Williamson and Latham, the two constants of New Zealand cricket

In 2021, Kane Williamson staked his claim to be New Zealand’s greatest ever captain by leading them to the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) title and final of the T20 World Cup. However, his long-standing elbow injury and a slump in form – both in international cricket and IPL – put his future under scrutiny. Given the congested cricketing calendar, Williamson was expected to give up white-ball captaincy and continue to lead New Zealand in Test cricket. Except that didn’t happen.

When the time came, Williamson stepped down from Test captaincy but kept hold of the white-ball sides, perhaps fueled by the dream of going one better at the 2023 ODI World Cup. Even in this unlikely event, it was thought that Tom Latham would be his successor. He had stepped in for him often enough. But New Zealand Cricket (NZC) felt differently and appointed Tim Southee to the post.

Around the time New Zealand desperately needed a wicket on the opening day of the Karachi TestTrent Boult was in action for Melbourne Stars at the BBL. Then, on the second, Martin Guptill, was making his BBL debut for Melbourne Renegades. Colin de Grandhomme has retired from international cricket, as has Ross Taylor. New Zealand’s cricketing landscape is in flux, but there is still one constant: Williamson and Latham are still the batting leaders of the Test side.

The cracks on the Karachi pitch are opening up. The ball landing in the rough was routinely drawing puffs of dust, and towards the close, Pakistan’s spinners were getting turn even off the straight. But it was slow turn. Batters don’t mind that. What did bother them was the low bounce.

Williamson, in particular, relishes standing up tall and dining the ball down to third man on true pitches. This one was anything but. So he had to lower his stance, tighten his defense and play as straight as possible. That naturally messes with your chances of scoring quick runs, which is why, at one point, he was just 7 off 45.

Latham followed a similar template. It’s funny, the son of Rockin Rod doesn’t even have a franchise T20 deal, but when his team need him he’s always there. He blunts the new ball across conditions in an era where opening the batting in Test cricket is a difficult job. He has vastly improved his keeping to become New Zealand’s frontline ODI keeper and offer the team balance. Rahul Dravid selflessly did that back in the day for India. And whenever Williamson has been unavailable, Latham has always been ready to captain the team. He will lead the side in India in January 2023, when Williamson and Southee will rest at home after the Pakistan tour.

It is too early to tell what impact these two centuries have on the Test but one thing is for certain, this was Williamson and Latham at their calculative best. They took great care not to be caught at the same end for a long time, using something they have in common – a strong back-foot game – to keep piercing gaps on the leg side. Their boundaries, though, were the result of special skills.

Latham is one of the best sweepers in the modern game and he used it to great effect en route to becoming the most prolific century-maker among New Zealand’s openers, surpassing John Wright with his 13th Test hundred. Williamson, on the other hand, just extended his impeccable defense whenever there was too long a lull. His down-the-track lofts against Nauman Ali were all virtually perfect, giving no warning that he would be on the charge, reaching the pitch of the ball every single time and taking the most risk-averse route to the boundary. Straight down the ground.

This has been a slow-burning Test match on a slow pitch where it hasn’t been easy to score freely or strike quickly. But it has produced an image that lingers. That of a long work day ending – and perhaps a new era in New Zealand cricket beginning – with Williamson walking back to a warm reception from Latham and Southee in the dressing room.

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