Rod Latham may not have had an inkling his 19-year-old son, Tom, was on the verge of New Zealand selection last week. But the man who moulded young Latham's cricket career from his first year at Christchurch Boys' High School knew five years ago he had a future international on his hands.
Standing up and eyeballing Shane Bond in your Christchurch senior club debut for Burnside West University at age 14 will do that.
"He was just about to turn 15 and I got him involved with my club team, and the opposition had Shane Bond and Leighton Burtt. He was going to open but when Bondy turned up we thought he'd better slide down to six. He got 92 not out ... not a bad debut," recalled Latham's former coach, Neil Fletcher.
He'd announced his arrival in the first XI with a similarly dominant innings against rivals St Andrew's College, containing a promising fast bowler Matt McEwan, son of another former international, Paul. The senior players had failed, the 14-year-old scored a matchwinning 90. He may have been Rod's boy, but young Latham quickly stood on his own two feet. In three years at the national under-17 tournament he was leading runscorer in the final two; he went on to play for the New Zealand under-19 team.
"Straight away he had a couple of big knocks against the top schools and made people sit up and say `Gee he's a good player'," Fletcher said.
A smattering of patrons at the Basin Reserve last week would attest to that as Latham blasted 130 off 119 balls against Wellington. Just 14 months since his first-class debut and he averages over 50 in nine one-day innings. And his T20 strike rate is 156, highlighted by 53 on debut against Central Districts.
Latham captained CBHS in his final two years at school, a born leader, says Fletcher. He had all the shots, front and back foot, and played spin ably.
A future New Zealand test captain, then? "For sure."
"He's got a very even temperament, nothing fazes him. Every level he goes up he seems to take it in his stride. He's quite a humble person and a very good team man; the guys really looked up to him and he just let his bat do the talking.
"He's always had a really good understanding of his own game. At an early age that was quite visible ahead of players his own age. And he hits more balls than anyone. There's no secret to his success."
It all started at age three when his father's employer at a Christchurch sports shop presented Tom with a cut-down cricket bat. He surprised Latham Sr by picking it up left-handed. "He had the left-hander's cow corner slog fairly early on. It wasn't too cultural at the start," Rod Latham chuckles from his desk as general manager at Harewood Golf Club.
Adam Gilchrist, also a left-handed, big-hitting wicketkeeper, quickly became young Tom's idol. Latham liked being in the game so he always opened the batting and kept wicket. "He moulded himself a little bit around [Gilchrist]. They both played similar ways."
HIS BIGGEST decision at school was to decide between rugby and cricket, something his father had to do much later, after playing fullback for Canterbury. A hooker and captain of the school's under-15 side, Latham was picked in a national under-19 cricket training squad. He chose cricket, without prompting. Latham Sr, with four tests and 33 ODIs to his name, insists his son got there his own way.
"Being the son of a former player is always difficult and the expectation is more than most. I've always stayed in the background, and his coaches are his coaches. Whilst I haven't agreed with everything they've done, that's the way it is.
"He comes to me every now and then and asks what I think. I'll give him my thoughts and he'll do what he needs to do. I've always stayed at arm's length and let him make his own way in sport."
When he left school and Canterbury Cricket pounced, Latham also had to shed some weight. Fletcher estimates he lost 10 to 15kg under the eye of their trainers. A hooker's build no more. His batting, glovework and outfielding stepped up another notch. Fletcher says his wicketkeeping is good enough to be a backup on tour, and if required could even follow BJ Watling's recent example and step up to a fulltime role.
The shock of his selection last Saturday fast turned to expectation in the Latham house. Rod, his wife Sally and Tom's girlfriend were bound for Dunedin last night to watch their son bat No4 on ODI debut against Zimbabwe today.
He still lives at the family home – "I don't think he'll leave, too bloody cheap at home," Latham Sr said – and it was an emotional Saturday. Tom said this week his father bombarded him with jubilant texts after hearing of his selection, and his mother was waiting in the driveway to shower him with hugs.
Today will be a edgy one for the proud parents at University Oval. "She [Sally] is pretty nervous already ... She's like a cat on a hot tin roof but once he gets under way she's all right," said Latham Sr, who's confident his son is ready.
"He's used to being pushed up into those situations that are a bit beyond him. I think he'll handle it because he's got a pretty good head on him."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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