TELFORD VICE in Dunedin
THE question seemed to turn Kane Williamson a whiter shade of the pale he undoubtedly is, and his already sharp eyes took on a keener edge. His fringe might have fluttered in the awkward pause that followed. His wispy beard bristled with, perhaps, puzzlement.
It was as if he had been asked what someone under six feet tall – Williamson stands 1.73 metres tall – thought he was playing at by impersonating a test captain.
Instead, he had been asked whether the complex contest that is test cricket extends to the captains of opposing teams. Do they compete against each other in a bid to gain a broader advantage?
“I don’t think it’s between the captains as much as it is operating within the resources you have and trying to use them to the best of your ability,” Williamson, channelling his inner mission statement, said.
“I’m sure that’s Faf’s focus. It certainly is mine.
“With our team, we do have a number of leaders and we try and operate in way that gives us the best chance.”
Faf du Plessis offered an answer from a human perspective.
“It’s more the personalities of the captains,” Du Plessis said. “Kane and myself are similar personalities.
“So there won’t be too much of a battle going on there ego-wise.
“It’s more when you play guys who try and act like they want to run to show, that’s when the captains can have an ego contest out on the field.
“But I think not with the two of us. We’re pretty chilled and pretty much the same way.
“It’s just about getting the best out of your team. If you can do that in in your own way, that’s obviously great.”
Both spoke in the hours after the most arrogant man in cricket, Virat Kohli, and the most easily panicked, Steven Smith, had sullied the Bangalore test.
Smith had lost the plot after being given out and, wimpishly and illegally, sought advice visually from his dressingroom about his chances of being reprieved by the decision review system.
In reaction, Kohli had exploded in a tragi-comic display of brattishness that would have embarrassed even weary parents used to their two-year-olds unleashing meltdowns in shopping malls.
Was Du Plessis talking about Smith and Kohli?
“I am not referring to anyone,” he said. “That style of captaincy is obviously different and that’s when I suppose you have to try and play your captain a little bit more.”
And you, Mr Williamson?
“I suppose it comes down to the individuals; how they like to operate,” he said. “They’re both very competitive individuals and both outstanding cricketers.
“I guess in such a tight series that’s when you can see a lot of emotion come out.”
But Du Plessis did admit to knowing how Smith and Kohli might have felt as push almost came to shove in front of a baying crowd.
“The 2011 World Cup,” he said with a rueful smile.
No more explanation was needed to dredge up the memory of the quarter-final of that tournament in Dhaka, where the New Zealanders – specifically Kyle Mills, who wasn’t in the XI but had brought drinks onto the field – ensured that push did indeed come to shove.
The fracas shocked an already unsettled South African team, and a defeat that had seemed unlikely duly followed.
“It’s about a moment in the game that you as a team are under pressure,” Du Plessis said. “That’s when senior players or leaders need to step up and front up to that responsibility or pressure.
“Different guys react differently to pressure so whatever is needed at the time to get your troops up and going, that’s what the captain needs to do.”
Smith and Kohli were veering towards an episode that would not have been out of place at a Mixed Martial Arts tournament.
It was ugly and unnecessary – and eminently watchable. Indeed, millions of pairs of eyeballs that might not otherwise have been attuned to the cricket were suddenly fixed on screens big and small, and for days afterwards.
Can it be an accident, then, that the International Cricket Council thought better than to punish anyone involved, particularly as they were the captain of the team representing the most powerful organisation in the game and the leader of the side who play the most aggressive cricket, who together are at the helm of the top ranked test teams?
And all the while, down in Dunedin, Du Plessis and Williamson are playing polite chess in a match that has flown so far under the radar it might yet become part of a conspiracy theory in the same way that, for some people, the moon landings were a grand lie.
So far, in fact, that it could be happening on another planet, where thoroughly decent people like Williamson can’t imagine captains competing against each other.
Smith and Kohli don’t have that problem, but they do have others.