One Who Got AwayMartin Chandler |
When a national team does badly there is always a demand for “heads to roll”, and for new faces, preferably young, fresh and immensely talented, to be selected in place of the old guard. In the Ashes summer of 1993 that is exactly what happened. England, who had been thought to have every chance of victory before that series began, were hammered by Australia in 1989. The vanquished did no better down under in 1990/91, and when in 1993 England suffered a 3-0 reverse in the ODIs, and were then heavily beaten in the first two Tests, the selectors made five changes for the third Test. Four were debutants, and one of those four was a 21 year old opening batsman from Somerset, Mark Lathwell.
To this day I have never seen quite so many superlatives used to describe a young batsman. One Somerset colleague, Neil Burns, described him as a young player touched by rare genius, and that he was capable of destroying the best bowlers when the conditions most suited his opponents. That much said whatever arrogance there might have been about the way Lathwell batted there was none about any other aspect of the way he conducted himself, his shy and introverted personality gaining him the ironic nickname, Rowdy.
Despite the plaudits Lathwell played no junior representative cricket the reasons, in Burns’ view, being a combination of his shyness and what he described as a “non text book batting technique”. Marcus Trescothick, who arrived at Taunton soon after Lathwell and played alongside him for a few seasons, described his erstwhile opening partner having a talent that sometimes left you speechless, and nominated as his trademark a delivery pitched well outside off stump that Lathwell shaped to leave, before whipping through mid wicket, his hands as quick as a cobra’s strike, before adding, in case there was any doubt, I cannot overstate how brilliant Lathwell was.
Despite missing out on age level cricket there was however no lack of dedication, Lathwell doing a round trip of nine hours every summer weekend in order to be coached at Lord’s. His first appearance on the main wicket at the game’s spiritual home was for MCC Young Cricketers against the MCC itself. The youngsters drew the game, a 70 from the 18 year old Lathwell being the main reason. Playing for the club that day was former Sussex skipper John Barclay. In the scheme of Barclays career, which extended to the greater part of 300 First Class games, it cannot have been an important fixture, but the best part of a quarter of a century on he hadn’t forgotten Lathwell, and told me Mark was a fine natural player. He batted with great authority that day and hit the ball very hard, bruising my hands somewhat, especially when I was bowling to him.
The following summer, 1991, the links with the county club were forged and an early innings of 168 against Glamorgan seconds set the tone. It was however a somewhat frustrating season for Lathwell who had to be talked out of giving the game up by the club coach, former Hampshire and England pace bowler Bob Cottam, as he felt he was getting nowhere. His few early games for Somerset and for England Young Cricketers against their powerful Australian counterparts were all characterised by his settling in and then going for quick 20s and 30s.
In 1992 Lathwell played the whole season, and made his 1,000 runs comfortably. He began the season better than he ended it, but still made a favourable impression wherever he went. His problem remained getting out whilst seemingly well set – in the 40 over Sunday League for example he was out in single figures just once, but only twice went past 50. In the Championship he scored 76 and 79 in his first start of the season, his second innings putting his county well on the way in a run chase. Of the 155 runs he scored 128 came in boundaries. Three weeks later he scored his and Somerset’s first century of the season. He got close again, but that was the only time he passed 100 that season.
The match which brought Lathwell’s talents to a wider audience came in defeat against Gloucestershire in the 60 over Nat West Bank Trophy. Somerset set off in pursuit of 236 for victory and Lathell blasted 85 in just 104 deliveries from an attack including Courtney Walsh in his pomp. Burns wrote later Some of his strokes were truly awesome. One particular pull shot off a ball from Walsh that was only just short of a length disappeared like a tracer bullet at head height through mid wicket and blasted into the boundary boards. Sir Vivian Richards would have been proud of it.
Having comfortably done enough to gain selection for England A’s tour of Australia over the winter of 1992/93 Lathwell rewarded the selectors with 175 against Tasmania, and rather more impressively given that the attack was lead by Glen McGrath and Wayne Holdsworth, 103 against New South Wales. In its end of tour report The Cricketer observed Richly gifted. Major tour discovery. Exquisite timer – best since David Gower emerged, but there was a note of caution sounded by the former Australian leg spinner Peter Philpott after the English youngsters’ defeat by a South Australian side that contained two wrist spinners, Peter McIntyre and Peter Sleep, Lathwell in particular looked dreadful and simply could not put bat to ball.
Despite Philpott’s comments Lathwell’s travails against the leg spinners did not seem to be troubling him as the 1993 season began. First of all he scored 30 and 84 for England A against the Champion County, Essex, in the summer’s curtain-raiser at Lord’s. Wisden described him as displaying both patience and judgment. A week later in their first Championship fixture Somerset faced a Hampshire attack ably led by the great Malcom Marshall. Lathwell should have scored the first century of the summer, but was out for 99 to a soft dismissal by off spinner Shaun Udal. The remarkable feature of the innings was that when Lathwell was dismissed there were still 20 minutes of the morning session to play. This time Wisden made reference to his nonchalant fluency
Lathwell went on to score a rapid 77 against Nottinghamshire in a Benson and Hedges Cup game watched by selector Dennis Amiss. At Old Trafford in the Championship he was fourth out at 91, having scored 71. In a bowler’s match that Somerset won inside two days no teammate made more than 35. Those early performances were enough to see Lathwell named in the squad for the three ODIs against Australia when, to the frustration of the nation he wasn’t even given a chance in the last game, by which time Australia already had an unassailable 2-0 lead.
From there Lathwell scored 84 (out of 185) and 40 against Glamorgan. In the first innings, played in conditions that were tailor-made for the Glamorgan seamers, he scored 70 out of the first 75 runs Somerset registered. At lunch Viv Richards, who had been standing at slip throughout, was adamant that were he still West Indies skipper and had Lathwell available to him he would make sure he was picked. The rich vein of form continued against Essex. An innings of 48 in the first innings held together the top order before a truly remarkable innings of 132 (out of 197) in the second innings – the only other man to reach double figures was the 13 contributed by Neil Mallender, batting at nine.
There were then a couple of weeks off for Lathwell before, in the Championship match before the third Test, his hot streak abruptly came to an end with innings of 4 and 0 against Northamptonshire. England’s established opning pair were skipper Graham Gooch and Michael Atherton and, to be fair to them theirs had been one of the less problematic areas for England. Amidst the disasters of the first two Tests they had put on more than 70 in three of the four innings, and Atherton was, to use Gooch’s description, “horrified” to learn that Gooch was to drop down to the middle order to enable the debutant Lathwell to take up his usual berth at the top of the innings.
Gooch won the toss and chose to bat. On their way out to open the innings Atherton said to his young partner Good luck, the crowd are rooting for you. Lathwell’s reply betrayed his feelings, They won’t be in a minute when I’m on my way back. In fact he made a good start, three boundaries coming easily to him as he raced to 20 while Atherton stayed in the starting blocks, before Lathwell chased a wide one from Merv Hughes and nicked the ball to Ian Healy. In the second innings it was a different Lathwell, the one who Philpott had seen, taking two hours to battle his way to 33 before being adjudged LBW as he played no stroke to a leg break from Shane Warne once too often. Richard Hutton, who reported on the Test for The Cricketer, summed up Lathwell’s debut; A fearless strokemaker he made some telling blows when locating the middle of the bat, but he has something yet to find at this level because he is a reluctant foot mover.
A century from fellow debutant Graham Thorpe made the headlines in a match which produced a much improved performance from England, who ended up with much the better of a draw, and indeed with Australia six down at tea on the final day victory seemed a real possibility before Brendan Julian helped Steve Waugh restore order. Unsurprisingly the selectors rewarded the successful squad by naming the same men for the fourth Test at Headingley. In the meantime Lathwell got to the middle four times, all against Nottinghamshire across three formats – his best effort was a mere 29 – he was not the batsman of a few weeks previously.
Australia won the toss and batted against an anodyne England attack. Relying on the ground’s reputation the selectors had replaced off spinner Peter Such with a fourth seamer, Martin Bicknell. Australia got to 653-4 before Border declared. Lathwell wafted his bat in the direction of a widish one from Hughes from just his third delivery and was back in the pavilion without scoring. In England’s second knock he hung around with Atherton whilst 60 were added, but he never looked settled, and his innings ended at 25 when off spinner Tim May turned one through the gate that his leaden footwork created. It was another hammering for England and this time Hutton’s verdict on Lathwell was that he had been unfairly included in the side at a time of confidence undermined by a run of low scores. Despite his obvious talent and potential he is without a sufficiently good technical grounding at this level to overcome being out of touch.
The upshot of the defeat was that Gooch stood down from the captaincy in favour of Atherton, whose desire to resume his partnership with Gooch was doubtless another factor in Lathwell being dropped. It is said that when Gooch telephoned to tell him the bad news Lathwell’s only feelings were ones of relief at the ordeal being over. He went back to Somerset but his form had deserted him – he managed a century against Derbyshire, but in his last nine Championship innings did not get past 31.
The nearest Lathwell got to playing for England again after Headingley ’93 was a trip to South Africa with England A the following winter. He made a reasonable start to the tour, but fell away so rapidly that he ended it with an average of less than 18 in the First Class matches. The touring experience did not appeal to Lathwell. In a situation that demands at least a degree of social interaction with fellow tourists being a loner didn’t help, nor did a disinclination to spend time in the nets.
In his post-retirement autobiography Alec Stewart mentioned Lathwell in passing, writing he was the one England player of my era who I believe just didn’t want to be there. He played in two Tests and barely said a word. He changed next to his Somerset teammate Andy Caddick and despite all our efforts to involve him in conversations, we couldn’t drag anything out of him. He went on wistfully If he had possessed the right mental approach he could have been anything in the game.
For the next three seasons Lathwell got his 1,000 runs, without pulling up too many trees, although a double century in a day against Surrey in 1994 raised hopes that the setbacks had been only temporary. But then in 1997 he failed to reach the mark for the first time a result, in Trescothick’s opinion, of the new Somerset coach Dermot Reeve trying to alter his technique. The following summer saw him miss the early season matches with injury, but he was successful enough on his return to the side to end the summer at the top of Somerset’s averages, albeit at just a shade over 30. A serious knee injury meant that the whole of the 1999 season was missed, and although he made a successful comeback in 2000 with the second eleven his return to the Championship side was disappointing in the extreme, eight matches not producing even a single half-century.
In 2001, a new three year contract recently signed, Lathwell dropped down the order to number five. It was by no means as bleak a summer for him as the previous year, and he averaged 35 with a total of eight half-centuries. Wisden in its 2002 edition felt able to say there were enough glimpses of a vintage Mark Lathwell to illustrate that the affection and patience of his fans had not been in vain.
But then it was all over. In early 2002, having celebrated his 30th birthday in December, Lathwell contacted Somerset and told them he had had enough. It was certainly unexpected, and he had no other job to go to at the time. He was offered the second eleven captaincy as an alternative, and he went away and thought about that briefly, but his mind was made up and the county reluctantly agreed to release him from the remaining two years of his contract.
There were mutterings of a poor relationship with the then skipper Tasmanian Jamie Cox, although given the absence of much in the way of interaction with his teammates generally it seems unlikely that Lathwell would ever have got round to falling out with anyone. In fact in one way retirement was a remarkably unselfish act on Lathwell’s part. The summer of 2002 would have been his eleventh with the county, so he must have been a due a benefit, and given his popularity with the supporters there can be no doubt but that they would have dug deep, so Lathwell made a substantial financial sacrifice. Of course the raised public profile of the benefit social circuit and the need to indulge in at least some public speaking would have been anathema to Lathwell, but no one would turn down a lucrative tax free sum for those reasons alone.
Plenty of comparisons have been made between Lathwell and his fellow Somerset openers Harold Gimblett and Trescothick. Gimblett did not enjoy playing for England, and in the autumn of his years his demons caused him to take his own life. Trescothick on the other hand did fulfill much of his early promise, if not for as long as we would all have liked. His, eventually, well-publicised mental health problems deprived England fans of the opportunity of watching his broad blade add many more Test runs to his tally of 5,825 at 43.79, but he has carried on scoring runs for Somerset and, after it seemed Anno Domini might have caught up with him last summer, the 38 year old Trescothick has looked as effective as ever in 2014.
Superficially attractive as those comparisons might seem the truth is that they lead those propounding them down a blind alley. At the end of the day both of Trescothick and Gimblett enjoyed long Somerset careers whereas Lathwell simply fell out of love with the professional game completely, and has never to my knowledge been diagnosed with any mental health problems. In many ways the more interesting parallel is drawn with Gooch. A 21 year old Gooch was selected to play against Australia in 1975, after one season of modest runscoring but having earnt many plaudits, most stridently from Denis Compton. He played twice, scored 37 runs in four innings, including a pair on debut, and was discarded. He wrote in his autobiography I felt conspicuously out of place in the nets and in the dressing room, like a frightened kid on his first day at big school.
It was three years before the selectors looked in Gooch’s direction again, and even then some patience was needed, the Essex man not registering a Test hundred until his 22nd match. He does of course to this day have the highest Test aggregate of all Englishmen, a three year ban for touring South Africa notwithstanding. Somewhere along the line the England management of the 1970s did something right with Gooch – it is a matter of some regret that when he in turn found himself in a position of responsibilty towards an uncertain young batsman of prodigious talent, that he was unable to find a way of bringing out the best in him – in fact I feel forced to question whether he even tried.
After his retirement Lathwell carried on playing for his local club side Braunton and immediately became the most prized wicket in the North Devon League. He gave that up in turn in 2010. He was only 38 but said to the Western Morning News; My body is not holding up very well. It takes me three or four days to recover from a match. And my youngest son is playing a lot and I get as much pleasure watching him as playing myself these days.Those reasons came together. It’s been coming for a couple of years and you have got to call it a day sooner or later.
Sam Lathwell played for Devon Under-13s in 2011, although his name has not subsequently cropped up on Cricket Archive. He is only 16 though, so his time may yet come. But it does seem certain that however great his talent he doesn’t promise as much as the old man did. For those of us who saw him Mark Lathwell was certainly the one that got away, as was the couplet Lathwell and Trescothick – what might that pairing have achieved if it had been able to fully flower?