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Cricket news - The Australian cauldron's ready, so is Williamson
Williamson puts on an impromptu problem-solving masterclass in the nets
The first delivery Kane Williamson faced on tour smashed into his wrist after jumping off a length. The ball took the Kiwi captain by surprise but didn't shake him to any extent. It thankfully didn't cause any significant damage either. The culprit responsible for the traditional cricketing Perth welcome wasn't one of his many skilful fast bowlers though. It was instead Peter Fulton with a side-arm.
In his day, Fulton was an occasionally attractive but generally dour Test batsman. With the side-arm in hand though, he's a fearsome prospect. There aren't too many international teams around who can boast of having a nearly two-metre tall batting coach after all. Not one who can literally simulate the menace of the Australian pace attack and provide the cricket coach's version of tough love like the former New Zealand opener can anyway.
And it was Fulton who provided the Kiwi visitors with a testing, and at times rude, awakening to Australia with a harrowing spell of side-arm "wanging" on Monday (December 9).
The pitches on offer at the practice area on the sidelines of the intimidating exterior of the Perth Stadium of course aided the towering coach every bit. But a batting line-up coming off fresh from a run-fest on the staid and rather flat pitches back home, couldn't have asked for a better and more challenging initiation than this in their opening net of a month-long tour on this side of the Tasman. If anything, comparing Peter Fulton armed with bat in hand to Peter Fulton with a side-arm in tow would sum up just how different the pitches here were to those Kane Williamson & Co made merry on against England over the last few weeks.
It was just the start of a 15-minute session where the Kiwi skipper barely managed to lay bat on ball. And it wasn't just Fulton who was causing him trouble. For, Mitchell Santner too was turning the ball square off the very green surface - thrice ripping deliveries right past the right-hander's outside-edge. On one occasion, Williamson actually attempted a sweep off the left-arm spinner and met the ball with the bottom of his bat.
He wasn't having fun against Fulton and Matt Henry, bowling off a short-run, either. He wasn't always at fault though. For, there were at least half-a-dozen spots on the pitch from where the ball was either rising untowardly or cutting away at extreme angles. On one occasion Henry had his captain ducking for cover and almost flattening him with a delivery that sprang up on him from a good length. Henry was discontinued soon after but Fulton and Santner continued to be a bother even if Williamson did get the middle of his bat to a few attempted drives. Henry Nicholls, who shared the net, wasn't having a comfortable time either even getting clean-bowled once. Nor did Jeet Raval when he moved in as Fulton continued to be a threat. Williamson then decided to take a break to give throwdowns to Tim Southee and Neil Wagner in the adjoining net. But he wasn't done batting yet.
A couple of hours earlier, some 1.5 km away in the older home of Western Australian cricket, Steve Smith copped a blow on the gloves too, courtesy his long-time side-arm confidant, Graeme Hick. He grimaced and shook his hands in pain. But like always, Australia's premier batsman seemed more bothered by having let the ball strike him awkwardly than the pain it'd caused him. The practice wicket at the WACA didn't look as threatening as the one on the other side of the Swan River. But there were a couple of times when Hick had Smith in trouble - cutting him in half one time and getting an outside-edge on another - with the No.2 Test batsman in the world berating himself vocally in characteristic fashion. Smith had started his session in the spinners' net and been struck on the pads by a tall local off-spinner. He obviously wasted no time in indicating that the ball would have spun past his leg-stump even before the bowler could look interested in a mock appeal. The star batsman was impressed enough though by the young offie to later talk him up to Matthew Wade. He also then brought him to the notice of the support staff who led the youngster to the middle of the WACA for a spell against the left-handers who were indulged in some centre-wicket practice. Smith then went back to middling some powerful drives and looking pleased with himself, and mistiming a few and giving himself a telling off.
Will Australia go short to Williamson?
Williamson isn't much of a self-talker like Smith or even Joe Root for that matter. He prefers to quietly self-introspect whenever he plays a false shot or gets beaten in the nets. He does have the unique quirk of constantly spinning his bat in his hands, nearly every couple of minutes. At times he does so even as late as after having settled into his stance and with the bowler about to enter his delivery stride. It's quite amazing how he still manages to get into position without fail each time. The only thing you notice with Williamson, when you know he's not overly happy with how he's going in the net, is that the bat is spun around with more frequency and seemingly with little more intensity. And it was evident when the New Zealand captain returned to the net for his second stint of the evening.
Purely on the basis of his first go, you wouldn't have thought Williamson had scored his 21st Test ton only six days earlier. But now, some 45 minutes on, he looked a lot more settled. Fulton was still getting balls to bounce, and Santner had now been replaced by head coach Gary Stead with a side-arm. And like it often happens with great batsmen, Williamson had found a way. It's probably unlikely that he'd be faced with such hazardous conditions come the first Test on Thursday. But it didn't mean, he wouldn't want to overcome this challenge here. Earlier in the day, Williamson had received lofty plaudits from Smith, who revealed that his counterpart had "loads of time against quick bowling" and also how he played the ball later than anyone else in the world.
"He plays the ball incredibly late. He is patient. I think we actually hold the bat reasonably similarly. He has got quite a closed grip. I like that in Test cricket personally. It just helps playing the ball a bit later," he'd said.
And Williamson was proving Smith right with the way he went about tackling the tricky practice pitch. It wasn't just his determination to succeed but also the way he had softened his grip on the bat even more than usual and now was playing the ball a lot later too. The ball wasn't anymore flying past his bat but instead being stopped in its tracks by Williamson's slightly open-faced bat. And rather than catch the edge, the ball was slamming into the best part of the wood and dropping dead right by his feet. And when Fulton or Stead pitched it slightly fuller, Williamson was pulling off the best-timed drives you could see. The three adjacent nets were slightly less spiteful, and the likes of Tom Latham, BJ Watling and Tom Blundell seemed in lesser discomfort. Incidentally, the only time any of those pitches did misbehave was when Williamson, in-between his batting stints, dished out an awkward bouncer to Southee with a side-arm.
Now Williamson was prepared to move on to other challenges. He spent the last segment of his net session facing only short-balls and also was involved for a good 10 minutes in an animated chat with Fulton about the best technique against them on bouncy pitches, the kind you'd expect to see at the Perth Stadium for the Test. Should he stay upright each time and look to pull the short-ball or should he bend down a little so that he's slightly more balanced to either duck out of the way completely or try attacking it with a hook shot? Though it didn't look like either coach or captain could come to a definite conclusion here, you know he'd make the right call when he's in the middle facing Pat Cummins & Co. And not like Williamson has seemingly ever had much of an issue against the short-ball.
Justin Langer often refers to Smith as being the best problem-solver in the business. Williamson had just put on a masterclass of impromptu problem-solving right there. Unlike earlier, when he was trying to ride the bounce every time it rose on him and therefore committing to even those he didn't have to, he was now picking and choosing deliveries he needed to get in line of. It meant he was the one in control, not Fulton or the side-arm. It meant he'd eliminated the pitch and the conditions from the equation. It showed why he's right up there in the uppermost echelons of Test batting currently. It showed he's ready for Australia.
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