Cricket

New Zealand vs England: Tom Latham's century re-ignites the debate if he is the best opener in the world

  • Michael Wagener
  • November 29th, 2019
  • 15:59:57 IST

In the lull between the end of the northern and the start of the southern cricket seasons, a number of former players each selected a personal World Test XI and then those names were compiled to create a current best XI.

This sort of thing is always a bit of fun, and never to be taken too seriously, but there was one interesting thing. Only one of the "selectors" had picked Tom Latham. That seemed like a remarkable oversight.

Averages are not everything in Test cricket but they are quite informative, and generally the batting average is the best single measure of how well a player had been playing.

In the last three years, Latham has averaged close to 50 percent more than any other opener who has played at least 20 Test innings. There isn't a single player who has a record that gets close to Latham's, let alone two that should be selected ahead of him.

New Zealand opener Tom Latham continues rich vein of form as he strokes century on opening day of second Test against England at Seddon Park. AP

New Zealand opener Tom Latham continues rich vein of form as he strokes century on opening day of second Test against England at Seddon Park. AP

But the way that he's scored his runs has made it easy to ignore him. He has built his innings by limiting his game early on, then gradually increasing his repertoire as he gets more comfortable at the crease.

This has often resulted in him starting off his innings slowly. He's scored at a strike rate lower than 40 during his first 20 overs in all but two of his recent innings. But, more importantly, he has still been batting after 20 overs in all but two of his recent innings.

This ability to see off the new ball has helped create the platform for what has probably been New Zealand's best ever era of batting. In the 88 years that New Zealand has been playing Test cricket, they have only scored 500 in an innings on 38 occasions. Fourteen of those (just under 40%) have involved Latham. He has been part of New Zealand’s most prolific opening partnership away from home (with Martin Guptill) and most prolific ever at home (with Jeet Raval) too.

Latham has not only seen off the new ball well, though. He's also made the most of his opportunities once he's in. Once he has reached 30, he has gone on to score a century roughly one third of the time. He averages an extra 66.09 once he makes it to 30. That is only behind Leonard Hutton and Marvan Atapattu amongst openers in history.

By cutting out most risk at the start of his innings, then expanding his game, he's doing exactly what an opener is supposed to do, traditionally. He's just doing it better than anyone else.

He has the advantage over most openers of also being an accomplished middle order batsman. That role requires an ability to score against spin and deal with bowlers working on specific plans, rather than just trying to bowl good deliveries and let the new ball work. As a result he is able to not get bogged down against spin, but rather tends to enjoy making the spinners second guess what line and length they should be bowling to him.

Top Test openers' performance in the past three years (min 20 innings)

Top Test openers' performance in the past three years (min 20 innings)

So how is it that he isn't getting noticed?

Part of it could be that he's a New Zealander. He plays most of his cricket when India, England and South Africa are asleep and Australia is preoccupied. This isn't a new issue for New Zealand cricketers. Jack Cowie is statistically one of the greatest fast bowlers in history, but Wisden commented about him "had he been an Australian, he might have been termed a wonder of our age."

At the start of this series, Alec Stewart commented that a combined England-New Zealand team would be likely to have Kane Williamson and possibly no other New Zealand players. However, the top five batsmen from both teams, in terms of average and rankings leading into the series were all New Zealanders. Anyone picking on performance would have been likely to have more New Zealanders than Englishmen.

Stewart even thought that the new English pair were probably both better than Latham.

It is easy to point that out for ignorance, but it is revealing of how little notice the world takes of New Zealand's cricketers.

That is perhaps going to change with the World Test Championship (WTC).

Previously, a bilateral series was of interest primarily to the two nations involved. However, performances in those series now have an impact on every team’s chance of making the final. As a result, it is possible that Latham and his teammates might get a little more recognition.

However, the other reason may be that he still had some big gaps in his batting resume. He has not yet scored a century against the West Indies, South Africa, Australia or India. As an opening batsman the mark of true quality is success against the sides that have the strongest pace bowlers.

Before today England was another side that Latham had not experienced success against. And the strength and surity of this innings suggests that success against the other big guns is not inconceivable.

Another advantage of the WTC is that it will mean that New Zealand will play the top teams more often. Batsmen like Latham will have a chance to taste success against the world’s best, but with that comes the risk of having his weaknesses exposed.

Latham has passed the Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Sam Curran and Chris Woakes test today, but he will soon face the relentless interrogation of first Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Josh Hazelwood and then of Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma.

Runs against England, India and Australia are not cheap runs. Latham has the opportunity to prove that he is as good as his numbers suggest. Now he just needs to do it. If he maintains his amazing numbers, it will be hard for anyone to ignore him again.

Updated Date: November 29, 2019 15:59:57 IST

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