His off-side game against spin is limited, but that actually works in his favour
Most memorable knocks by overseas batters on Indian soil have come when the visiting team got the opportunity to bat first; that not only allows them to bat at the best possible time – the first day – but also lets them avoid having to bat in the fourth innings, when the pitch is at its worst for batting. It wasn’t that way for Latham, since New Zealand were asked to field first.
The pitch in Kanpur was not a rank turner, but the lack of bounce, and the quality of the Indian spinners, made it tougher for the batters as the game progressed. But Latham stonewalled everything the spinners threw at him, and even his dismissals weren’t exactly caused by the bowler trapping him but instead the result of him being over-eager to reach the three-figure mark in the first innings, and a rather lazy shot in the second.
So what did Latham do to negate the Indian spin threat?
His batting reiterated that there are multiple ways of doing this.
The first method that comes to mind is using the feet and having an all-round game against spin – skills you associate with almost every other batter who has done well in Indian conditions.
The second way is how Latham did it – by having a robust game plan and an unwavering commitment to it. Latham didn’t drive the spinners, even with the spin. He rarely cut too. In fact, he has such a limited off-side game against spin that as a bowler you don’t feel threatened even while bowling really full deliveries without fielding protection. Of course, he’ll drive a half-volley but only if it’s right under the bat. He will also cut you but only if it’s really short and wide.
As a bowler, you can continue bowling wide outside off while varying the length and he’ll happily play maiden after maiden. That makes bowling to Latham a fascinating challenge. He has a rock-solid defence, which is technically so perfect that even subcontinental batters can learn from him. His front-foot movement is fluid and optimum, the head is always on top of the ball and the hands nicely in front of the bat with the bat face slightly angled, the bat and his arms approximately making a figure nine.
It’s not that in Kanpur he didn’t get beaten while defending or that every defensive shot he played was impeccable, but that didn’t make him deviate from his game plan at all. They say the best way to bat is to forget what happened the previous ball, but that’s easier said than done. Every ball that turns more than you expected or bounces more or less than you expected leaves its imprint and, at times, dictates your response to the next one. Latham’s ability to not let it affect his game was commendable.
Imagine David Warner in a similar situation against Ashwin. Once Ashwin starts troubling him, Warner will likely go on the offensive by creating room or dancing down the track. While it’s not a bad idea to counterattack, and sometimes attack is indeed the best form of defence, on a lot of Indian pitches defence is the only form of defence; every other tactic is designed to fail.
By defending so many balls outside off, Latham forced bowlers to pitch closer to him, and that’s when he scored his runs. In response, the bowlers would go wide again and he would happily defend once more. This sequence kept playing out time and again. While he doesn’t sweep as hard as Matthew Hayden or Adam Gilchrist, Latham has immense control and a fairly wide range of sweep shots.
Just like against spin, his game against pace is also pretty sorted. He leaves a lot of deliveries outside off, defends the ones that are a little closer, and scores off those that drift on to the pads. But unlike against spin, he does like driving on the up to fast bowlers, though those shots end up a little squarer than traditional cover drives.
Latham has been a thorn in India’s flesh and seems like the most competent New Zealand batter on these surfaces. That’s why it was surprising no bouncers were bowled to him; the lack of pace and bounce on a pitch like Kanpur makes the short ball really difficult to negotiate. Maybe we will see some of that at the Wankhede in the second Test.
Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of four books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the Craft of Cricket. @cricketaakash