In the May 2018 round of New Zealand Cricket central contracts, Jimmy Neesham missed out on a contract. Not many people were surprised. He had not had a good year for New Zealand and had been asked to go back to Otago and dominate at domestic level, but had even been cut from the Otago side.
One of the players who did make the list, also not a surprise to anyone, was Tom Latham. He was the rising star of New Zealand cricket. He had been asked to stand in as captain a couple of times, and in his past 20 ODI matches, he had averaged over 40 with a strike rate just below 90. He'd carried New Zealand home with a century against India in Mumbai, and then scored a vital 71 in the epic run chase against England in Dunedin.
It would be fair to say that their stars were travelling in different directions. Latham's was ascending while Neesham's was waning.
Since then, however, their fortunes, particularly in limited overs cricket, have reversed.
Neesham got a new contract playing for Wellington, and made an immediate impact. In the Ford Trophy, the domestic one-day cricket tournament in New Zealand, he scored 503 runs at an average of 62.88 and a strike rate of 111. He also picked up 13 wickets. In every match except two he either scored a 50 at a strike rate of at least 95 or took two or more wickets for less than 50 runs.
That earned him a recall into the New Zealand side, and he continued the run there. He's averaged 62 with the bat at a strike rate of 120 since his recall. With the ball he has taken 17 wickets at an average of 21.17 and gone at less than 5.5 runs per over.
He’s been so successful that in the past two years, the difference between his batting average and his bowling average is roughly twice as high as Shakib Al Hasan, the next best player (min 15 wickets against top sides.)
Latham, on the other hand, has had less than stellar returns. Since May 2018, he's averaged 26 at a strike rate of just over 86. To put that in context, that's roughly the same as Colin Munro this year, but at a significantly slower strike rate.
To go along with that, his second string, keeping, has also been below par. His footwork has devolved, and he's lunging at the ball, rather than making quick, short steps. That has led to him missing a few chances (albeit difficult ones) that a keeper at the top of his game would have taken.
On Wednesday, he dropped Babar Azam on 38 and missed a ball that could have given him a stumping when Haris Sohail was on 3. If those two chances had been taken, Pakistan would have needed 125 more runs with 5 wickets in hand. On that pitch, that would have been a very demanding task.
With the bat, he faced 14 balls. 10 of them he either left or attempted to defend. The other four that he tried to score off either missed, or found a fielder. It was the innings of someone who looked like he was trying to play himself in, but just couldn't manage it.
Neesham also didn't find things easy early on. There was a degree of luck in the difference between them. When Neesham misjudged a defensive shot against Shaheen Shah Afridi, it went past the edge. When Latham misjudged the line of one, it caught the edge.
But Neesham did show more intent, and that may in part be due to him being more confident in his game right now. His leaves were decisive. When the balls came that he felt he could attack safely he was measured, but still forceful.
Getting some confidence may be all that Latham needs. But it may be more than that. Neesham had to go away and work in his game. He made some technical adjustments and as a result performed better. It's hard to know what technical adjustments Latham needs to make, because he just hasn't batted long enough for a sensible analysis to be possible recently. But there were some clear technical issues with his keeping.
Luke Ronchi is currently the New Zealand fielding coach. Hopefully he's spending a bit of time working with Latham on his keeping. It may just be that the pitch New Zealand faced at Edgbaston was different to what Latham has been preparing for. If that is all the issue is, then it will be quite easy to fix. But if it is a complete breakdown in confidence to the point where things are no longer happening through muscle memory, then it will take a lot longer.
Neesham showed the advantage of a player who was given some time and who really sorted his game out.
He had enough confidence in his ability to attack that he was prepared to score only 15 runs off his first 40 balls. Off his next three 20 ball brackets he scored 17, 19 and 27 runs respectively then 18 off 12 to end.
Latham has shown that he's capable of that sort of acceleration in the past too, but it's starting to get to a point where it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
New Zealand coach Gary Stead has a tricky decision now. Does he allow Latham more time to find his form, or does he bring in Tom Blundell to keep and tell Latham to go away and work on his game?
Sending Neesham away to work on his game helped him develop as a player. To send Latham away would be a dramatic move this late in the World Cup. However, it may be the sort of thing that's needed to bring about success in this tournament, and improve his game long term.
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