Chance for Milne and Latham to grow
In his second over in international cricket, Adam Milne clocked 151 kilometres an hour. At 18, he had perhaps brewed more hype at home than even Daniel Vettori had enjoyed when he first arrived in international cricket as a teenager. Slim and almost pencil-like, with a willowy run-up and a wind up and release that was nearly liquid, it was not difficult to see what all the excitement was about. As countless fast bowling coaches have said, you can teach swing and seam, but you can't teach pace.
Tom Latham debuted just over a year later, and he too had already been earmarked, at 19. He didn't have a mountain of domestic runs behind him, as Kane Williamson did at a similar age, but he did have a startling range of strokes and the power to make them count. In his second ODI, he proved he was as adept at the shuffle-and-paddle past fine leg off the medium pace bowlers, as he was at the bludgeoned slog sweep off the spinners.
Now both men are 20, and are being invested in. Captain Ross Taylor has hinted Milne will be unleashed at Pallekele in the Twenty20 on Tuesday. He only bowled one over in the World Twenty20, but with the stakes much lower in a bilateral series, New Zealand can afford to blood their tearaway, particularly on a track as fast and bouncy as can be found on the subcontinent. Martin Guptill, meanwhile, sits out the limited-overs leg so that Latham can assume his favoured role of facing the new ball - a luxury he has not had so far in his international career.
"We're trying to give everyone a go in the next three matches, but that depends on a couple of things," Taylor said on the eve of the tour opener. "Tom Latham will be given the job of opening the innings. Being a left-hander, he gives us that flexibility and change up the top."
Despite an encouraging first series against Zimbabwe, Latham's talent has only been visible in brief glimpses since. Against West Indies in July, he was uncharacteristically circumspect, striking at less than 50 and scoring poorly as a result. Perhaps beginning his innings against good quality spin hindered him. Openers, it is said, are a breed apart, and at his age, the lower middle-order must have seemed alien. He has not yet acquired the versatility to suddenly become a finisher. Latham will not have the same excuse in Sri Lanka, though. With the hosts also blooding a new fast bowler in Shaminda Eranga, who will likely take the new ball in the first Twenty20, Latham can compete on more even terms.
"He has had a lot of success at the top of the innings as well, through age group cricket," Taylor said. "A lot of new players come in to the middle order where it can be a little tough to manipulate the field. If Tom opens, the field will be in and the ball will be hard and it gives him the opportunity to hit through the line and hit over the top."
Milne's returns have also been disappointing, despite his promise. His cheapest spell from four Twenty20s is no wicket for 46 from four overs. Too often he bowls too short, and at his pace, even the mishits barrel to the fence or sail over it. There are good balls amid the tripe, but even at 150 kph, Milne's present inconsistency is unacceptable at international level.
He couldn't ask for a better mentor than New Zealand's last true fast bowler. If it was not obvious that Shane Bond's pace was allied with considerable fast-bowling acumen during his career, he has surely made his brilliance clear during insightful stints in the commentary box. Bond knew that pace and intimidation alone would not bother top-level batsmen, and developed one of the best inswingers in the game. Milne has been introduced to international cricket much earlier than Bond was, but if he doesn't mature as quickly as he has risen through the system, he risks squandering his potential.
There is some elusive ingredient missing currently missing from New Zealand's set up. The talent is there, and now with Bond on board, they also seem to have a capable team of coaches. But there has not been a spark to set off that concoction, no catalyst to spur them out of mediocrity. For all their promise, Latham and Milne have played like boys so far. If they devote themselves to learning their craft and take the chances being afforded them, perhaps they can grow into the men that bring New Zealand out of the darkness.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka