As the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup drew to a close in United Arab Emirates, the only matter on which there was unanimity among the followers of the game was the significance of winning the toss. Statistics showed that the side winning the toss invariably chose to bowl and the teams that batted first could not register victories except in those matches where one side was too weak. As one troll put it so succinctly, “why go through the bother of playing the match, just announce the winner after the toss”! This proved to be true for the final also and Australia emerged comfortable winners despite New Zealand posting a fighting score. It is a sad commentary for the game that odds are stacked so heavily against the side batting first that the loser of the flip of the coin stands little chance of winning the contest in the middle.
Despite their loss in the final, the real surprise packet in this championship was New Zealand. The fact that they reached the finals of ICC championships in all formats of the game during the last 30 months shows the versatility of the side and their ability to raise their performance levels on the big stage, which is the hallmark of a top drawer side. What makes this even more remarkable is that they did this with minimum of sound and fury, keeping their mouths shut while letting their cricket do the talking. The class and dignity they demonstrated when they took in their stride the loss against England in a closely fought final in World Cup in 2019 had won them tremendous amount of goodwill and support. And this appears to stand them in good stead during the subsequent championships as well.
The person who can claim credit for this amazing achievement by a side that had hitherto been treated as underdogs is Kane Williamson, their captain since 2016. Williamson had, like Virat Kohli, first made headlines during the ICC junior world cup held at Malaysia in 2008 where he led the Kiwis. He made his bow into international cricket two years later and despite starting his career at the highest level with a duck, soon blossomed into one of the top batsmen in the game. Today, he is spoken about in the same breadth as Steve Smith of Australia, Joe Root of England and Kohli as the best willow- wielders in international cricket. He is as adept at tackling bowlers of all types - fast, swing, medium - in various conditions in different parts of the globe as he is capable of adjusting to the demands of the different formats with aplomb. The superb innings that he played in the final, when he held the Kiwi innings together by scoring 85 runs off a mere 48 balls showed his proficiency in this version of the game.
But his contribution to New Zealand cricket has been more as the skipper of the national team, a position he has held since 2016. During this time he moulded Kiwis into a fighting unit, and oversaw their transition from being the “eternal bridesmaid” of international cricket to a champion outfit with ease and poise. There are not many players of “star value” in his side; instead there are cricketers who play the game in a hard, fair and sincere manner. Their batting unit is led by the skipper himself whose forte is solidity. Bowlers always bowl to a plan and seldom give away runs through loose deliveries. The team does not leak runs through misfielding; they pounce on all the catches that come their way and throw themselves at the ball like their lives depend on it. But most importantly, they carry themselves with a sense of self belief that helps them to tide over difficult situations comfortably.
Williamson will also find a place in cricketing annals for changing the perception about behaviour of champion sides. When one studies the history of cricket from 1970s, when live telecast of matches began, it will be seen there have been three teams whose superiority was acknowledged the world over - Australia under Ian Chappell in 1970s, Clive Lloyd-led West Indies during the late 1970s and 1980s and Aussies in the decade and half from 1994 till 2008, when they were captained by Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Rickey Ponting. Chappell was an inspirational leader who played the game hard without yielding an inch, but he did not allow any misbehaviour on the field. West Indians were the lords and masters of all they surveyed on the cricket field when Lloyd was at the helm. They behaved like true champions and were not given to exhibiting emotions on the field.
However, the Aussies who reached the pole position towards the end of the last century were a different lot as they employed mind games as a deliberate strategy to get the better of their opponents. This meant that matches were contested not only on the field but even outside it. Hence, in addition to sledging the batsmen on the field, they also deployed tactics to throw the opposing sides off balance. Though Border initiated the process by preventing members of his side from even smiling at cricketers they were playing against, this tactic was perfected by Waugh. This invariably led to acrimony on the field of play as other sides also started paying Aussies back in the same coin. Spirit of the game took a back seat as win at all costs became the motto of all sides in international cricket. The ”ugly Aussie” image was worn like a badge of honour by the Australian sides of this era, leading to emulation of their behaviour by other sides as well.
We could see reflections of that attitude in India also. Sourav Ganguly understood Waugh’s strategy and retaliated by indulging in his own style of gamesmanship. But Ganguly also simultaneously ensured that the side developed the mental strength take other sides on equal terms, which resulted in increased success rates in all formats of the game. This trend continued during the tenures of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Kohli as well, though a win in ICC championships has eluded the team since Champions Trophy in 2013. But what has shocked many of the old time cricket lovers is the element of brashness and in the face aggression that crept in to the behaviour of the side during the Kohli era. The demeanour and attitude of the team led by Kohli reminded one of the Aussies under Ponting, which is certainly not something to be proud of. There were occasions when one saw even the skipper gesticulating towards the crowds and the “boycott” of the last Test of series against England on the morning the game was to commence did not win them many admirers either.
It is in this situation that the success of New Zealand under Williamson attains added significance. They have proved that one can be successful in all formats of the game without resorting to effrontery and hostility. This constitutes a welcome change and gives rise to the hope that other sides will follow suit, thus bringing down the incidence of tantrums and showmanship on the field and bring the focus back to the basics of the game involving batting, bowling and fielding. New Zealand may have lost the final of the T20 World Cup but they won the hearts of fans world over by the decency and decorum with which they carried themselves on and off the field.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)