It started with a bang, but not as we thought. In a tournament in which runs were touted, 500 even, it was the bowlers who first made their mark.
West Indies bumped out Pakistan for 105 and New Zealand’s quicks skittled Sri Lanka for not many more the following day. It was exciting, it was unexpected and it lay the foundations for an exhilarating tournament to come.
Only that was phase one. New Zealand, well-balanced and quietly confident, seamlessly transitioned to phase two: consolidation. West Indies, by contrast, failed to adapt. They bowled short-pitched bumpers, or nothing. They smashed boundaries, or they ate up dot balls.
New Zealand, arguably, had the fixture list to do it. They faced the weaker sides first and will end the group stages against Australia and then England. Still, they had a job to do and as they shimmied from stage one to the next, they had the best consolidator with which to do it.
Bangladesh plucked at the nerves and South Africa brought the game to the final over but New Zealand persevered, demonstrating the importance of a clever, calm and calculated man in the middle. You stay classy, Kane Williamson, because here is the embodiment of the anchorman supreme.
His cleverness was ably demonstrated in his 106 against South Africa . Williamson capitalised on a misfiring Andile Phehlukwayo, scoring 42 runs from 30 deliveries, at a rate of 8.4 runs per over. Against nobody else in South Africa’s highly touted bowling attack did he score at quicker than six runs per over.
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Williamson’s calm is obvious in his tournament average; a mammoth 225, it means that he faces overwhelmingly more balls per innings than any other batter. And as for Williamson’s calculation, former New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori summed it up best.
“What differentiates him from a lot of batsmen in this day and age is his sole focus is winning the game and he tailors his batting towards that,” Vettori commented following the South Africa match, in which Williamson adjusted his tempo according to the match situation, veering from the predicted rate where he needed to, allowing him to adapt and then thrive.
“The wicket was tricky, the South African bowling was very good and they took the pace off the ball well, it was a tough time to bat. But the way he understood that situation and got his team across the line was exceptional, it’s what makes him one of the greatest in the world now.
“Kane Williamson has to be New Zealand’s greatest ODI player of all time – and innings like that against South Africa tells you exactly why.”
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The Williamson phenomenon is rubbing off on others too. David Warner, normally the explosive, aggressive Australian attack dog, has a strike rate of 87.3 but leads the runs tally. Joe Root, not far behind, has hit just two sixes in the tournament but England pivots around his class. Even Rohit Sharma, possessor of the world record ODI innings, has capped his strike rate under 100, settling for more runs and fewer boundaries. It is no coincidence that it is England, Australia and India who look poised to accompany New Zealand into the semis.
A tale of two sides awaits Old Trafford terraces on Saturday. “They’ve done studies you know,” Ron Burgundy, an anchorman in a different guise, once quipped. “Sixty per cent of the time it works every time.” The West Indies are following a similar method. They are all, or they are nothing, whereas New Zealand are proving consistently somewhere in between.
With the knockout places soon to be decided and the pressure constraints of qualification prospects dispensed with, it might be that phase three of this tournament will provide the explosive batting that we have seen in patches but not in the deluge expected. But we are not there yet; any anchorman knows that the weight cannot be lifted until the path forward is certain.
Expect Williamson therefore, an unassuming, accumulating batter, to be front and centre in Manchester. Explosive, unexpected displays might thrill, but the quiet consistency of Williamson is an altogether different delight. In the words of one anchorman to another, “Don’t act like you’re not impressed.”
• A version of this article was originally printed in The Telegraph on 21 June 2019.