Travelling across to the sub-continent, the flashback for New Zealand wouldn’t have been the most pleasant of ones. Back in 2016, they were convincingly trashed by the hosts 3-0 in as many Tests.
Batting in sub-continent was tough and they learnt it in the worst possible manner but one guy stood by the trial of spin in 2016, Tom Latham. If the 2016 series was a trailer, the 2021 series showed why exactly the Black Caps opener is considered one of the best openers across conditions in world cricket, in the longest format.
Latham isn’t flashy, he isn’t a very confrontive batter but yet at the same time, he absorbs every single detail on offer. Be it the bowler’s pitch-map, be it asking his non-striker on a particular detail about the delivery. He isn’t afraid to use his feet and when not using his feet, he is very comfortable sweeping the bowler across the square boundary.
Heading in the 2021 series, Latham against spin was a very interesting subject, 126 runs, at an average of 31.5, playing 64.8 balls before being dismissed against the tweakers, the third best before this Test, only behind Mitchell Santner and Kane Williamson.
Being an away opener in the sub-continent isn’t easy. Now double that it with the prospect of facing a tough test in the form of heavy spin. And now triple that with the fact that your team has lost the toss against India in India. That is definitely a death knell for any opener in the world but not for Latham.
Latham in rare company
None have succeeded and made a career in India more than Sir Alastair Cook. Every time, the English opener stepped out to bat, he felt more home than his entire team and at times, even more than the Indian batters. Cook’s recipe of success in India was simple: long-stay and taking the odd risk. Cook had a good sweep, he used his feet well and rotated strike from time to time.
He wasn’t overly aggressive, he rarely hit the ball long enough to clear the boundaries but scored a boundary every 22.4th delivery. 806 runs might not be the best indicator to see Cook’s success, it was the column next to it, he had faced 1858 deliveries in India, relishing the grind of turning tracks.
Having played just one-fourth of the innings Cook has played, Latham has showed evidence of similar characteristics. Not afraid to use the feet, not afraid to soak up the pressure. If 2016 series was an indicator, the 2021 series made it clear that Latham belongs to the rare category.
After losing the toss and fielding first, the 428 balls faced by the southpaw is the second most for a visiting opener against India after Alastair Cook's 483 balls in Ahmedabad in 2012. That’s mostly why he stood out in Kanpur, where there were several other stars aligned. It was evident in the first innings, where he faced 282 deliveries or 47 overs.
Throughout the first innings, the left-hander showed intent to attack, but had plentiful of defence to back it up which helped him absorb immense pressure. 63 of his 71 runs against the spinners came on the leg-side and every time the ball was dropped down to be hit through the square leg, he took his chances. Playing against the spin is a no-brainer in India and Latham did everything to not fall in that trap.
And he repeated that in the second innings
Latham batted 104 balls against spin before getting dismissed. This is the most balls faced by a non-Asian batter against spin in the fourth innings against India since 2017. During his stay in the second innings, he was batting alongside Will Somerville after Will Young was dismissed early. Now Young’s early dismissal wouldn’t have hurt Latham if not for the blunder.
The experienced opener, took more than 15 seconds to convince Young to take the review, which ultimately resulted in his downfall. Truth be told, it was a decision that should have been taken instantly.
With that baggage on his side, the left-hander walked out to bat on the fifth day. He believed and as batters often say, in India, the biggest tool of success is trusting your own defence. And he did trust it, every single delivery which transformed the entire game.
In the first and second session, NZ batted with a control percentage of 100 and 91.7 against Axar Patel. A larger part of that success was on Latham’s defence. Throughout the encounter, he faced 428 deliveries, the most by a Kiwi batter in India while he scored yet another half-century.
And when he looked back at the flying bails, it was evident that the left-hander wasn't just another batter in the line-up, he was a leader, he was gutted by his dismissal and very often in India, that shows how valuable a player is. New Zealand barely survived to draw the Test but the real onus was on Latham, who across both the innings looked formidable.