Kiwis’ day out

After Southee’s five-for restricts India, openers Latham & Young lead NZ riposte with unbroken century stand.

The son of a former makeshift opener for his country and a natural science degree dropout combined to produce the most memorable day for a pair of New Zealand openers in Asia. Together, for 57 overs, Tom Latham and Will Young monumentally defied and blunted India’s trio of well-worn spinners without enduring too many nervous moments, through application of technical and mental skills.

Their resistance captured a brilliant New Zealand comeback — after restricting India to 345 despite Shreyas Iyer’s century on debut, thanks to Tim Southee’s maniacal toil. Young and Latham added 129 runs without being separated, keeping the match on a knife’s edge.

If Latham, the more experienced one with ample exposure to Asian conditions, was the unbudging stonewaller, Young, playing just the fourth Test of his start-stop career, was the enterprising sailor, charting new waters. Latham batted with the traits that one expects from him — resolve, awareness and adaptability. He weathered an early spell from Ravichandran Ashwin with the doggedness of his defence. Unlike a lot of left-handed batsmen — many of whom could be counted as Ashwin’s bunnies — his footwork was decisive. The first stride goes backwards, but Latham doesn’t get sucked there. Then depending on the length, he hangs back or strides out. On both instances, the stride is definite, no half-prods or half-measures, no stabs or pokes. He would also stretch low to smother the spin, an aspect that he had vigorously worked on during the lockdown.

Assessing that he needed to steel up his game against spinners, Latham created a rough in his backyard, and practised defensive strokes for hours on end. Like during his schooldays, when he used to make his father Rod bowl endlessly at him. “The key was to quicken my feet movement against spinners, as in New Zealand, you would not often find turners,” he said in an NZC podcast. It has considerably tightened up his game.

He pulled off a double-bluff as well. He knew that the Indian spinners knew he liked to sweep, his father’s favourite shot, and had a tendency to overuse it. On an up-and-down deck, the shot is even more dangerous. So, he summoned the shot warily — only two fours came through the route, executing it only when he had a measure of it. He relied more on shots straight down the ground to full or good-length balls, or cuts whenever India’s bowlers shortened their lengths. Ashwin mixed his length, began tossing up more generously without protection in the covers, but Latham was not to be tempted. He slithered in the carrom ball, deliberately went leg-side, in case he over-balanced when flicking. But Latham would just offer the broad willow of abstinence.

It’s Ravindra Jadeja that troubled him more with his change of pace, and he was once adjudged LBW, but for an edge the snickometer detected upon review. He had successfully overturned another LBW off Ishant Sharma early on. But those aberrations aside, he was a safe house for the Kiwi cause, as he had built his reputation on. To negate the uneven bounce Jadeja was instigating from the pitch, the left-hander was wary to play him on the front foot, nudging and pushing him behind the stumps for singles and doubles, more often than not content in giving the strike back to his more aggressive accomplice.

Better late than never

His partner, Young, is attended by an unlucky reputation. New Zealand’s skipper at the 2012 U-19 World Cup, he had always been the wrong man at the wrong place. He had an uncanny knack of picking up injuries whenever he was primed to make his debut. When finally, he kept injuries away, another slice of misfortune struck. He was slated to debut against Bangladesh in 2019, but the series was called off after the terrorist attack at a Christchurch mosque on the eve of the match. He had even addressed a press conference when the news broke in. The 29-year-old had to wait for another 20 months for his Test cap. Then struck another injury that ruled him out for six months, a period in which Devon Conway burst forth to stake his opening claims. Young took a mental break from the game and set up The Will Young Cricket Trust to fund underprivileged young cricketers with scholarships and kits.

He patiently bided his time, and when Conway was injured at the T20 World Cup, he was parachuted at the top of the order. This time, he seemed determined to make the most of the break, constructing a knock of immense gravity. For a first-timer in India, on a low turner, he batted without any streak of unfamiliarity. Rather, with the familiarity of a veteran. He dexterously used his feet to counter Ashwin and once lofted-drove him sublimely through mid-on. Not just against Ashwin, he repeatedly stepped out to the faster Axar Patel and Jadeja. Patel was smeared through cover before he picked Jadeja through mid-off. He was more ruthless on the erring seamers, especially Yadav, whom he punished with five boundaries.

In the past, Young used to be censured for squandering his starts (12 first-class hundreds but 30 half-centuries), but here, he was judicious after reaching 50, which he did with a delicate nudge to the third-man fence off Yadav. Rather, he decelerated.

The deeper they batted, the more petulant India’s bowlers became. Not that they bowled badly, but the New Zealand pair out-thought and out-fought them. They could blame misfortune too — plenty of edges dropped short of fielders, a couple of reviews didn’t favour them, and the pitch didn’t deteriorate as much as they had anticipated. The lack of pace and bounce hampered Ashwin’s craft from blossoming, while Patel and Jadeja struggled with their lengths.

But they are still in the game, and could bounce back as New Zealand accomplished on the second day. If the build-up to the series was low-key, due to a clutch of absentees and the general saturation, it has sparked to life in the first two days.

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