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Latham in the middle

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Tom_Latham_New_Zealand_cricket_ODIConsider the best 10 partnerships in ODIs since the 2015 World Cup. You will come across three Indian pairs, three English pairs, one Australian and one South African. Nestled inconspicuously amongst the toppers are a couple of batting pairs from New Zealand: Ross Taylor - Kane Williamson and Martin Guptill - Kane Williamson.

Taylor and Williamson have been so good in the middle-order that they are the second best batting pair in ODIs since the beginning of 2014, with 2,479 runs at 61.97 with 10 century partnerships and as many half-century partnerships.

They were vital to New Zealand's run to the World Cup finals in 2015, yet there was a missing link in the middle-order, particularly with Corey Anderson being hit or miss and Luke Ronchi retiring.

This is where the shrewdness of Mike Hesson stands out. Instead of identifying replacements for Grant Elliott, Corey Anderson and Luke Ronchi from the domestic middle-order batsmen, he thought about the “other” huge problem facing New Zealand cricket - the openers.

Martin Guptill and Tom Latham had been pretty good since Brendon McCullum's retirement, but the strike rate was becoming a concern. Latham's slow scoring rate at the top not only put a fair amount of pressure on Martin Guptill, but also contributed to Colin Munro batting way down the order.

“It would be fair to say Martin [Guptill] and Tom, although they have had some really good performances individually, they haven’t really clicked at the top and certainly haven’t generated a strike-rate as a pair that we would like,” Hesson said before the Kiwis went to India for an ODI series.

The solution was to either keep Latham at the top, a move not approved by many given his strike rate, or drop him for the experienced Neil Broom or enterprising Henry Nicholls.

Hesson outsmarted everyone by sending Colin Munro to open the innings alongside Guptill and pushed Latham to no.5, where his abilities against spin would be useful. It turned out to be a masterstroke.

 

“Tom is pushing his case, as someone who can keep and bat in the middle. Certainly, his ability against spin will be critical for that. Tom was probably our best performing batsman 12 months ago in India, in those spin-friendly conditions,” Hesson said.

 

Latham fit into the middle-order like the missing jigsaw piece that the Black Caps always needed. He started off with a match-winning 103* at Mumbai and followed it up with a valiant 65 at Kanpur in the series decider, nearly taking the Kiwis to their first series win in India.

The England home series was always going to a tough nut to crack for the Black Caps, given the small grounds and England's big hitters. But with four matches done and dusted, the Kiwis have leveled the series 2-2 and it can safely be said that Latham has played a brilliant role in their renaissance.

While Ross Taylor has the limelight with his magnificent tons, Latham has played the perfect partner, scoring an 84-ball 79 at Hamilton in the series opener and then a 67-ball 71 in the chase of 335 at Dunedin.

Just as he swept his way through the spinners in India, against England’s choking spinners - Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid- Latham employed the sweep and stepped out frequently to negate turn.

Just when England thought they had New Zealand on the mat by getting rid of Williamson, Latham would stand up and deliver a crushing blow alongside Ross Taylor.

In the first ODI, the Taylor-Latham stand lifted New Zealand from 27/3 to 205 in a run chase of 285. Latham was the catalyst yet again. He reached the fence just six times but ensured that the runs came thick and fast with smart rotation of the strike. The partnership derailed England's plans and Taylor, who has been in eye-popping touch with the willow, gorged on the bowlers to take the Kiwis home.

In the fourth ODI, Latham was at it again as he walked in with the hosts stuck in a rut at 86/3 chasing down 335, and combined with Ross Taylor in a nerve-wracking 187 run stand that took the Kiwis to a terrific run chase and victory.

In fact, Latham and Taylor make for a stunning pair. In 16 matches since 2014, the duo has amassed 1,125 runs at an average of 75.00 (second to only Kohli-Dhawan and Root-Roy for pairs with more than 1,000 runs) with three century stands and five half-century partnerships.

Virtually, 50% of the time the two bat together, they make a 50+ stand, which is mind-blowing for two underrated middle-order batsmen. Latham's presence in the middle-order augurs quite well for a Kiwi side that is shaping up well for the World Cup in England next year.

With his additional ability to keep wickets, he is probably one of the best all-rounders in the country. While we hail Williamson and Taylor, the miniscule, yet crucial, role that Latham has played in New Zealand’s ODI resurrection cannot be forgotten.

 

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