It’s not clear exactly how much mind Christina Rossetti paid to the ins and outs of the New Zealand club cricket scene, but when the old sports journalist Sir Terry McLean wrote his short history of the sport in the country he still opened it with a quote from one of her poems. “Does the road wind uphill all the way? Yes, to the very end.”
It was, McLean reckoned, “an exact and prophetic statement” about the way the game has been played in New Zealand, where they spent 90 years fighting for the right to play Test cricket, another 26 waiting for the first win, and 13 more for their first series victory. Now, another 51 years on, the team have finally made all the way up to the summit.
After beating Pakistan by an innings and 176 runs in the second Test of a series they swept two-nil, New Zealand, (a country with the total population around half that of London, and a quarter that of Mumbai) are now the top-ranked Test team in the world. They have made it to the top a week after their captain, Kane Williamson, became the world’s No 1 Test batsman.
Anyone who has been paying attention will have found that the mornings have begun to feel a little repetitive this winter, roll over, grab the phone, skip through the news to the cricket scores, and find that somewhere over the other side of the world, Williamson has rattled off another hundred. In the past five weeks, he has scored 251 in his only Test against the West Indies, 129 in the first Test against Pakistan, and 238 in the second. In between all this, he also became a father for the first time, and managed to fit in a spell of paternity leave.
The way the ICC is calculating the standings in the World Test Championship (on the percentage of points earned from those contested, because of the disruption caused by the pandemic), New Zealand are still only third in the running to play in the inaugural final later this year, right behind Australia and India. Which should mean Williamson has been keeping a close eye on what’s going on in their series, only, he says, he’s hardly had the chance to watch any of it because he’s been busy changing nappies. Of course.
The batting ranking will not mean much to him, either. Williamson does not just seem uninterested in individual accolades, but genuinely uncomfortable with them. On the odd occasions he has been pressed on how it feels to be the best batsman in the world, his answers have been amusingly awkward and self-effacing. “Really”, he said last week, Smith and Kohli “are the best”, and even though the ICC’s measurements show that he is as good as (or better than) either of them, he’s sure there are other stats out there which show that “year in, year out, in all formats, they’re moving the game forward and we’re all fortunate to be playing against those guys.”
Williamson is a twin (his brother works as an accountant), and retains some of a twin’s selflessness. The man he took over from as captain, Brendon McCullum, was once asked why Williamson seems to get so nervous doing interviews. “He’s not nervous,” McCullum explained, “he just doesn’t understand why people want to talk about him.” He’s always been like that.
There is an old, (and often-told) story about the time the 12-year-old Williamson saved a game by scoring an unbeaten century, which he reached off the penultimate ball, then waited on the boundary before he walked off the field because he wanted to clap for his partner. Who had contributed three not out.
Williamson’s mentor, Martin Crowe, once described how this modesty works for him in the middle. “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.”
Watching Williamson squirm while heis being asked to talk about his own success, you wonder whether the opposition bowlers ought to tell him just how good everyone thinks he is. At this point it feels like a well-timed compliment has got more chance of unsettling him at the crease than anything else they might try.
It is hard not to be charmed by him. Kohli is a ferocious batsman, Smith a bewitchingly eccentric one, but Williamson’s cricket is marked by its quiet and unassuming competence, a resourcefulness born out of immense technical expertise. And, of course, he has gathered quite a side around him.
He is blessed with a battery of fine fast bowlers, Tim Southee and Trent Boult, almost 600 Test wickets between them, the irrepressible Neil Wagner, and now Kyle Jamieson, too, 6ft 8in tall, and on a tear that’s seen him pick up 36 wickets at 13 runs each in his first six Test. There’s enough batting there to get by, too, between Tom Latham, Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, and BJ Watling. Between them, they have won their last six Tests in a row, and more impressive, only lost one series in the past four years, away to Australia in 2019.
It’s not just what they’ve done, though, but the way they’ve done it, modest, hard-working, undemonstrative, and that’s down to Williamson’s influence.