting strings of high-class consistency together. Take his last three Test series - away to the West Indies, in the UAE against Pakistan, and home to Sri Lanka - for example. His string reads: 113, 2, 42, 52, 43, 161 not out, 3, 23, 32, 11, 192, 54, 31 not out, 69, 242 not out.
That last effort in Wellington was an epic, helping turn a big first-innings deficit into a 193-run mauling of Sri Lanka. How pivotal is he becoming to New Zealand's Test fortunes? In the nine Tests when he has scored centuries, New Zealand have won six and drawn three - so pretty damn important.
His ability to string together ODI runs of form is no less impressive. Take this string, from the first match of a home series against India in January 2014, until the start of the World Cup: 71, 77, 65, 60, 88, 10, 70 not out, 46, 123, 97, 15, 103, 26, 97, 54, 112. One-day cricket can be boom or bust, but Williamson is as safe a bet as New Zealand have ever had in the 50-over game.
Black Caps manager Mike Sandle, a man credited alongside coach Mike Hesson and captain Brendon McCullum for turning around the culture of a once fractured team, has witnessed first-hand Williamson's dedication to team. It is not a front.
"You can't hold on to success for too long or hold on to failure. You've got to let both go. It's easy to fall into the trap of getting a hundred and it felt good so you want and expect more"
"He's the ultimate team man," he says. "If he is ever upset he doesn't show it, he just brushes it off. It's the same with success. The most animated I've ever seen him is when he captained us to an ODI series win against Pakistan in the UAE.
"It was a long tour marred by news of the death of Phil Hughes, who he knew pretty well. We won the fifth game [Williamson top-scored with 97] to win the series 3-2 and that was the most joy I'd ever seen him display. Normally the most you'll get from him is a satisfied grin."
Williamson's maturity and feel for the game's rhythms have elevated him to captain elect, when McCullum, 33, retires in the not-too-distant future. There will be no dissent, but perhaps a little disquiet. There are already those in the upper reaches of New Zealand Cricket who wonder if Williamson is being burdened with too much too young. There is a school of thought that it would be more advantageous to let him have a little longer trying to become the best batsman in the world before asking him to lead the side as well.
One thing is certain: when he is handed the job, he won't complain.
"We are seeing the dawn of probably our greatest ever batsman," said Martin Crowe in January, a sentence that is still reverberating around New Zealand cricket circles.
Although Bert Sutcliffe might get a few votes from the elderly and Glenn Turner's single-mindedness was impressive, for most cricket fans Crowe represented the apex of New Zealand batsmanship. From a youthful 188 at the Gabba in 1985, where he consistently hooked Australia's fastest bowlers square for four, to an epic 142 at Lord's on one leg nearly ten years later, Crowe was the standard-setter.
It wasn't just the runs but the way he scored them. He commanded the crease. He scored off front and back foot. His defence was both late and sound.
Superstar-elect: Williamson was, in his friend Bracewell's words, "miles ahead of the other kids when it came to skill and maturity"
© Getty Images
Superstar-elect: Williamson was, in his friend Bracewell's words, "miles ahead of the other kids when it came to skill and maturity" © Getty Images
Williamson might not fill the crease like Crowe, who was a big man, but he does everything else. He might, whisper it, even do it a little more proficiently. "As Brendon [McCullum] likes to say, Kane kills you slowly," says Sandle.
Crowe, in a recent column for ESPNcricinfo, tried to get to the nub of what made Williamson so difficult to bowl at. It is worth repeating a tract here.
While an extremely busy player, it's his quiet defence that stands out. The ball is met with a cushion in his hand, his framework right behind the line, his head staring the action down. In a Test he will make the bowler pick up, in a one-dayer he will slightly angle and delay the stroke and deflect to behind square for a run… Williamson is a difficult player to focus against. Due to his humility and lack of ego, it is harder for bowlers and captains to get ramped up about the absolute necessity to remove him. His passive body language gives very little to feed off… Williamson has that x-factor, which no one can quite pin down. Frankly, he is David playing like Goliath.
Batting suited him from the minute he picked up his first bat; he had the perfect height, balance, fast-twitch muscles, electric feet, an inquisitive mind. Then he began to grow. Around him was an environment of support and knowledge. He appreciated both and never forgot his origins and roots.
Context is important here. Williamson's stat line (another thing he doesn't know) is not as gaudy as others. Ahead of the tour of England, he had nine Test centuries at 45.96, while in ODIs he was averaging 44.76 with six hundreds. You could be reading this in Pune or Perth and wonder what all the fuss is about, but New Zealand has never produced run machines. We live in a rugby-mad country and play on dual-purpose fields that are generally administered by well-meaning local government employees whose idea of curation is a lawnmower and a hand-roller.
