'For me, it's about spending time at the crease'
New Zealand opener Tom Latham talks about batting in India, being unlike his dad, and how he changed his one-day game around
When Tom Latham was first called up to play for New Zealand, in ODIs against Zimbabwe in 2012, the news came to him as a "massive surprise". He had made a hundred for Canterbury but had otherwise played only a handful of List A games. Four years on, at the end of New Zealand's tour of India this season, Latham was the side's highest run-getter - 244 runs at a strike rate of nearly 90 - in the five-match one-day series.
The son of "Rocking Rod" Latham, who is remembered for his attacking batting in the 1992 World Cup, has always been known for his more orthodox style of play.
"I'd probably say I'm more of a traditionalist than a flamboyant [batsman]," Latham says. "I'm probably more technically correct than maybe he was, but it's cool to look back and see what he did in the game and now see what I am doing."
He believes his father is more suited to T20 than him. "During the World Cup he played, in '92, [Mark] Greatbatch started something off, I guess, and it is pretty cool to look back and see the way he played."
Latham was about 15 when he decided to commit to a future in cricket over rugby, after he made a New Zealand Under-19 side to tour England. He and his older brother Matt used to play rugby and cricket growing up, and being an All Black was a childhood dream, but the cricket call-up changed things. "I suppose when your name is put for New Zealand, that's where the dream started," he says. "So I decided to finish rugby and put all my time to cricket. I think that was a good decision."
Rod coached his sons' teams when they were young, but Latham now relies on his father more for parental-type advice than for coaching. "Hess [Mike Hesson] and Craig McMillan here, and Bob Carter and Paul Wiseman back home are the coaches I have worked with growing up. They are the guys I talk to a lot about batting and have a lot of sessions [with] back home.
"I suppose it's nice to lean on his [Rod Latham's] advice. When something is going wrong, because he has been at that level, been there done that, he knows the pressures of international cricket."
Unlike his father, who got his first chance at international cricket when he was nearly 30, Latham junior was only 19 when he won his first New Zealand cap. But an earlier start didn't mean an easier one. Latham batted in every position from one to nine, and was the team's reserve wicketkeeper, without ever being a certainty in the XI.
"Over the last two to three years, we have played some very good cricket and it's an amazing culture we've got there. What Brendon and Kane have brought to this group is belief"
"It was nice to get that opportunity at an early age and have a taste for it early on and see the standard of where I needed to get there," Latham says. "I suppose that was a unique situation [batting from one to nine]. I was sort of a utility guy; I wasn't necessarily first choice in the team, but managed to fill a lot of spots, whether it was at the top of the order or in the middle or with the gloves."
The ride got smoother when he made his Test debut. New Zealand had been struggling to find a consistent opening combination and Latham gave them some relief with three 70-plus scores in his first five Test innings, in the West Indies in 2014. In each of those innings Latham batted for four hours or longer. Later that year he scored his maiden Test hundred, against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi, and followed it up with another century in the next Test, in Sharjah.
"When you miss out, that makes you hungry to get back in the side, and it's only in the last couple of years that I have been a full member of the side," he says. "It's been really nice I got the opportunity to open, and I certainly feel that position suits my game a lot, and it's been a good couple of years."
This period has also been marked by Latham's increasing prowess overseas - four of his five Test hundreds have come outside New Zealand. On the difficult tour of India, not only did Latham do well in the ODIs, he was also easily New Zealand's best batsman in the Tests. He occupied the crease for 18 hours, nearly six and a half more than the captain, Kane Williamson, second on the list, did.
Latham can't quite explain his success abroad, but says he formulates a game plan and sticks to it.
"As soon as I go outside my game plan, that's when things seem to go wrong. For me, especially at the Test level, it's about sticking it out there and spending as much time at the crease [as possible]."
So what is his game plan?
"I don't want let too much into my secret, but it's having shots you want to score from certain bowlers.
"Obviously, as you've seen here [in India] and in the UAE, I love playing the sweep shot. It's one of my favourite shots and a shot that seems to work really well for me.
