Sunday, 10 January 2016

King Kane: From Middle Earth to the top of the world

If you enter ‘Lord Of The Rings’ in the Google search bar, it will soon suggest the words ‘New Zealand’, where the movies were shot. If New Zealand is our world’s Middle Earth, then Kane Stuart Williamson is currently King there. No wonder then that he is referred to as ‘The King’ by his charismatic captain Brendon McCullum.

'King Kane' was finally enthroned and anointed by the rest of the world as well as the No. 1 ranked test batsman in the world - the first Kiwi to reach the top spot since the rankings were established.
On his Test debut in India back in 2010 though, things were very different. Facing a mammoth score of 487, he walked in with the score at a tricky 137 for four, against the No 1 ranked Test team in the world then, in their backyard. It was a situation that could have unnerved many-a-debutante, especially one who had made a duck on his ODI debut against the same opponent.

But he responded by becoming the youngest New Zealander to begin his Test career with a century. It was an innings that highlighted two qualities that would be written about for many years to come: his footwork, and his composure.

But for those who knew him closely, his century on debut would have come as no surprise. A natural athlete, the ambidextrous Williamson played a number of sports as a child, but cricket was always his first choice. Initially coached by his father, who played cricket for Northern Districts U-17s, the precocious Williamson stood out since childhood. He routinely played against boys three or four years his senior, as his talent demanded. At 15, he was picked for New Zealand U19, and at 19, after two standout seasons for Northern Districts, he was contracted by New Zealand Cricket (NZC), despite not having played an international game yet.
But having talent is one thing, translating it into performance is quite another. Often the difference between the two is a cool head. That is a quality Williamson has never been short of.

Cast your mind back to the ODI World Cup 2015 league game where Williamson led the Black Caps to victory in a nail biting finish that sent Eden Park into sonic boom. With only Trent Boult at the other end and six runs to get with over 150 balls remaining, Williamson quickly calculated his best option, and serenely smoked a straight drive off Pat Cummins into the stands. The celebration was equally cool, with a smile and fist pump, as if he was saving it for another victory, a bigger dream, one that was not to be.

But despite the disappointment of losing the World Cup final, Williamson has had a stellar 2015. His hundred in the last innings of the second Test vs Sri Lanka was his fifth in 2015, and took him past the record for the most Test runs in a calendar year by a Black Caps player (he now has 1172 runs at an average of 90.15). It also put him level with Ross Taylor in the list of the most Test centuries scored by a Kiwi batter (13). Both are now behind only Martin Crowe, who has 17.

He has played a huge role in the resurgence of New Zealand, along with the likes of Boult, Tim Southee and McCullum. New Zealand has not lost a Test series at home since March 2012. And given that he is only 25, he is touted to end up as their best ever batter.
It’s not just the runs he scores though - it's also the way he scores them. Irrespective of the format, Williamson’s more traditional shot selection has always worked for him. His backfoot play - naturally strong considering his hobbit-esque stature - reminds one of the clean lines made by a sabre rather that the hacking-broadsword motion so many modern batters employ. His saint-like composure at the crease has compelled the word ‘Zen’ to be associated with his batting on numerous occasions.

It is almost as if he doesn’t feel pressure at all. Indeed, in an interview given shortly before his Test debut, he said, “When the pressure is on, rather than ‘handling’ the pressure, you almost ‘don’t register’ the pressure, and then you’re in the place to score runs.” These are life lessons seasoned pros often hand out at the end of their careers. Williamson has wasted no time in wising up.
And if his foot work and composure are always apparent on the field, off the field his modesty shines through. Soft spoken and polite, he has often displayed a sensitivity rarely seen in sportsmen of this era. During the New Zealand vs Pakistan 2014 ODI series he donated his entire match fee for all five ODIs to the victims of the 2014 Peshawar school massacre. In press conferences, he rarely seems to show emotion, yet does not seem to be hiding any either. As part of the team which was sledged for being ‘too nice’ by the Australians, he is the nice guy who is finishing first.
For the man who is the captain-elect of the Black Caps, and will lead the team in the absence of Brendon McCullum at the World T20 in India, captaincy is his next Everest.

McCullum has left him a rich inheritance, one which he could nurture into something legendary. Much like the hobbits made the obscure Shire famous in J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, this middle order batter from Middle Earth has all the ingredients to make rugby-mad New Zealand famous for cricket as well.

This article first appeared in my column on 

The IPTL: Tennis is more fun as a team sport

The second edition of the IPTL packed its bags on Sunday, with the Singapore Slammers emerging eventual champions. The tournament proved that the success of the first edition wasn’t beginners luck, and that given the participation of a few big names, the format is here to stay.

