Until Brendon McCullum took over as captain of the New Zealand cricket team in 2012, the Black Caps had been meandering towards existence as one of cricket’s highly talented but perennially underperforming sides.
His succession as captain was not smooth, but it was decisive. McCullum moulded the team into a bunch of hard fighters, and eventually, winners. Their unprecedented run to the finals of the World Cup in 2015 underlined their recent acquired status as one of the most competitive sides in international cricket.
With the retirement of their dashing and fearless captain, New Zealand found themselves with a slot that is nearly impossible to fill. Kane Williamson became an able replacement for the leadership role, while Martin Guptill stepped up his game in ODIs to soften the blow of losing McCullum.
Similar to a phase of rebuilding that India went through after the retirement of a few cricketing greats at around the same time, New Zealand are currently only left with Ross Taylor, who has been around for a long time.
Rise through the ranks
At a time when New Zealand’s old guard was close to retirement, Tom Latham made his way into the national team quietly but effectively, much like his batting. Until he made his Test debut in 2014, Latham was used occasionally in ODIs. There was no initial brilliance, but a few solid knocks showed that he was at home in the international arena. At a time when McCullum had given up the wicket-keeping gloves, Latham offered an additional keeping option as well.
Latham arrived in the national team as a flexible player, providing not only the keeping option but also a solid batsman at any spot in the batting order. Until his Test debut, he had played 13 ODIs across two years with only one half-century to show. However, during these matches, he was shuffled up and down the order and never allowed to settle. What was viewed initially as his flexibility almost became his curse.
Latham somehow kept his place in the team as a fringe player in ODIs until he began to open the innings. As a lower order batsman, he neither felt at home coming in to bat late in the innings nor was his technique suited to finishing games. His strengths of technique and patience became the reason for his mediocre performance as a lower or middle order batsman.
Luckily, his talent was noticed and he was promoted to open the innings for New Zealand.
|Batting Position||Matches||Innings||Runs||High Score||Average||Strike Rate||100s||50s|
|3 to 11||21||20||370||48||21.76||73.41||0||0|
|1 or 2||20||20||733||110*||45.81||80.46||1||6|
Solidity at the top
Only in 2014 did Latham really get an opportunity to cement his place in the New Zealand line-up and he made full use of it. He came past the embarrassment of scoring a duck the first time he walked out to bat in Tests, with a 29 in the second innings. With three half-centuries in his next three Test innings, Latham had well and truly arrived on the international stage. These innings came in the West Indies after which the Black Caps travelled to the UAE to play a Test series against Pakistan.
Latham, by then, had assured himself of a place as Test opener and sparkled in the slow and low pitch conditions in the Emirates. He constructed two hard fought centuries in the first two Tests, proving beyond any doubt that he was an opener made for all seasons – an answer to New Zealand’s prayers of a solid and dependable opener in Tests. In the period before Latham arrived, New Zealand had given opportunities to Peter Fulton and Hamish Rutherford, both of whom could not hold on to the spot.
While he didn’t do too well against Sri Lanka, when they visited the Kiwis for a Test series later that year, his consistent knocks on tours to England and Australia in 2015 answered any doubts about his consistency and value. Late in 2015, Sri Lanka visited again and this time, Latham set right the record by scoring a century. Until then, his record at home was little to talk about, with 6 innings yielding only 114 runs.
In 2016, he took his performances to another level with a second set of back to back centuries in Zimbabwe. However, faced with South Africa’s world-class bowling attack, Latham came up short. He managed a paltry 8 runs in three innings which included a duck. This was the first away Test series that Latham had truly failed in. He didn’t have to wait long to prove his detractors wrong because soon, he found himself in India – another country he was touring for the first time.
Away from home
By the time New Zealand began their tour of India, Latham had proved his value to the Kiwis, especially in alien conditions. They weren’t really expected to sparkle on the dusty pitches in the UAE, but Latham’s consecutive centuries against Pakistan had proved his ability and temperament in conditions where New Zealanders generally found the going tough.