"I wouldn't say I've put a massive focus on it. It's just a shot that comes naturally to me. I probably find playing that easier than going down the ground."
Latham places emphasis also on emotional equanimity, especially in conditions where there is either exaggerated swing or turn. The attritional nature of his game, he says, requires both physical and mental fitness. "It's about sticking to your game plan and believing in that plan to work, [even if] you have faced 30 dots," he says. "You have to keep calm. What happened the ball before doesn't matter now. You've got to regroup and focus on the next ball. The more times you can do that then it means hopefully you can score a lot of runs.
"I've done a little bit of work growing up in certain camps and winter-training groups arranged by New Zealand Cricket, a bit of mental stuff."
He says the conditions in India were the toughest he has faced and that it's difficult to replicate this sort of environment while training back at home.
"If you look at the scores I got in the Test matches [three fifties without a hundred], maybe I did run out of steam a little bit. I don't think you can train for that back home in conditions that are so different. It's about staying hydrated and being as fit as possible.
"When you want to win games of cricket, you need those big scores. I have been in that position a lot this tour, and hopefully whenever I am in that position next time, I can kick on. It's about doing things for longer over here. If you can keep [the bowlers] out for as long as possible, they are human and they will bowl bad balls. I suppose that's the biggest learning for me - trying to do things for a little bit longer."
But it's not that Latham altered his technique to get runs in the ODIs. What he altered was his mindset, while playing county cricket for Kent earlier this year. "I wouldn't say I have done a huge focus on one-day cricket. It's been more just groove the technical thing. It's more of a mindset change than a technical change," he says. "I was lucky enough to go over and play county cricket this year and found it really good just playing day in and day out and not training too much.
"You are itching to play all three formats. For me, that's been a big thing coming over here and improving my strike rate early on. Not necessarily my strike rate, but just a little more intent at the crease. I feel like I've done that recently well."
New Zealand's journey to the World Cup final last year played an important role as well in kindling Latham's desire to be a regular in the ODI set-up. Though part of the World Cup squad, he didn't get a game. But he wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"It's been really nice I got the opportunity to open, and I certainly feel that position suits my game a lot, and it's been a good couple of years"
"We had a hell of a side out there. It was an amazing six weeks for us. When you are in your own tricky situations, you draw experiences from them and believe that things can be done. It's very motivating to want to play 50-over cricket."
As a young keeper, Latham grew up idolising Adam Gilchrist and Brendon McCullum, and he says it was "surreal" when he first got to share the dressing room with McCullum. More recently, Latham has benefited from his interactions with Williamson and Hesson.
"Over the last two to three years, it's been a nice time for New Zealand cricket. We have played some very good cricket and it's an amazing culture we've got there. There are no rules or anything like that - we are all adults. What Brendon and Kane, and all of those guys, have brought to this group is belief.
"With Kane [the conversations are] probably more about batting, and Kane is quite hooked about batting. I suppose we've got a similar sort of mindset on things and just to share ideas and see what he's working on. A lot of things have come in handy - I am not going to say what, but it's just good to chat about cricket; it's a game we all love and we are all trying to better."
When it's pointed out that some of his shots, like the back-foot punch, bear likeness to Kumar Sangakkara's, Latham smiles and says he has read people say as much on social media. "He's another one I have looked up to. It's about trying to take little things they do and have your own spring on things. I'd certainly love to sit down with him, if I ever get a chance, and just talk batting."
Latham says outside of cricket he's a quiet person who loves to spend time outdoors, mostly playing golf. But he'd also like to be a role model for youngsters in the way former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw was for him. "He has been pretty inspirational for a lot of New Zealanders, winning two World Cups back to back, and what he has done as a player is pretty cool.
"If I carry on playing for the Black Caps, hopefully I can inspire people and they can look up to me. And it goes for everyone. We are all trying to do our best for our country and the support we get is amazing. Hopefully that continues."
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun