For a while on Thursday (May 17) night, one forgot the context. The colour of the ball became immaterial, the jerseys inconsequential, the field placements superfluous, the target unimportant. Like the beautifully well-oiled machine that he is, Kane Williamson transcended the mundane, the everyday, the commonplace. To refer to his masterpiece as poetry in motion will appear exaggerated only to those who did not watch him politely take the Royal Challengers Bangalore bowling apart in one of the more radiant gems of IPL 2018.
Williamson has done so all season, actually. Stacked up the runs without hype or fuss, without bravado and outlandishness. He does not back away, clear his front foot and thump giant sixes down the ground like Chris Gayle. He does not walk across, throwing his body and soul in unleashing the falling pull that Rishabh Pant seems to have perfected. He does not attempt to use the back of his bat for the tickle to fine third-man, something Manish Pandey has worked on tirelessly at nets. He does not go down on his knee and try to scoop the ball over his and the wicketkeeper’s head, like so many have attempted with varying degrees of success. And yet, when Kane Williamson bats the way he did at the Chinnaswamy, he brings a song to the heart, a smile to the eyes, a feeling of unbridled joy and unfettered admiration that takes everything else out of the equation.
Twenty20 cricket is all about run-making. The faster you score, the more of a star you are. If you can score rapidly by stepping out of the box, by innovating and improvising, by being cheeky and unorthodox, then nothing like it. The most celebrated batting superstars of the 20-over game are electric ball-strikers, paralysing oppositions and exhilarating audiences with their daring, their enterprise, their artistry that is a fusion of a smooth brush stroke and a violent slash all at once.
And then there are men like Williamson. Like Virat Kohli. KL Rahul. Classical, correct, composed and conservative, the latter only because of their loyalty to the basics. They have shown that there are many ways to skin the T20 cat. They have shown that an understanding of one’s game and the awareness of how to maximise one’s strengths without compromising on core basics can be as tellingly effective as cheekiness and unorthodoxy. They have lost neither shape nor poise, and yet, they have unleashed strokes of such ethereal beauty that they can’t but take your breath away.
The before-our-eyes evolution of the T20 game has been a fascinating process. At first glance, 120 deliveries appeared far too few for a generation bought up on a steady diet of 50-overs cricket. The three-hour shootout was perceived as a hit-and-giggle exercise, as the license to go and have a dart from ball one because, of course, there were only 120 on offer. That invariably resulted in across the line heaves with cow corner the most targeted area; there was crude ball-bashing for the most part, though from time to time, someone would elevate the level to the subliminal, iterating even at that early stage that 120 deliveries weren’t as few as they might appear.
It wasn’t just the less gifted and the less self-aware that grappled with the challenges, imaginary and otherwise, that T20 cricket threw up. The ball-timers rather than the ball-hammerers found the going particularly tough. The apologetic caresses to the boundary made way for less elegant carves and slaps as the Dravids and the Laxmans struggled to shed the shackles. That T20 was in its infancy, and they were far closer to the end of their luminous careers than at the beginning, didn’t help.
Both are still involved in the game from seriously close quarters, and Dravid and Laxman will have soaked in the success of the Williamsons and the Kohlis with delight. It’s not as if the New Zealand skipper or his Indian counterpart don’t pack a punch. When the occasion so demands, they will dump the scalpel and pull out the hammer. But even when they do so, it will be without compromising on the basic structure around which their cricketing edifices have been erected.
Lest it should be so construed, one is an unabashed admirer of the AB de Villiers school of batting that is the ultimate amalgam of the orthodox and the innovative. AB can step away and clear the infield with as much ridiculous ease as he can walk right across his stumps and cart the fastest bowler in the world out of the park. But hey, he is AB, a freak of Nature. Sometimes, one suspects, Nature itself would love to be like him, untouched and unsoiled, unencumbered by the burden of forces extraneous and internal. Oh, but if wishes were horses…
The thing is, when you watch AB bat, you wish you could bat like that. And then, when Williamson comes in and does his stuff, you feel (not me, of course) that you could bat like that. The outrageous excites, the orthodox delights. The loudest cheers were reserved for when AB scooted across his sticks and swept the hapless Basil Thampi over long-leg and out of the stadium. Had it been a different setting to the Chinnaswamy, or had Williamson donned the Red and Black of the Royal Challengers, his no-fuss on-drive off the crafty Yuzvendra Chahal or the cracking square-cut off the express Umesh Yadav that rocketed to the fence would have brought the roof down.
AB is so unbelievably gifted that he can switch from that to this and back to that in the blink of an eye. Williamson, meanwhile, will remain more predictable as a batsman, though that doesn’t make setting fields to him any easier. His mind is like a sieve, filtering out the unnecessary and retaining the information that matters. He can mentally picture the gaps, he sees the ball early and plays it late, and he trusts his skills enough to back himself to impose his authority on the bowling. Any bowling.
Kohli has done that too, for so long, that it is unfairly almost taken for granted now. When his left foot magnetically moves towards the pitch of the ball and wonderful hands blast-push it to the mid-off or cover boundary, there is no prettier sight on a cricket field. The twirly half-wristy, half-bottomhanded whips to leg, the precision footwork that expands the depth of the crease and mocks point to his left and right are strokes out of the Kohli manual that express themselves against red ball and white, and will do so against pink if and when that situation eventuates. In many ways, he has been the flag-bearer of the ‘other’ way of batting in T20 cricket; Williamson isn’t his understudy, of course, but like Rahul, he is ensuring that Kohli doesn’t feel lonely in his approach. And returns, too.