SOURCE: The Guardian DATE: 22 April 1993 SPO PAGE: 23 Somerset boy with the serious talent David Foot

David Foot meets Mark Lathwell, who opened so successfully for England A in Australia and also turns his arm over in Devon for the Sticky Stumps darts team MARK LATHWELL has a surprisingly solemn face, every bit as grave as that of the arch West Country entertainer Harold Gimblett with whom he has been prematurely compared. At the wicket he has a na- tural effervescence, with a sparkle in his boyish stride and a smile on his bat. Hunched in front of the Taunton pavilion, having just spooned a catch in a practice match, he, like so many who perform with a flourish on stage or sports field, shyly views life and burgeon- ing success with no more than the merest veneer of emotion. He is matter-of-fact in the extreme. ''Try him on darts,'' some- one had said. ''That may get him going.'' The treble-19 syndrome is discreetly thrown into the conversation. His eyes light up momentarily. ''I'm in my local darts league in Devon and play for a team called the Sticky Stumps.'' At least there is a hint of a cricketing image. And after all, he was only five short, in Tasmania a few weeks ago, of the magi- cal 180. Lathwell was one of the successes during the A tour of Aus- tralia. Ted Dexter was around to say well done. The 21-year-old village boy scored two hundreds in that attractive, perfunctory manner of his, to put himself unquestionably on the shortlist for Test recognition before too long. Bob Cottam, the county's director of cricket, says: ''He has im- mense talent and it's incredible the way he takes everything in his stride. Temperamentally this is a great plus. ''In cricketing terms he's still a baby but already he has shown he can make runs against everyone. He has quick hands and a good eye. He learns quickly and wants all the time to improve - he has a cricket brain on him. ''When I first came to the club I said he was the best young batsman I had ever seen. I've no reason to change that opinion.'' The senior coach Peter Robinson says: ''Mark is a breath of fresh air. His dad used to bring him along to the nets on Satur- day mornings when he was no more than 12. His lack of emotions meant you could never be quite sure whether he was enjoying him- self. But you could certainly detect exceptional skill even then.'' Robinson could not disguise a quizzical glance during Lathwell's first away match with the 2nd XI. ''When we went to bed in the hotel, he was still playing the one-armed bandit. And when I came down for breakfast in the morning, he was there again. I was tempted to ask myself whether he'd been at it all night!'' In just one full season of county cricket Lathwell has established himself as a perky, polished opener, seemingly unconcerned by the new-ball wiles of canny, cynically eyed fast bowlers of experi- ence and unsentimental intent. He has no airs or burdensome analytical obsessions when it comes to working out how he got himself out. One suspects he rather likes the country-boy, darts-playing image. Until recently, when someone suggested it, he scorned setting himself targets in the popular fashion as he moved, say, from 50 to 75 in his innings. Interviews, however informal, do not come easily to him. He can- not hide a defensive mechanism. ''Publicity bothers me. I simply can't see why anyone should be interested in me. Maybe I'm sub- consciously trying to slow it down. I want to avoid any impres- sion that I'm more important than I am. ''I'm not by nature out-going. If I don't know someone, I'm apt to go into the corner. It isn't like that in the Somerset dress- ing room where most of the team have a real sense of humour.'' Again he says it without the flicker of a smile, though he is courteous and friendly enough. ''What about a few words then, Mark?'' There is momentary hesitation, almost panic. ''All right, let's get it out of the way now,'' he had said minutes earlier. The England hierarchy are by now well aware of his promise - and his refreshing approach in which he goes eagerly, not naively, for his shots. there's nothing robotic about my style.'' His repertoire is remarkably mature, on both sides of the wick- et. He moves into position quickly, plays his shots late. The, boundaries, which are plentiful, are never slogs. Mark's father, an engineer and qualified cricket coach, was the first major influence on him. ''I'd a bat in my hand as a three- year-old.'' When he left school he went into the bank to work for 18 months. But Somerset were monitoring assiduously; those teenage wrists could have belonged to one of those Asian boy wonders. ''Know what I call him?'' asked Cottam. ''Trough - you should see his appetite. He could eat for England. He'd beat Gatting.'' Messrs Fletcher and Dexter may well be opting for more conven- tional qualifications, even this summer.