You know a player looms larger in your mind than the nation’s collective consciousness when you’re not able to find a single image of them online. When googling him In fact, you swiftly come into contact with the author of a book called High Voltage Vacuum Insulation: A New Perspective, which is currently ranked 675,201st in Amazon’s bestseller list. So he’s not the most famous cricketer we’ve produced. And looking over the international career of Rodney Terry Latham statistically it seems difficult to imagine what generated the warmth you feel for him.
The batting all-rounder played 33 one dayers, with a poor average of 20, a worse strike rate of 57 and a dismal high score of 60. As a bowler he sent down a mere 450 balls in ODIs, at an unspectacular 35.09 and going for more than five an over, not brilliant for the era. He was scarcely more impressive in his four tests, his sole century coming in New Zealand’s first-ever test against Zimbabwe, a match Wisden describes cheerily as “a listless draw”, and the almanack could find no more ringing praise for his efforts than this: “the stocky Latham nevertheless proceeded to his maiden Test hundred.”
Fairly unremarkable, huh? But that summation from the cricketer’s bible contains the seeds of what provoked one of my first cricketing epiphanies. I was 13 during the summer of ’92-’93, and attended what must have been my second or third cricket match (growing up in London, for some reason, I never went to Lords). It had all the makings of a classic.
New Zealand and Australia were tied at 2-2 in the five match series heading into the decider at Eden Park. If you were looking for a hero going into the game, there were plenty of likely candidates. Australia had a phenomenal batting line up at the time, with the Waugh twins, Boon, Border, Dean Jones and Mark Taylor all present and correct. New Zealand were pretty impressive at the time too, with Greatbatch, Crowe, Rutherford, Andrew Jones and a young all rounder named Jeff Wilson all turning out for the Black Caps.
Few would have paid much attention to Rod Latham; certainly not Australia, batting first on an Eden Park wicket which had seen some big scores run up and chased down on it during the previous summer’s World Cup. But at some point, probably out of despair, with Australia cruising at 2/140-odd, Crowe chucked Latham the ball, and everything changed. I remember this vividly, because I simply could not believe this guy was playing international cricket.
Because Wisden‘s description of Latham as stocky, was, if anything, charitable. The guy was fat, to put it bluntly, in a way that cricketers are the last international sportsmen (aside from the occasional golfer) that can be. Australia had its share of big units too, particularly Boon, but Latham was different. Boon had legends written about him, Latham was a toiler who might have been 10th picked if he was lucky. But today, for whatever reason, something clicked.
He got Mark Waugh out in his first over, as I recall, for a pretty splendid 83. This was hilarious enough, that such an imperious strokemaker as M Waugh should fall to this innocuous trundler. Latham was in pace and style a forerunner of the Nathan Astle-type bowler, one that was to become a mainstay of our cricket for the next decade, and remains visible today in Ryder (a player who, physically at least, carries Latham’s memory with him). But he wasn’t done yet.
He chipped out Boon, then shortly after had Border in the pavillion, and Australia’s seemingly effortless charge to a total of real substance was in jeopardy. Before long he had Steve Waugh and Dodemaide (who?) too, and he’d taken five straight wickets, and single-handedly put this match within reach, as Australia eventually limped through to 232 off their 50 overs.
It wasn’t to be. After Latham, in his day job as an opening bat, had been dismissed for a typically pedestrian 22 off 48 balls we lost wickets just regularly enough to keep the result within reach, but never to be comfortable. New Zealand ended up falling agonisingly short, at 229/8, with Larsen and Pringle unable to turn their 50 partnership into a victory.
I remember the match as a classic, and in the absence of any available literature to contradict me that will have to pass for truth. Latham played many fine innings at first class level, including a savage 237 not out against ND, so I shouldn’t slight him. But for me that one magical bowling spell was a moment when a fairly ordinary international cricketer (and fullback – how?! – for Canterbury’s provincial rugby side) stood up and blazed into the memories of all who saw the game. It’s exactly the kind of improbable scenario that makes sport so attractive. Even if we couldn’t quite get over the line.