Solid Latham century leads NZ effort

For the second Test running, young Tom Latham provided the long, patient batting effort New Zealand wanted from the top order. Pakistan’s four-man attack, in the absence of the injured Mohammad Hafeez, persevered through the day but Latham was solid in combating the challenges of reverse swing and spin. At 22, he became the youngest non-Asian opener to make two Test hundreds in Asia, and also the third New Zealand opener to do so after Bert Sutcliffe and Glenn Turner.

Brendon McCullum was keen on batting first in Dubai, having seen Pakistan rack up 450-plus totals in the first innings in their three successive previous Test wins in the UAE. Misbah-ul-Haq finally lost the toss, and McCullum had what he wanted on a largely benign batting surface.

New Zealand lost two of the three wickets to soft dismissals. McCullum pulled Ehsan Adil straight to deep midwicket close to lunch after a strong opening partnership, and Ross Taylor pushed Yasir Shah straight to silly point. At the stroke of tea, Kane Williamson pushed cautiously inside the line to a Zulfiqar Babar delivery that pitched middle and hit off.

It was Latham who battled through the day till bad light ended play three overs short. He was certain of whether to go forward or back against the spinners, and sure of where his off stump was against the fast bowlers. He drove superbly down the ground and through the midwicket, and used the sweep liberally, especially against the left-arm spinner Babar.

Latham was at ease right from the start. There was next to no swing or seam with the new ball for the fast bowlers Rahat Ali and Adil, chosen ahead of Imran Khan, and the spinners Babar and Yasir were introduced within the first hour.

McCullum too reined himself in unless the ball was loose. Both fast bowlers did not give too many full deliveries, and when they did, the openers drove them straight. McCullum also walloped Rahat for a big six over deep midwicket.

Adil bowled a tight line, targetting the stumps and bringing the odd one in. In the eighth over, McCullum drove Adil on the up, and the ball fell just short of mid-on. Pakistan reviewed for leg-before two deliveries later against Latham, but the on-field umpire’s call stayed as the ball was shown to be just about brushing the top of middle stump.

Yasir beat the left-hand Latham with straighter ones outside off and tested McCullum with lots of flight and some turn. McCullum responded by skipping out to loft a straight four, and also stepped out to launch Babar for six.

Adil was brought back around 20 minutes before lunch, and McCullum pulled him for four off the last ball of that over. First ball of Adil’s next, McCullum pulled again, and picked out the lone man on the leg boundary to depart for 43 off 69.

Latham started sweeping often after lunch, picking up boundaries off Babar through midwicket. With the circumspect Williamson at the other end, scoring slowed down, although both batsmen were not troubled much. Williamson played safely, and it was only off his 58th delivery that he picked up what was to be his only boundary, that too when Adil strayed down the leg side.

Rahat was brought back in the 48th over and right away, he found Latham’s outside edge with one that kicked away, but neither the keeper nor Younis Khan at slip reacted as it flew between them. Latham almost played on in Rahat’s next over, and the fast bowler then beat Williamson off successive deliveries leaving the batsman. But it was Babar who was rewarded with Williamson’s wicket in the very next over.

Taylor struck a few pleasing cover drives off the spinners, but he never looked really comfortable. He edged the spinners often past the close-in fielders, and Azhar Ali could not hold on to a sharp chance at silly point off Babar.

In the same over, Latham had stepped out to loft for a straight six, and swept for four more to move to 96. He reached his hundred with a push to midwicket in the next over.

Eventually, Taylor’s approach of reaching out with his hands to play the spin ended up in another push to silly point, and this time Shan Masood juggled a successful take.

This was a couple of overs before the second new ball was taken, and Latham was up for more endurance as he did not hit a boundary for his last 43 deliveries. The only real chance that Latham offered, on 103, had been put down by Azhar at gully off Adil, and Pakistan weren’t able to break the opener’s resistance on the day.

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