Thursday 4 December 2008

Talent is a dog from hell

Millichamp & Hall's retro bat brought to mind Mark Lathwell, who used to use one. If you ever read Mark Lathwell's name now, it's almost always in connection with one theme: lost promise, missed opportunity, a talent gone to waste.

Lathwell's professional life turned on one glorious year when he was 21. He got into the Somerset side, and made 175 for England A against Tasmania. It was an innings that had everyone who saw it drooling, including England's chief selector Ted Dexter who went into the pavilion afterwards to congratulate him. Wisden wrote, 'Not since David Gower has a youngster quickened the pulse like Lathwell'.

He was called into a stumbling England side to play Australia just as the hot streak in his batting cooled in the summer of 1993. He played two Tests and scored 20, 33, 0 and 25, not the worst start, especially for an England player, especially against Australia. But he was dropped, and that was essentially it. The first 'whatever happened to Mark Lathwell' article came out in the Independent in 1996. By 2001, aged just 30, disillusioned and beaten, he retired. 

Seven years on, he still appears in pieces like the Observer's 'Top 10 Squandered Talents' (there's a headline to make you feel good about yourself: also on the list, Gazza and Graeme Hick). But lists like this have just one notion of talent - that someone makes something look easy, or more accurately, that however well they do, they look like they should be doing better. They also tend to focus on early promise.

Just recently, 'thinker' Malcolm Gladwell and Ed 'ET' Smith have touched on developmental theories that affect the perception of talent, in particular one that suggests that most Premiership footballers are born in the autumn, thus giving them advantages throughout the various age group competitions as they grow up. 

These studies focus on physical development. Mark Lathwell, like Graeme Hick, just had a diffident nature, something they will always have. Hick said to the Guardian, 'My kids have become more aware of my career. They watched my retirement being announced on the news and my son just said, 'that's my dad', and he came and sat next to me and he held me. And he wouldn't let go for the next hour. I sat there thinking, Of course I would like to have scored 30 Test hundreds but I might not be the person that I am if I'd done that.'

It's hard to know too how theories account for late developers. When Kevin Pietersen was 21, his was the name on no-one's lips. He didn't appear to be the kind of guy who could one day switch hit Murali in a Test match. 

Talent comes out, but it's an ineffable quality, subject to other forces. To say Mark Lathwell squandered his, and Hick his, just betrays a lack of understanding of what talent is. They got as far as they could get. That's not the sadness of Mark Lathwell's career. The sadness is that he'll forever be appearing on those lists when he doesn't deserve to. He used a nice bat, too. 

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