It's Day 1 of the second Test between New Zealand and England in 2019 at Seddon Park and fans are getting treated to a Tom Latham special - crispy flicks - well just stop there, he does play many other stunners, but it's the flicks that had 'a pure piece of art' written all over them.
Generally, the flick shot isn't considered one of the glamorous shots. If you are a fan of elegance, the cover drive takes the cake, and if you love brute power, then perhaps the cuts and pulls. Despite not being an Asian batsman or Hashim Amla, Tom Latham was putting up a flick masterclass as if he was on a spree to make it the best thing ever that's happened to the sport. On a pitch devoid of movement, the English pace attack didn't take long to realize that the only discipline could do it for them and they were doing a pretty good job at it, with impeccable straight lines.
Only if they knew that Tom Latham, a great leaver of the ball, technically adept, temperamentally strong, full of discipline, could have just flicked his way to hundred that day. He was meeting straight deliveries with a straight full-bat face, and just at the last second, bringing his supple wrists into play, and the subsequent sound from the meat of his bat, was as pleasurable to the eyes, as someone’s favourite food item to their taste buds.
But for the Christchurch-born batsman, it was just an extension of his relentless discipline. Trying to score off deliveries that he's forced to play, then forcing his way to runs. After all, he isn't in the same mould as his contemporary David Warner. And being a Kiwi batsman, a team far away from the spotlight, and playing second-fiddle to Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, never helps you come out of the shadows.
That too, when you are trying to nail one of the most difficult roles in cricket - opening in Tests. But, Latham, determined to carve a niche for himself, after years of slogging, was ready to take the center stage. From being New Zealand's best-ever Test opener to the best in the world. And with his century against England at the Seddon Park, where his brilliance put England under pressure, with it being his fifth century in the space of ten Test innings, he was proving a point. No other Kiwi batsman had pulled off a feat like this ever. And it wasn't just about ten innings. He was dominating Test cricket as an opener for a certain period.
From the start of 2017 to December 3, 2019, by the time the England series ended, no one averaged better than Tom Latham. In fact, he was topping the elite list of six openers who averaged 40 or more, with none of them even averaging 50.
Let's take a look at the conversion rate of top-six openers in the list -
Tom Latham had the joint-best conversion rate with Shikhar Dhawan, though the Indian only had three tons, while Dean Elgar scored the most centuries (7), however, he played nine more Tests than the Kiwi opener.
Latham wasn't only averaging and converting better, but he had also mastered the art of making daddy hundreds. His last six hundreds read - 177, 264*, 176, 161, 154 and 105. Only once did he fail to convert his 100 into 150, which was a testimony of his appetite to play long innings. From not crossing the 150-run-mark ever to five back-to-back 150s, it was a phenomenal run, nothing surprising given his top-notch skills.
The Downward spiral
But, just when it looked like Tom Latham was all set to take down the world, stamp his authority, outdo his contemporary openers, instead of hitting a home run, he hit a roadblock. His long-standing problem of not scoring well against top-nations resurfaced. Post-2018/19 New Zealand home summer, where he was in his trance, the subsequent Australia tour proved to be a disaster, while in the home series against India, he did a decent job, at best. Nothing as expected. Even his overall numbers have turned disappointing for some time now.
From December 4, 2019, onwards, the New Zealand opener has averaged a meagre 32.21, and there are 14 openers in the world who have averaged better than Tom Latham. Notably, there are eight openers in this phase, who average 40 or more, with two of them averaging in excess of 50. From a time when Tom couldn't help but score daddy hundreds, now he's not even able to score hundreds. In fact, his last hundred came in the Hamilton Test against England in 2019, nine Tests ago. He has crossed the fifty-run-mark five times, yet failed to convert them each of the time.
His great conversion rate has taken a big hit. Also, after the opener’s golden run, he was expected to improve on his displays against the world's top-five Test nations - India, England, Australia and South Africa, as it has been his Achilles Heel in the longer format. Let's take a look at how Latham has fared against the top Test nations in his career:
As we can see the Kiwi southpaw doesn't average even 40 against any top side. Barring England, his performances have been poor against most of the other countries. And if we filter that, and take away his home numbers, he averages a below-par 26.44 if we combine his stats in these very countries.
The road ahead
As good a bowling attack as New Zealand possess, their batting can prove to be a weak link for the two Tests against England and the WTC finale, one of the most crucial fixtures in the country's history. Ross Taylor, 37, is returning after an injury lay-off. The recent showing of the Kiwi batsmen in Tests hasn’t been up to the mark. Take a look at their numbers since the start of the Australia series in 2019/20:
Barring Kane Williamson and Henry Nicholls, most of the other top-six batsmen have struggled to score runs. While Daryl Mitchell is too inexperienced to be relied upon, especially on his first away tour. And this is where the role of Tom Latham increases manifolds. He's the only experienced opener on the side and if he fails to show up, it would put immense pressure on Kane Williamson and make it easier for the opposition to come out on top of New Zealand.
The good thing about Tom is that he's hardly 29, and already boasts a lot of experience. To be fair to him, with New Zealand playing fewer Tests against the world's top-nations, things have only turned tougher for him. But, these upcoming three Tests can go a long way in bolstering Tom's career and reputation in world cricket. He’s a man who can get big hundreds. Furthermore, the southpaw has already shown that he can ace the English conditions as well.
Last time, when New Zealand toured England in 2015, the opener, who was all but 23 at that time, had scored two fifties in four innings and exhibited that he has the technique, temperament and heart to succeed in one of the world's most difficult batting places. He even got his last Test century against England in 2019, and if he does come good, it can go a long way in helping New Zealand pull off something special, and for Tom Latham, to carve a special legacy of his own in the folklore of New Zealand cricket.