While I watch tennis only on and off, mostly only at Grand Slams, I found myself unable to switch the channels whenever the IPTL was on TV. I don’t know if it was the innovative rules — with power points and shorter turnaround times — or the star power (personally Sania Mirza was the showstopper for me). Or maybe it was because the format had both a patriotic flavour, as well as a team structure infringing on what is essentially an individual sport. It made me feel like I was watching Davis Cup on steroids, and reminded me of some life decisions I made early in my sporting career.

When I was around 17, and had established myself in the Maharashtra senior cricket team and been touted a future India prospect, my cousin suggested something radical. He advised me to give up cricket. He said I was clearly a good athlete, and I should try an individual sport like tennis.

Around the same time, a Major in the Army Sports Institute in my home town of Pune invited me for some tests. He thought I had the makings of a successful middle distance runner, and he, too, exhorted me to take up the individual game over a team sport.

Their reasons were largely the same: “In team sports, one must rely on others to a great extent in the pursuit of success. You might be good but unless your team is good enough, you will never win. Whereas in an individual sport, your success lies entirely in your hands.”

My reasons for not taking their advice were simple: I loved cricket. Not tennis. Certainly not athletics. Cricket.

Thinking back now, one of the reasons I love cricket is precisely because it is a team sport.

I love the camaraderie of being in a team. I love always having someone whose leg I can pull in training and someone who will not let me forget that dropped catch, or that failed push up. I love the support of a team, and having to find inner strength when the support isn’t forthcoming. I love playing for the name on the front of my shirt, not for the name on the back. I love knowing that a team is more than the sum of its parts. I love that sometimes, a team can rise above what it looks like on paper, and become a new — sometimes transcendental — whole. I love the fact that such a thing is possible only with, and often despite, each member’s involvement.

Both individual and team sports have their fans and detractors, and rightly so. In team sports, some players can piggyback on more talented and hardworking teammates’ success, thus hiding their weaknesses. In individual games, there is nowhere to hide. All you are, all you have, and certainly all you don’t, is laid bare on the court or the track every single time. The glory is all yours. But so is the loneliness. It can be draining, especially if things aren’t going your way. There are precedents of this prompting professionals to switch from individual to team sports. Aussie Ashleigh Barty, a former Jr. Wimbledon champion, recently switched to cricket and made her debut for the Brisbane Heat in the WBBL for similar reasons.

The qualities that individual athletes need to succeed — discipline, intrinsic motivation and self belief — are always on abundant display whenever Nadal and Federer play each other. But when they faced each other in the Delhi leg of the IPTL, the encounter had a rarely seen before aura to it, a je ne sai quoi if you will. It was something intangible, yet clearly visible. It took me a while, but I realised it was created by the presence of their teammates, egging them on and offering advice. You could see it with every high five after every ridiculous shot. It infected the players and showed in their smiles.  Tell me, have you ever seen Rafa and Roger smile so much in a game?

Smiling after the game, yes. Smiling during it? image courtesy facebook

Perhaps it was because this was the first time they were facing each other in a team event. They were the last of many storylines that were unfolding that night. And despite being a dead rubber (the Aces were leading 24-14), their tie had context, as it too was part of a whole.

I am grateful to the IPTL for the fact that it gives us a chance to view these incredible players of an individual game showcase their skills in a team environment. Only the Davis Cup provides anything similar. Like cricket, the IPTL calls for largely individual performances within a team set up. Watching tennis like this is a refreshing change, especially for Indian viewers, who connect well with team sports. And I wager it is highly enjoyable for the players as well, judging by the smiles and high fives on court. It helps that the IPTL is more of a showcase tournament, and doesn’t carry the pressures, dress codes or straight faces that are de riguer in a Grand Slam. But this is not the only reason.

In a 2009 study, psychology professor Dr. John Tauer pointed out that children enjoyed sports more when competition and cooperation coexisted, i.e., in an environment where they were cooperating with members of their own team while simultaneously competing against another team. It is no surprise that we see so many smiles and light-hearted moments on the IPTL bandwagon. While Nadal-Federer were cleaning the lines with their ground strokes in Delhi, even the chair umpire had a laugh when he accidentally called “Let”. 

"We don't stop playing because we grow old," George Bernard Shaw remarked, "we grow old because we stop playing." Coaches in every sport always try to help athletes return to the ‘beginner’s heart’, that childlike enthusiasm we have for the game when we start playing it. We don’t start playing sport for the fame, or the money, or even the competition. We play it simply to enjoy ourselves. The IPTL may be helping these hardcore professionals return to that child-like bubbly enthusiasm. That is not to suggest that they do not enjoy their game on the Tour. This just accepts the fact that the team structure predisposes sports towards greater enjoyment.

It’s lonely at the top. But not if you’re in a team.

This article first appeared in my column on