Remember the pre-series joke about Bulawayo being the place that time forgot? Or the pre-series nostalgia that at least cricket had some deep roots here? On Saturday, Tom Latham proved that Queens Sports Club has as good a long-term memory as a short-term one, when he scored a second successive century at the venue, in almost carbon-copy style.
Almost because the numbers were similar. Last week, Latham's first 10 runs came off 30 balls, this week they were scored off 25. Last week, he reached 50 after 112 balls, this week off 95. And last week the century took 200 deliveries, this week, 190. But also almost because last week Latham had to settle his nerves after an early run-out chance and contend with movement from Chamu Chibhabha, turn from Graeme Cremer and a sluggish outfield. This week, Zimbabwe's seamers allowed New Zealand to ease their way in, there was neither swing nor spin and the freshly cut grass had quickened.
Perhaps that made it easier the second time around but it also made it a little tougher. Latham had to show he could adapt to changing conditions even if they were less challenging. "It was a fraction slower, if it could get any slower," Martin Guptill, who watched Latham lay the foundations for both centuries from the other end, said. "It was still tough when they bowled straight lines."
Zimbabwe's problem was that they did not manage to keep it tight for long enough to make it consistently tough for the batsmen. On a surface John Nyumbu, who plays his domestic cricket at Queens, called the flattest he had "ever" seen at the venue, that was unforgivable.
For all the pre-match talk interim head coach Makhaya Ntini had with Donald Tiripano, which included a 40-minute one-on-one discussion a day before the game, he had not managed to teach Tiripano not to offer width. For all Michael Chinouya's ability to run in and as Nyumbu put it, "hit the deck hard all day," his occasional lapses and middling pace, which started to eke under 130 as the day went on, could not really threaten New Zealand.
At some stage, Ntini placed responsibility on Nyumbu to break through but the offspinner knew it would not be easy. "The coach was saying, 'John, this is your home ground so you should be able to get wickets,' but I told him that in ten years of playing here, I have not seen it this flat. Ever."
To answer the coach's call, Nyumbu decided on a strategy that would focus on containing first and could move to attacking later on. "I wanted us to keep building pressure," he said.
But, as even Guptill noticed, Zimbabwe were unable to do that. "They couldn't put enough pressure on us," he said. Zimbabwe's attack did not show enough patience, especially when compared to the amount Latham had on display. In the opening stages, he let Guptill play the aggressor and later on allowed his captain Kane Williamson to cash in on Cremer. All the while, Latham was content with finding gaps, rotating the strike and punishing an occasional poor delivery, and the longer he waited, the more of those he got.
"Tom is a guy who likes taking his time. He knows if he bats long, he will be able to cash in," Nyumbu said. "He knows he will get the bowlers to tire and then the more loose balls will come at the end."
As the afternoon grew long and Zimbabwe ran out of options, Latham found run-scoring became even easier. Had he not bunted one back to Sean Williams off what was supposed to be the penultimate ball of the day, he would have found himself in a good position to double up, because conditions should improve for batting on day two and New Zealand plan to occupy the crease for a long while.
"We're going to go for as many as we can get," Guptill said, when asked what sort of first innings total New Zealand would be looking at. "But we will also want to give ourselves enough time to bowl them out."
The second part of that will be key, because, as Latham has showed, once a batsman is set, he could become difficult to dislodge. "Taking 20 wickets in a Test is no easy feat but this is going to be even harder," Guptill said. Especially, as Zimbabwe discovered, if one of those is Latham's.