For the first half of the series, Latham waged a lone battle against Pakistan while his teammates found it tough to even keep him company. Only when the seniors – Taylor in the second Test, McCullum and Williamson in the third – notched up centuries, were New Zealand able to draw the series. Latham’s technique and patience had finally paid off.
Interestingly, the southpaw made a good impression on his tours to the West Indies, Pakistan and later, England and Australia. He was able to stand tall on pitches with turn and low bounce as well as tackle the swing on hard and grassy strips. Here was a young prospect for the Kiwis, a solid top order batsman following in the footsteps of Stephen Fleming and Nathan Astle.
In India, Latham has once again been the only New Zealand batsman to consistently stand up to the Indian bowling attack. He picked up a half-century in each of the three Tests and his inability to reach three figures was one of the reasons New Zealand failed to put up a fight, not withstanding the collective failure of all other batsmen in the side. In the three ODIs so far, he has again provided three consistent knocks at the top of the order, setting the base for innings which have often faltered after his dismissal.
Not pretty, but effective
New Zealand might have got used to the ‘shock and awe’ methods of McCullum, but no flash in the pan player would be able to manage the longevity and consistency of McCullum. Players like Chris Gayle and Virender Sehwag popularised aggressive Test cricket, but lest one forget, Test cricket is more often a game of attrition. Latham has neither the bravado of McCullum, nor the power of Gayle or the simplicity of Sehwag.
What Latham brings to the table is a very good technique and the ultimate skill that a Test batsman needs – patience. His knocks in the Emirates and more recently in India, proved that he has the temperament to grind it out in the middle when the odds are stacked against him. That, despite his regular early dismissals, he has managed a Test average of 38 is an impressive fact. It is at par with what McCullum and Astle achieved.
In contrast, his opening partner in Tests, Martin Guptill has a Test average of a shade below 30 and only 3 centuries to his name. In fact, no other New Zealand batsman has had the kind of impact as an opener that the young southpaw has had. Latham’s performances were the need of the hour, especially away from home, and it would be fair to say that he did save the blushes for the Black Caps on quite a few occasions.
Form or class?
Latham’s overall figures as a batsman both in Tests and ODIs are none too impressive. While he averages 38 in Tests, in ODIs he has managed 32.56 so far. However, the figures show a marked improvement when his first season in international cricket is excluded. Is it a case of Latham hitting a purple patch of good form, or are his excellent figures in the last year a product of his class?
One thing to note is that when considered only as an opening batsman in ODIs, his figures make for much better reading. He did hit his straps in the last one year, with a century against Zimbabwe and three half-centuries on the trot against the venomous bowling of South Africa. He has also given an excellent account of himself in the three ODIs against India so far. How far he is ahead of other batsmen in his side was established when he became the first New Zealander to carry his bat, in the first ODI at Dharamsala.
Getting set and going on
One of Latham’s great strengths is his ability to get going and at least get a start, once he is set. A batsman getting dismissed for a single digit score, before he could get his eye in, is quite understandable. Latham does fall prey early in his innings on quite a few occasions. Once he has got set at the crease, however, he has the ability of playing an innings of great value to the team.
This is where his not-so-good conversion rate comes into the picture. Out of 22 instances where he has gone past the half-century mark, only on 6 occasions has he gone on to triple figures. It is a something which has plagued many batsman and what separates the average batsman from the incredibld runmakers.
Apart from Martin Crowe, no other New Zealand batsman has managed a conversion rate of close to 50 in Test cricket. This is something that Latham would do well to learn.
Although he is doing well for the Kiwis with consistent starts and the occasional match winning innings, it is not really reflective of his talent. If he does learn how to play the long innings, though, New Zealand will have a brilliant player on their hands in their quest to become a strong cricketing power.
NOTE: Statistics as of 25th October, 2016. Statistics include India vs New Zealand at Mohali, 3rd ODI, 23rd Oct 2016.