India are no stranger to Tom Latham, or the other way around. The diminutive left-hander spent nearly two months here around this time last year playing the sweep shot and looking rather comfortable against the Indian spinners.
He scored a half-century in each of the three Tests and then was the top-scorer for the Kiwis in the ODI series that followed. The Indians, however, hadn’t seen him walk out to bat by himself though. He always had an opening partner in tow. In fact, Latham hadn’t batted in the middle-order in an ODI since December 2015. That’s 25 straight innings where he had opened the innings.
So when he walked out at No.5 at the Wankhede Sunday, it wasn’t just a relatively new experience for the 25-year-old; it was also an unfamiliar one for his familiar opponents. The decision to demote Latham in the batting order was based on the prowess against spin that he’d displayed last time around. Not to forget the lengthy quest for stability that New Zealand have sought in post-Ross Taylor, pre-Colin de Grandhomme section of their line-up.
It was also quite a scenario to walk in to for someone trying to reinvent himself. New Zealand had just lost Martin Guptill, with Kane Williamson already having been dismissed, to a meek pull shot off Hardik Pandya. That left the visitors at 80/3 and staring at what seemed at that point like a rather insurmountable feat. India had posted 280 on the board on a slightly sticky wicket at Wankhede, leaving the Kiwis to complete the highest-ever run-chase at the venue. Ross Taylor had only just walked in. It was the proverbial deep end that Latham had been thrown into. And he not only managed to swim safely to the shore, he took his team along — with Taylor playing the perfect role of senior pro — and helped them take a 1-0 lead in the three-match series. Latham, who remained unbeaten on 103, and Taylor eventually added 200, the highest fourth-wicket partnership in New Zealand’s ODI history, and left the Indians in unacquainted territory; behind in a series for the first time in nearly a year.
Till the halfway stage of the match though, the script couldn’t have been more perfect for the hosts. Virat Kohli had scored his 31st century in his 200th ODI in front of a Wankhede crowd that grew in number as the captain set about stitching the innings together after an early hiccup, losing the openers very early. It might not have been the most glittering of his collection, but on a pitch where the ball wasn’t coming through at the same pace always, it was still a masterclass. For once it just didn’t end up being good enough.
Latham’s arrival was perfectly timed though with regards to the Indian spinners having just about gotten into their act. The turn was slow off the pitch but there was enough bounce to keep the wrist spinners interested. Taylor had already edged one and been beaten once by Yuzvendra Chahal. But from the first ball he faced off Chahal, Latham showed off exactly how he planned to tackle the Indian spin, with the sweep shot. His first two scoring shots were paddles off the leg-spinner. Latham’s is a compact technique, much like his physique. But he also has a decently high back-lift that allows him to play the sweep to a much wider arc of the around. So when the ball’s full—like it was more often than not considering the stodgy nature of the pitch—he just lifts the bat higher and brings it down to target the finger regions of the field. When the ball isn’t so full, he still has enough of a downward curve to connect with the sweep and hit the ball towards the squarer parts of the field—from square-leg to mid-wicket—like he did to hit the first six off his innings off Chahal.
As his confidence grew, Latham also dished out the reverse-sweep, a shot that he’s only recently begun to develop. There were of course a few shots off brilliance against the seamers too, like the time he jumped out of his crease and slammed Bhuvneshwar over the in-field and the short-arm pummel over wide long-on off Bumrah for his second six. It was the 26 runs he scored off the sweep shot that blunted the Indian spinners’ morale.
Latham wasn’t just being slotted into a new role as far his batting position was concerned. He was also replacing Luke Ronchi, who provided a new dimension to the Kiwis’ batting in ODIs. Latham has earned his stripes more as a grafter, but here he showed that he does also possess the ability to up the ante when the need arises. There’s not much about Taylor that India doesn’t know, considering the years he’s spent in the IPL. But he held back his aggressive instinct and was content playing second fiddle, and his 95 was as crucial to the Kiwi cause as Latham’s century. Trent Boult’s ability to move the ball in the air and off the wicket isn’t an unidentified phenomena either, and he kept New Zealand in the game in the afternoon with an excellent new-ball spell that saw him knock off the openers and then dismissed MS Dhoni and Dinesh Karthik in his second burst.