Whatever happened to Mark Lathwell?

...meanwhile, back in Somerset, one of England's young hopefuls is rebuilding his game. Richard Williams reports
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The Independent Online
WHEN you ask him to identify the best moment of his three years in first-class cricket, Mark Lathwell can't really think of one. Not his 206 for Somerset against Surrey, or his 175 for England A against Tasmania. Certainly not his Test debut against the Aussies at Trent Bridge. Ask him for the worst moment, however, and he's with you.

"It was on tour last year, England A against Orange Free State. I'd been having a bad run, and I'd got nought in the first innings. I was struggling again in the second innings, trying to battle through. I got to about 20-odd, and I was starting to think, well, this might be the end of it. There was a left-arm spinner bowling. I padded up to one and he bowled me round my legs. I wanted to come home."

Remember Mark Lathwell? Two years ago, when England were stumbling from one defeat to another against Australia in the last days of Graham Gooch's captaincy, he was the 21-year-old batsman who looked as though he was about to play a big role in the future of English cricket. Give the likes of Lathwell a chance, some of us said, and English cricket might even have a future.

A few months earlier, at the end of his first full season, Wisden had been lyrical. "A major discovery," it crooned. "Not since David Gower (has) a youngster quickened the pulse like Lathwell."

Ted Dexter, the chairman of selectors, agreed. Dropping in on England A's match against Tasmania, he saw Lathwell strike 25 fours in an innings of 175, and marched to the dressing room to offer his congratulations. That summer, in one of the last significant decisions of Dexter's reign, Lathwell was brought into the England side for the Third Test.

Two Test matches later, after scores of 20, 33, 0 and 25, the boy was on the scrapheap. No Lara, Tendulkar or Inzamam here, it seemed. Here was another example of England's chronic inability to bring young talent to fruition.

Nor did the damage stop there. Lathwell's form disappeared in domestic cricket, and when he was picked for the A team's winter tour to South Africa the result was a prolonged disaster so complete that to put a bat in his hands at all seemed like an act of gratuitous sadism. A batsman originally noted for his natural fluency was suddenly tied hand and foot by his own fear of failure.

Last week Lathwell was at home in Bridgwater, preparing for the second season of his rehabilitation, talking with his habitual diffidence about the unlooked-for consequences of that early praise.

"It didn't affect me directly," he said, "because I don't read the papers much. But people started expecting more of me than was probably there in the first place, so when I ran into a bad patch they started to wonder why I wasn't necessarily as good as they'd been told. I said even before I'd played a Test, actually, that it might all have come a bit early."

Had he been nervous, walking out to bat at Trent Bridge, with England 2-0 down in the series and the country looking for a saviour? "Yes. Mostly apprehensive about making myself look a fool, because I knew deep down that I wasn't quite ready. At least I didn't let myself be taken in, because I honestly did think it would probably come crashing down. Which it did."

He had no complaints about the manner in which he was dropped. "It was all handled very nicely. I certainly didn't feel discarded, because they said at the time that I'd definitely be in line for one of the tours, and then they gave me a winter contract. That helped. I was quite relieved, because I felt at the time it was doing me more harm than good. Although in the long term it probably did me more good, actually, to get those two matches out of the way and to be made to realise that I did have a problem, and that I'd have to sort it out if I was going to go any further."

The problems were twofold. First, he discovered that his feet had developed a life of their own. "A lot of people had been saying that my feet didn't seem to move as much as they could. I'd never felt that it was a problem. Everybody who plays knows that your feet naturally go a certain way. It's not something that you've got to work on too much. After things started to go wrong, all of a sudden I was concentrating too hard on what my feet were supposed to be doing. When I got back from South Africa, I went in the nets and made a video and compared it to videos from the previous years and found that my feet were doing all sorts of things that they hadn't been doing before. They weren't maybe going across as much, outside the off stump. Suddenly I'd gone from struggling more against spinners to struggling against the seamers as well. So there was a big effort to get my feet to do what they'd previously done naturally. That's a lot harder than you might think."

Late last season, he also discovered what he believes is the answer to his fallibility against slow bowling. "I always had a far-apart grip, and when you're facing spinners and the ball's not coming on very quickly, your hands tend to work against each other. When your bat's going in two different directions at once and the ball's turning, you're always going to be in trouble. I used to get bogged down, because I was very wary of driving off-spinners outside the off-stump. I cut out that shot, which restricted my scoring. So I've altered my grip a bit, bringing my hands closer together. It's only a slight difference to the grip, but it's made more of a difference to my confidence than anything else."

Towards the end of the season, with his improved form visible in that 206 against Surrey at Bath, he quietly informed the selectors that he was unavailable for either of the winter tours. He is far too modest a man to assume that anyone would have picked him, but his first child was on the way and there was the question of preparing himself for the coming season - which involved a confrontation with form of a more basic kind. Lathwell is 5ft 8in tall, and the most recent edition of The Cricketers' Who's Who lists his weight as 11st 6lb. Last season, however, he was tipping the scales at 13 and a half stone, not the kind of thing likely to assist a batsman's footwork, or to impress selectors interested in agility in the field.

"I've always liked eating," he said. "There's so many temptations when you're playing cricket ... lunches, teas, hotel breakfasts. I've got to start turning a few of them down."

Had this been a case of binge eating? A cry for help, perhaps?

"Well, when you're not that happy with things, you tend to look to food for a bit of comfort. And if you're having a bad game and there's a big lunch on offer, it's one way of making yourself happy during the day. But I said I'd lose weight, and I have. I've lost a stone and a half in the last few weeks, and now I've just got to eat sensibly."

Lathwell's inability to display even a scintilla of arrogance when discussing his own talent almost certainly makes him a better human being, but it may not be doing much for his career. When I asked him if he had any target in mind for the coming season, I was hoping to hear him talk about his desire to fight his way back into the Test team in time for the first of the summer's matches against West Indies. Instead he spoke of an ambition to achieve a batting average of 40. Since he finished 1994 with 39.67 against his name, that doesn't exactly represent a wild lunge for the stars.

But just supposing, I persisted, that you make a really good start to the season, and people begin to talk about you getting back into the Test team, how would you feel about it?

"Well, I know I'm a better player than I was the first time. So if it happens, I'll be in a better position."

Which is, I guess, as close as we'll get to a battle cry from Mark Lathwell, a natural talent that England cannot afford to lose. But who will help him overcome his equally natural modesty and understatement, and turn his promise into the runs his country needs?