How Numbers Lie – Tom Latham and Statistics That Don’t Add Up – The Fool Toss

New Zealander Tom Latham is a very good test cricketer. The left-hander, who debuted in 2014, has been an ever-present feature of the Kiwis’ top order for nearly a decade. In a decade dominated by seam bowling, Tom’s textbook technique and patient approach served him well, averaging 41.91 in his 70 Tests – not remarkable, but remarkably impressive considering England’s roll call of openers at the same time.

Imagine, if you will, that an English batsman averaged north of 40 for nine years. The praise will be heavy, and perhaps, deserved. Sir Andrew Strauss is considered a Three Lions great for his eight years of service, despite falling just one run short of Tom Latham.

His best season came in 2018. Batting a remarkable 694 minutes, Latham tore through a tired Sri Lankan attack en route to a maiden double century. 246 runs off 489 balls, including several strikes on both the front and back legs. He also has silverware to his name, helping New Zealand win the inaugural World Test Championship nineteen months ago with a win over India at the Rose Bowl.

However, all is not as it seems. Tom Latham, as Kiwi stalwart and season international pro, is a statistical anomaly. For all his runs and appearances, the 30-year-old’s record against ‘top’ Test nations is abysmal. In his 35 Tests against England, India, Australia and South Africa, Tom Latham scored 1,665 runs at an average of 28.85. I repeat, 28.85! Rory Barnes has been denied almost two fewer than England and little better than Ravichandran Ashwin’s part-time beefing.

Comparatively, his record against the other five Test playing nations (excluding Ireland and Afghanistan) is outstanding. 12 of Tom’s thirteen Test centuries came against Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and the West Indies. Against this ‘other five’, he again played 35 Tests averaging a staggering 58.89.

In summary, Tom Latham is a miserable bat against the top Test teams but a consistent run machine against the rest.

The obvious question is why? What makes the Kiwis so indomitable against the best Test team bowling, yet so dominant against the rest? Perhaps Latham is similar to former England batsman Mark Ramprakash. ‘Ramp’ scored nearly 36,000 runs at 53.14 in his 25 years of first-class cricket, but managed just 2,350 runs at 27.32 in his Test career. A world-beater against mediocre bowling, Ramprakash’s best attribute was his ability to cash in against weaker opponents. That seems to be the case with Tom Latham too, taking his chances when the going is easy, but making things a little tricky against the big boys.

Throughout Tom’s Test career, England, India, South Africa and Australia have all been blessed with consistently brilliant bowlers. In his 35 Tests against them, these teams have rarely fielded without two bowlers averaging below 30: Woakes, Broad and Anderson for England; Ashwin, Jadeja, Shami and Bumrah for India; Rabada, Steyn, Morkel and now Nortje for South Africa; Johnson, Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood for Australia.

In comparison, the other five nations could hardly field an XI with one bowler averaging below 30, let alone two or even three. Neither Zimbabwe nor Bangladesh have consistently produced a bowler averaging below 30 in the last decade. Rangana Harth has been the only Sri Lankan since Muttiah Muralitharan’s retirement.

Pakistan and West Indies are the only teams that can buck this trend. Mohammad Abbas, Hasan Ali and youngster Shaheen Afridi average in the mid-20s. Still, flexible pitches from Pakistan and UAE nullified their threat at home.

The West Indian attack has strong seam bowling from Jason Holder and Kemar Roach, who average under thirty. Surprisingly, the Windies are the only team in the ‘other five’ against whom Tom is yet to score a ton.

So, like Mark Ramprakash at first-class level, Tom Latham has repeatedly taken his chances against poor bowling. Cashing in on the sub-par seam and ropey spin of the five Test nations below.

A pitch should be considered. Kiwi tracks have been notoriously quiet over the past decade, notoriously flat with no chance of breaking through in the second innings. A batting paradise for Latham, who has repeatedly been out at an average of 47.03 on flat tracks while battling overseas.

So, is Tom Latham really that good? Or does our deeper dive into the stats reveal an overrated batsman who has built his career on ‘easy runs’ when the conditions are in his favour?

The obvious answer is yes, he is very overrated. A ton and a sub-par batsman at an average of 28.85 in his 35 games against top opposition – a failed opening stick, unable to fight back when his country needed him most.

However, Latham’s runs should not be overlooked, regardless of who they were against. I’m sure the 30-year-old’s runs will come against rather better opposition, yet his consistency against weaker teams is no mean feat. Facing the same opposition, the Kiwis average around 60, with England’s Joe Root boasting just 51.58 in his 41 matches. Still impressive, no doubt, but the eight or more runs that Latham averages reflects just how dominant Latham is against poor bowling.

However, the importance of Latham’s game should not be diminished by the weak opposition. The introduction of the World Test Championship gave importance to all series, with every result counting towards the competition table. The Black Caps won the last edition, but certainly wouldn’t have qualified for the finals without Latham’s steady hand against lesser teams. Take, for example, his impressive 154 against Sri Lanka in 2019. A mammoth knock, full of brilliant straight and cover drives, laid the foundation for the Kiwis to secure a crushing victory. Or take his third-innings 53 against Pakistan two years ago – a characteristically proud half-century that allowed the Black Caps to push for a declaration. The match, which could have been a draw otherwise, ended in a win for New Zealand.

Without these knocks, and the countless contributions Latham made against smaller teams in the last WTC cycle, New Zealand would not have qualified for and later won the World Test Championship final.

So, is Latham good? Yes exactly. He is good – good in an equally profound and brilliant way. He’s certainly not great – his woeful record against quality bowling attacks proves that much – but even labeling Latham as overrated doesn’t give the full picture. After all, his mountain of runs against smaller nations was essential to New Zealand’s success, especially in the World Test Championship.

Perhaps what Latham’s record proves is the deceptive nature of statistics. His batting average of 41.91 in no way represents the fearsome and fearsome player he truly is – a case study in why a batsman should not be judged by averages alone.

For Tom Latham, the numbers lie.

Will Symonds

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