The natural pads up again

Cricket 2000: Lathwell, the forgotten boy wonder, takes a fresh guard and sets his eyes on fulfilment at last
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For a period that was even shorter than usual in such circumstances, Mark Lathwell was the next big thing. He fashioned exquisite shots with a sublime nonchalance, he slaughtered perfectly adequate bowling. He possessed in abundance that asset vital to both great batsmen and great comedians: timing. Lathwell was obviously not joking.

He was barely out of his teens before he was eliciting outrageously premature comparisons with champions. His supple wrists and occasionally blithe command had purportedly sound judges mentioning him in the same breath as David Gower. One of his coaches, Bob Cottam, reckoned he was the best young batsman he had ever seen, Ted Dexter was moved to leave his seat immediately after a brilliant exhibition of strokeplay in Tasmania and stride to the dressing room to congratulate the young artist.

By the time he was 21, Lathwell was selected to open for England and was still 21 when he was dropped. Next week, seven years on, Lathwell may, or may not, make his comeback for Somerset on the opening day of the 2000 cricket season against Oxford University.

He missed the whole of last season with a cruciate ligament injury to his right knee and though the threat to his career has subsided, his subsequently delicate patella may postpone his return. Lathwell is only 28, still with his most profitable summers ahead, yet it must seem an age since he was thrust into the big time, entrusted, no less, with helping to spearhead the recapture of the Ashes in 1993.

"All I want to do is to get back into the Somerset team and that isn't going to be easy," he said in his cautious, reserved manner last Friday. "I don't know what the team's going to be but I expect I might have to start in the second team and try to get some runs so it could be eight or 10 weeks.

"The injury was a shock. I thought it might be cartilage damage, but cruciates can end careers for footballers. There were times I thought I might not play again and you get to thinking that if you get another chance you'll never get out again or play a stupid shot."

Lathwell's enforced absence gave plenty of scope for reassessment. He is certain that "if nothing else I'll be mentally tougher". He has had time to dwell on his batsmanship and for those who can recall the unfettered, easy joy of his novitiate days it is uplifting news.

"I feel more balanced at the crease than I have for a long, long time," he said. "I intend to play my more natural game again, allying that to the experience I have now."

It was the natural aspect which first persuaded observers that Lathwell was an outstanding talent. There was little foot movement, but he had a sharp eye, an uncluttered brain and got his body over the ball. On the good days the shots flowed.

Off the field, perhaps even in the dressing room, he was guarded, wondering what the fuss was about. Here was a cavalier in puritan's clothes. (The only other first-class cricketer to have emerged from his class on the Lord's groundstaff is Ed Giddins and what a rare combination they would have been round HQ, the ebullient fast bowler and the withdrawn batsman.)

Lathwell had an exciting debut season in 1992. England were then just starting on their long fall into darkness and his instinctive method brought him a deserved England A tour place. It was in Launceston that Dexter, then chairman of selectors and an excellent assessor of technique, witnessed his sparkling innings of 175.

By the Third Test of the following summer he was in the team and by the Fifth he was out after scores of 20, 33, 0, 25. But it was his temperament that did for him, not his scores. The youthful imperiousness had disappeared. Where he had been firmly anchored he was now all at sea.

Mike Atherton, with whom he opened (Graham Gooch having been dropped down the order to make way), recalled later in print that they received a standing ovation as they went out to reply to Australia's 653 for 4 at Headingley. "This," said Atherton to his partner, "is how they'll be when you come back with a hundred to your name." Lathwell replied: "But this is not how they'll be if you get nought." He aimed a wide drive at Merv Hughes's third ball and was caught behind.

Lathwell can still barely refer to his international experiences. "I wasn't ready for it," he said. "I don't think about it now, I've put it to the bottom of my memory banks. Maybe in 20 years I'll recall it." Asked about playing for England now he was suddenly sharp. How could he even think about such a thing at the moment?

Sometime, as he was sucked back into county cricket, he changed his approach to ensure he was on the front foot more often. It might have been a more secure Lathwell but it was no longer the unalloyed natural boy. He started nicking balls to slip, he went down to the middle order. He knows he has under-achieved as 11 hundreds and 48 unconverted fifties demonstrates. "Just lack of concentration."

Like the bulk of professional athletes, he is fond of most sports (though almost refreshingly not football) and his other playing passion is darts. He started young and is tempted to blame that and the constant early practice for the onset of dartitis which plagued him again in the winter and almost induced his retirement from the Sticky Stumps team.

There is no doubt that he feels fortunate to have a renewed opportunity, that he intends to make the most of it without saying too much. His year off gave him little chance to get acquainted with Jamie Cox, Somerset's admirable captain, though since Cox was playing for the opposition - and getting a century himself - that day in Tasmania in February 1993, he will know of what his charge is capable.

Lathwell, of course, is not given to idle assertiveness but he said, unassumingly, as he left: "I last played at the end of the 1998 season and I got a hundred in the second last match, so I suppose I should still be in good form."