Match Analysis

Conway and Latham ignore the hype and make Pakistan pay for buying into it

On a green surface, Southee backed his openers to grind it out - there are few better than Conway and Latham for that job anyway

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
02-Jan-2023
Tom Latham and Devon Conway added a second successive century-run stand  •  Associated Press

Tom Latham and Devon Conway added a second successive century-run stand  •  Associated Press

The first Test hadn't yet finished when talk of the strip this Test would be played on began. Interim chief selector Shahid Afridi promised a "green" pitch, and on the eve of the second Test, pictures on the PCB's social media account showed enough grass to barely distinguish it from the outfield. On the morning of the game, Shakil Shaikh, a member of the PCB's (not very) new-look management committee, declared that the pitch problem had been resolved "in a wink" on a "new, lively surface".
When Tim Southee walked out to the middle for the toss, he paid no attention to any of this. Not just because he probably doesn't hang on to every word Afridi says, and he certainly doesn't follow Shaikh on Twitter. But he couldn't ignore the look of the pitch itself, which, while not quite as emerald green as pictures from the previous day suggested, had a distinct greenish hue that hadn't been in evidence on any surface used for international games all season. He batted.

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New Zealand are second from bottom in this cycle of the World Test Championship and haven't won a Test since February. They have lost four of their last five matches. There aren't too many things they have done well in the format since lifting the WTC trophy 18 months ago. But in Devon Conway and Tom Latham, they possess an opening pair that might just go on to become the envy of the world.
Since the start of 2016, no pair averages more for the first wicket than the 67.25 Latham and Conway (minimum 500 runs) have. While this was just their eighth innings together as an opening pair, their credentials in the top order are rock solid. When Conway dropped down to No. 3 in New Zealand's home season last year, he amassed 388 runs in six innings, including two centuries against Bangladesh and a 92 against South Africa.
That was why, on a green surface that retained a fair bit of moisture, Southee showed no hesitation in backing his openers to see the first hour out. There are few better equipped to grind out an opposition bowling attack, their partnership in the first Test a perfect exhibition of their abilities. Pakistan appeared to have bought into the hype around the pitch, dropping a spinner [Nauman Ali] for an extra fast bowler [Naseem Shah], one whose fitness has been questioned of late.
Conway and Latham can do the grind, but are also astute enough to know when to choose belligerence. A green surface and three fast bowlers invariably meant Pakistan would go searching for something; 46 of the 115 deliveries bowled by the fast men in the first session were overpitched. And while the swing faded away fairly rapidly, the run-scoring when Pakistan erred did not; balls that were either short and/or wide or too full went for 45 in 53 deliveries.
But when Babar Azam turned to Agha Salman as early as in the seventh over, the bowler found the turn too slow, and New Zealand milked the spin at over four runs an over. Conway took a particular liking to Abrar Ahmed, using his feet to hit him down the ground, plundering him for 60 runs in as many balls, with eight fours and a six.
"With the nature of the grass on the surface, it had maintained a bit of pace in the wicket," Conway, who scored 122 to Latham's 71, said after the day's play. "When the ball's harder, it comes off the bat a bit better as well. We were rewarded for good cricket shots that went for boundaries. We managed to get off to a quick start."
It might sound simple enough in theory, but none of this is easy. After all, the two became the first New Zealand opening pair to put on consecutive century stands away from home. They are the first visiting openers to register successive century stands in Pakistan; only one other pair had managed two in the same series. That was over 25 years back.
The game might have turned in more ways than one in the final session, but Pakistan might find an imposing enough total by the time they get a chance to bat. Salman's three wickets and the speed at which the ball spun in the final session might have encouraged them, but New Zealand have fielded three spinners, and should have the resources to exploit any such liveliness.
"It's starting to change," Conway said. "After tea, there was a bit more turn on offer, which is showing the nature of the wicket drying out and assisting the spinners a little bit more. It's skidding on a little bit more, and there isn't as much carry as the morning, so it's interesting to see what the wicket will look like on the last three days".
Some sides might have viewed a toss won on this surface against a three-pronged seam attack as an automatic bowl-first. New Zealand, instead, saw it for the opportunity. They cut Mir Hamza when he strayed wide and drove Naseem while the bounce was true and the trajectory straight. They milked Agha around the square and smashed Abrar around the park. They kept the runs ticking along, and the wickets column dry.
For that, you need a quality opening pair, and in Conway and Latham, New Zealand are well sorted.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000