The standard of wickets until you reach first-class level is overwhelmingly appalling. Technique honed in artificial nets goes out of the window as soon as you're faced with pitches the texture of corrugated iron. The lunge forward to cover balls that skid through low, spit upwards or seam two feet is the accepted technical innovation. Few New Zealanders are at home on the back foot because they grow up knowing that to play back is to invite disaster. Williamson, like Crowe before him, has broken this mould.
"We've been in places like Bangladesh where the poverty is really affecting. Kane likes going off and doing visits there, but under the radar. He won't do it for the cameras"
Williamson did so because his father read an article in a newspaper about how New Zealanders were going to have to learn how to play off both feet if they wanted to be able to succeed internationally, and Brett drilled his son until moving back was as natural a weight transfer as shifting forward.
The first time this author came across Williamson was in the low-key surrounds of Eden Park Outer Oval, a patch of green bordered on one side by Sandringham Road, a busy Auckland arterial route, and on the other by the back of Eden Park's utilitarian West Stand. Even the most colourful writers would struggle to imbue the place with charm.
Northern Districts were playing Auckland and a 17-year-old Williamson was making his first-class debut, in December 2007. Already there was chatter on the circuit that there was a kid from the Bay of Plenty who was piling up big scores at age-group levels and looking good while doing so, so I didn't want to miss the auspicious occasion. He lasted two balls in the first innings, scoring two, before Andre Adams dismissed him leg before; he lasted ten in the second without scoring before falling to the same bowler, same method. He received a verbal spray from Adams that suggested, in not so many words, that he return to school to continue his education.
Williamson didn't play another first-class match that season and I worried that he had been scarred by the experience. I needn't have. He averaged more than 50 the following Plunket Shield season and has never looked back. He might feel pain but he doesn't scar.
Playing for the Bay of Plenty senior rep team at 14 had exposed him to the worst that grown men could throw at him, and in truth Williamson thought it so weak he never once contemplated stooping to that level.
"Some of that was a bit ridiculous to be fair," he says. "You'd hear some [sledging] and it was pathetic. The game's the game and you should enjoy it."
He might not respond, but he's no soft touch. His 12th Test was against South Africa on a lively Basin Reserve wicket. New Zealand had to bat out the fifth day to save the match against the might of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and the rapid Marchant de Lange. In 19 innings since his debut century Williamson had passed 50 four times but had not really threatened three figures.
He survived a close call early when the third umpire decided Alviro Petersen had not caught him cleanly at point, which ramped up South Africa's aggression to white-eyed fury. Williamson was struck where no man wishes to be and there is a great photo of him showing umpire Aleem Dar the damaged piece of equipment.
Wellington 2012: "Fancy a bat?"
© Getty Images
Wellington 2012: "Fancy a bat?" © Getty Images
Steyn refused to inquire about his health and continued to pepper him. As he ended the day 102 not out after 228 fairly terrifying deliveries, New Zealand recognised they had not just a prodigious talent but a tough one.
"That was a great experience," he says with a grin. "It's always a good learning experience playing the best bowling attacks in the world. Everyone's got a great bowling attack, but in certain conditions some are more suited than others and South Africa at the Basin was one of those challenges. The runs were nice, but to spend a period of time at the crease and taking a few blows was a great experience."
In his quest for more great experiences and what spiritualists would call higher learning, Williamson has turned to county cricket. He spent two years at Gloucestershire under former New Zealand coach John Bracewell and last year had a second season with county champions Yorkshire.
"Both were great challenges," he says. "It's not so much the quality of cricket as the sheer volume of it. It's such a busy calendar. There was a great coaching environment there [Yorkshire] with Jason Gillespie and Martyn Moxon, and it was a great learning experience to play a lot of cricket with a lot of good cricketers.
"Being at a club with a good team and a good culture made the experience more enjoyable. A new environment can be refreshing. I'll go back this year for a month to play a few games."
Williamson is not yet 25. Ahead of the tour of England, only five New Zealanders - Crowe (17), Ross Taylor (12), John Wright (12), McCullum (11) and Nathan Astle (11) - had compiled more Test centuries. Only 12 players had more than his 3034 runs, a list topped by Stephen Fleming with 7172. Of those who played at least 15 Tests, only John F Reid had an average superior to Williamson's. If anything, his numbers jump out more in one-day cricket, where his six centuries ranked him behind only Astle (16), Taylor (12), Fleming (8) and Martin Guptill (7).
Playing for the Bay of Plenty senior rep team at 14 had exposed him to the worst that grown men could throw at him. Williamson thought it so weak he never once contemplated stooping to that level
In other words, pretty much every record worth having is his for the taking. Few doubt he will get there - quietly, efficiently, brilliantly.
So do we know Williamson any better for having traversed his background? Perhaps we understand some of the reasons for his success, but we don't necessarily know Kane the person any better.
Whether by accident or design, Williamson has remained largely a closed book. We know the deeds, we know the background, but we don't really know Kane. After a 45-minute interview with him I'm convinced that's the way he wants it to stay.
He is unfailingly polite and does not dismiss questions, but those same cogs that process 145kph deliveries in a microsecond whirr much more slowly when it comes to self-analysis. There is, it seems, an impenetrable wall; self-analysis is just that - for himself.
Ask him about his fears, his hopes, his dreams and you will get answers that border on the banal. The kid with a permanent smile on his face whose teenaged exploits were covered breathlessly by his local paper, the Bay of Plenty Times, has become not so much cagey as wary.
"He got hurt quite badly by an article when he was a teenager," says Kelly Exelby, a club cricket contemporary of Williamson's father Brett and the sports editor of the BoP Times when a young Kane was starting to catch the media's attention.
The neighbour: All Black Daniel Braid, who lived down the street from Williamson, was one of several exceptional sporting talents from his locality in Tauranga
© Getty Images
The neighbour: All Black Daniel Braid, who lived down the street from Williamson, was one of several exceptional sporting talents from his locality in Tauranga © Getty Images
A nationally distributed Sunday paper found a blog written by someone purporting to be Williamson, which made outrageous (in retrospect, startlingly prescient) statements about his future greatness in swaggering language. The paper inferred he was a prima donna who was getting way too ahead of himself.
"Someone had pretended to be me in a blog saying I was going to be the next Martin Crowe," Williamson says. "It was ridiculous and the words they were using were making me out to be some sort of gangster or something. It was embarrassing."
It was, in the grand scheme of media crimes, a fairly minor brouhaha, but Exelby thinks Williamson's reticence to give too much of himself away stems from that incident. "We'd flown the flag for him… all the headlines about him had been gold. That was his first experience of the 'real world', if you like, and I think it scarred him.
"He's very vanilla in terms of what he says to the media now. The shutters have come down. Having said that, he's always been very balanced and self-deprecating, and that's purely a product of his upbringing. His dad is the most level-headed guy I know."
And perhaps here we return to the essence of Williamson: he is a product of his upbringing, an upbringing that was idyllic yet never privileged.
Sandle has a story about the Williamson clan. New Zealand were touring the West Indies in 2012 and Brett and Sandra came over to watch their son (Williamson had a shocker, scoring 49 runs in four innings). "They were in Kingston, which can be a pretty rough place," says Sandle. "They had these massive suitcases full of stationery that they had brought over, and wanted to go to a school and deliver it. It ended up they went to a school in Tivoli Gardens, which is an area we were warned not to enter. They donated all this stuff to the school there and had a great time. That sort of attitude and those ethics have rubbed off on Kane.
Williamson's maturity and feel for the game's rhythms have elevated him to captain elect, but some wonder if he is being burdened with too much too young
"We've been in places like Bangladesh, where the poverty is really affecting. Kane likes going off and doing visits there, but under the radar. He won't do it for the cameras."
The one word people keep coming back to when describing Williamson is "grounded".
"I've got a twin brother and three older sisters," he says. "Your upbringing has something to do with that. It was never my prerogative to get ahead of myself."
The other point to consider is Williamson, because of his talent and determination, was playing in the company of men when he had barely hit his teens. Being an extroverted teenager in a shed full of grizzled veterans was never going to fly.
I ask Brett if he and Sandra ever worried about their son's rapid progress, whether there were fears it would stunt his growth in other areas of life.
"At the age of 16 and 17 there was always this thought that he was playing with people [at Northern Districts] that were a lot older than him," says Brett. "There was all the travelling and the social side, but he was playing for Bay of Plenty at 14 and we'd seen that he handled himself well in those situations.
"Did we worry that he wasn't spending a lot of time with kids his own age? The answer to that is, we probably did."
Made to lead: there's little doubt Williamson will captain New Zealand sooner rather than later
© Getty Images
Made to lead: there's little doubt Williamson will captain New Zealand sooner rather than later © Getty Images
Williamson might not give a lot of himself away, but he is at peace. He lives in Mount Maunganui, a famed white-sand beachside suburb of Tauranga, not more than 15 minutes from where he grew up. When he's not touring, he's catching up with mates, drinking coffee, surfing.
"You need time when cricket isn't in front of you to maintain sanity," he says. "It isn't easy sometimes. When you're younger you can't get enough but when you're older and there's so much of it, you're very conscious of how you manage it.
"While we certainly enjoy what we do and we're very fortunate to do what we enjoy, it's not going to be here forever and we can't get too attached to it. If you get too attached to anything it can get consuming and that's not a good place to be."
Williamson is in a good place. New Zealand cricket is in a good place. The two things might well be inextricably linked. That's a lot of weight to put on a young man's shoulders.
So far, this cricketing outlier has carried the burden with class and no shortage of grace.
Dylan Cleaver is sports editor-at-large of the New Zealand Herald
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.