Somerset Legends ~ Mark Lathwell ~ A meteor crosses the Somerset sky

This is the latest in a series of occasional articles of the author’s reminiscences of Somerset legends. The author is indebted to the Cricket Archive database for the statistics include in the article. The reminiscences are drawn entirely from his personal recollections.

SOMERSET LEGENDS ~ MARK LATHWELL

Mark Lathwell played 142 first-class matches for Somerset. He scored 7988 runs at an average of 33.84 with ten centuries.   

Once in a while, on an August night, when the air is still and the clouds are away, a meteor flashes across the sky. It attracts the eye, embeds itself in the memory, and then, slower than it came, fades from view. If only it could have stayed longer, extended the spectacle, given time for the eyes and the mind to focus. And yet, the spectacle it does provide is enough for the watcher to recall the image whenever the fancy passes and to banish the ungrateful wish that it should have tarried.

I was once walking around the County Ground, between the Caddick and Colin Atkinson Pavilions. It could easily have been an August day. Jos Buttler was in full flow with the bat in a Championship match. “The best since … ” another Somerset watcher began to say to a friend. “Botham,” my mind said as it filled in the end of the sentence, for I had often thought of Botham when I saw Buttler at his best with the bat. But my mind was ahead of itself. “Lathwell,” the Somerset watcher ended his sentence. And the words were, “best since Lathwell,” not, “better than Lathwell.”

I first saw Mark Lathwell bat at Lord’s on 27th June 1992. It was in the earlier years of my eastern exile and it was the second day of the one Somerset Championship match a year I was normally able to watch in those days. Middlesex, with Haynes, Gatting, Ramprakash et al. had droned through the first day at three runs an over, at least that is how I remember it. Then, as I watched from the upper tier of the Edrich Stand on the second morning, Lathwell opened the innings for Somerset. Suddenly, a streaking straight drive lit up a segment of the Lord’s turf just as you might see one of those meteors light up a segment of the night sky. It was the sort of stroke that makes you sit up in your seat, and I remember it still.

Lathwell had burst on the Somerset scene earlier that season and I had travelled to Lord’s with some anticipation. The straight drive was followed by four more drives, all in the arc as I remember it; all struck with a crispness and cleanness of shot that left the fielders as much spectators as the crowd for you cannot chase a meteor. All the plaudits of Lathwell I had read fell into place. And then a sixth drive, as forcefully played and as classical as the first five. Except that this time the off stump was knocked back and Lathwell departed for 22. It was as if a brilliantly shining light had gone out. The rest of the match seemed to go the way of the Middlesex innings, petering out to a draw on the last afternoon after Lathwell had been out for one in Somerset’s second innings. But Lathwell’s truncated first innings still shone bright in the memory. It left a feeling of what might have been, but also a feeling of anticipation of what might be to come.

I next saw Lathwell at Chelmsford the following year, 1993, for my chosen match of the season. In testing conditions Essex outperformed Somerset, but not Lathwell. He had made 48 of Somerset’s first innings 202, a contribution that was only exceeded by a late and typically rip-roaring 71 from Mushtaq Ahmed. Essex reached 265 in reply, largely through an innings of 123 from Paul Prichard. The scores, and an overall scoring rate across the match of about two and a half runs an over, made what followed from Lathwell all the more astonishing. It made an impression which lasts to this day. He scored 132 out of a total of 197 all out in Somerset’s second innings. Only one other Somerset batsman, Neil Mallender with 13, reached double figures as Neil Foster took five wickets. 

I watched, as I invariably did at Chelmsford, from the Felsted School Stand. Nondescript as stands go but it affords shelter from any rain and shade from any sun if you do not sit too close to the front. You are as close to the action there as you are in any stand in the country. Again, Lathwell drove with precision through the arc. As wickets fell steadily and apparently inevitably at the other end, he stood, seemingly invincible, against bowling that the rest of the team found unplayable. A batsman playing strokes of immense, and as it must have seemed to the bowlers, impenetrable class. Oh, to have been able to bottle just one of those strokes. 

Hope of a Somerset win gradually drained away with the fall of each wicket, but the feeling of being in the presence of a great piece of Somerset batting grew as one boundary followed upon another. Each sliced its way across the grass and through the despond of impending defeat as it raised the spirits at the sheer audacity of the innings. As the end of the Somerset innings approached, Lathwell played two glorious, lofted drives to clear the boundary at Chelmsford’s River End, trying to stretch Somerset’s inadequate score. And then, finally, a third lofted drive was caught on the straight boundary. A wonderful innings was over, but the memory of it has lived on, brighter than any meteor. Nearly thirty years have passed now, and twenty since Lathwell last played for Somerset, but still that innings comes to mind whenever great Somerset batting passes through the conversation, or whenever the fancy passes. It is unlikely to fade now.

Lathwell played all his cricket for Somerset during the years of my eastern exile and so my opportunities to watch him play were severely limited. One more innings though sticks in the memory. Valedictory as it turned out, for me at least. It was the last time I saw him play. The Oval, June 2001. Somerset battled to reach 377 in their first innings, not enough to prevent defeat as Mark Ramprakash scored 143 and 90 in Surrey’s two innings and Ian Salisbury took five wickets in Somerset’s second. Lathwell’s contribution was an innings of a different nature to those of 1992 and 1993. Gritty rather than dominant, he fought tooth and nail to establish a competitive first innings score for Somerset. A gritty, determined innings, but the quality of stroke had not deserted and the drives when they came still raced across the outfield. He shared a 140-run partnership with Peter Bowler (73) which was at the heart of Somerset’s 377.

The Oval was my favourite of the eastern grounds at which I used to watch Somerset during my exile. It was Lathwell’s final season, but none of us knew it then. I sat, as always at the Oval, in the Peter May Stand, high up, nearer the back than the front, square. The great gasometer that had overseen Len Hutton’s 364 in the Ashes of 1938 loomed over my right shoulder. Over my left shoulder, in the days when it flew, usually some minutes after five o’clock would come the unmistakeable sound of Concorde’s Olympus engines on its descent to Heathrow as it returned from New York. It was a perfect setting with, to my eye, a perfect view of the cricket.

But there was no perfect outcome for Lathwell on this day. As he approached his century the runs seemed to slow, the strokes looked less sure. A feeling began to develop that a century on this day was not to be. Then, on 99, he cut. I can still see the flash of the bat now and feel the leap of anticipation in the beat of my heart. The bowling was from the Pavilion End, the cut was hard and sure, but the ball flew to slip and Lathwell walked straight off, 99 over nearly four hours the extent of his powers.

There were no more centuries for Somerset. In the next match, against Yorkshire at Bath, and with me back at work, Somerset declared at lunch on the second day with over 500 on the board and Lathwell at the crease on 98 scored from just 109 balls. In the final match of the season, against Northamptonshire at Taunton, he was out for 92 from 111 balls in a Somerset total of 630. Neither of those nineties, nor the pace at which they were scored, gave any hint of a career coming to a close, but after the Northamptonshire game he played no more for Somerset, leaving first-class cricket at a time entirely of his own choosing.

The meteor I had first seen at Lord’s in 1992, and that had lit up Chelmsford so brilliantly in 1993, had run its course, still blazing bright if those three nineties at the Oval, Bath and Taunton are any measure. Some pondered what might have been, for when he announced his retirement Lathwell had reached just 30 years old. I prefer to remember what was, and above all that glorious innings at Chelmsford. It has a golden place in the warm August months of the memory, as vivid as any meteor you will see, and for that I give much thanks.