As England prepare for the start of their Test series in New Zealand, history suggests they should be wary of unintended consequences and unnecessary generosity. For the presence in New Zealand’s team of a batsman and captain of genuine world class is, at least in small part, down to their own past failure to do so.
In the winter of 2001-02, while England’s cricket team toured New Zealand, Graham Thorpe gave an old bat to Mark Patterson, his former Surrey teammate. Patterson was playing for Mount Maunganui at the time, and though he failed to find a use for Thorpe’s old bat he passed it on to another Mount player, Jim Irwin. The bat laid unused in a corner of the Irwin household for a couple of years before he in turn offered it to Bill Aldridge, a keen player and coach whose son Graeme was to enjoy a very brief international career, which amounted to three limited-overs matches in the space of eight days in October 2011. Aldridge also decided not to keep it, giving it instead to a promising local 12-year-old, who thought it too big and heavy, and besides he had just bought himself a new one of a more appropriate size, so he too ignored it. The child’s name was Kane Williamson.
At the time Williamson was something of a sporting polymath, who was busy excelling at basketball, volleyball, football, rugby and cricket. “Kane’s quite exceptional at anything he does,” his rugby coach, Danny Tauroa, told the Bay of Plenty Times in December 2003, just after Williamson had taken possession of the bat. “Sooner or later he’ll have to choose between rugby, cricket, basketball, volleyball and whatever other sport he might happen to pick up along the way.”
Eventually Williamson gave the bat a go, scored a century and stuck with it. A couple of weeks later he used it in the Northern Districts Under-14 championship, where he scored three successive tons followed by an unbeaten 91, and the die was cast, which is how Thorpe inadvertently helped to turn Williamson into a cricketer. Back in New Zealand this winter as England’s batting coach, Thorpe should probably keep his kit to himself. “It was an old bat even when I got it,” Williamson said, many years later. “He would have used it five years before perhaps, or maybe he didn’t, but it was from him apparently. It was a good stick.”
To be fair Williamson had also shone as a 12-year-old in the previous year’s competition, scoring 285 runs and being dismissed only once. “I reckon he went two or three years without being dismissed,” said Doug Bracewell, the Kiwi Test bowler who was in Williamson’s class at primary school, of that competition. “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.” The best bowler on that team in 2002, who took 14 wickets at an average of six runs, was a 13-year-old who lived just a few streets away from the Williamsons in Tauranga: Trent Boult.
There will be much more talk of Williamson’s childhood this week, with the opening Test against England which starts on Wednesday the first played at Mount Maunganui’s Bay Oval, a few minutes’ drive from his house, his first school and the beaches where he indulges his love of surfing. “There is a real sense of achievement that a Test is being played here,” he said this week. “A match against England is a very special occasion for all the people involved here.” Inevitably it is a ground he knows well: he was 16 when it opened in 2007, and that March became the first person to score a century there, for Bay of Plenty Under-19s.
Recognition came quickly for him – he played for New Zealand’s Under-19s at 15, made his first class debut at 17, his international debut two days after his 20th birthday – but his path to sporting excellence has been long and methodical. He is now, aged 29, the only batsman ever to have represented New Zealand with a Test average above 50 – 52.22 to be precise – and he continues to improve. Since the start of 2017 Williamson has averaged 63.12 and when he makes it past 25 it shoots up to 104.35. At that last metric his career average is 94.10, the seventh best in the history of Test cricket. He has become a batsman without obvious flaws, and a person who like his batting is unshowy but widely admired.
England’s task over these two Tests will be to examine a player who appears to have maintained that childhood habit of being exceptional at anything he does, and identify a fault.