Cricket: Heir of Lord's to the manner born

Stephen Brenkley finds the game's newest captain is keen to learn his lines
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The Independent Online
Captaincy and Mark Ramprakash are in the first flush of romance. There were years when they appeared to have nothing in common but now, suddenly, it begins to look as if they could have been made for each other. These are early days and while prediction in such circumstances is risky, the early portents suggest a fruitful and enduring relationship.

So far Ramprakash has led Middlesex in only three matches. They won the first two by an innings, against Nottinghamshire last season when he was doing the job as a temporary replacement and against Northamptonshire eight days ago after he had been appointed the county's 22nd captain. In the third, against Leicestersire, the gallop was arrested somewhat by a flat Lord's pitch. His own scores as batsman in those matches have been 71 (run out), 111 and 97. He also captained The Rest against England A in May and made 108 not out.

Ramprakash, the most talented yet unfulfilled and batsman of his generation, may have that warm glow which accompanies all new couples but he talks about it with measured calm. Without at all being deflected from his intention of resuming an international career which numbers 19 Test caps but has never truly begun in earnest, he intends to bring discipline and passion to his new role.

"It was nothing more than a natural progression really," he said at Lord's last week, playing down the thrill of it all. "I hadn't been captain in my life, not even at school. I did the job for England under-19s a couple of times but that was because of seniority; I'd been around a long time. Here at Middlesex, a lot of players left or retired, some of the others who were senior players were bowlers, which always makes it difficult to be captain, and then there was me. But I don't think I'd ever been earmarked."

He has not yet formulated a blueprint for captaincy but he preaches already about preparation, hard work, eliciting the best out of individuals and making players aware of precisely what they can do for the team. He is especially anxious to ensure that young players are made to feel wanted and secure.

"I shouldn't think I'll be a tactical genius," he said. "I'm beginning to realise there's a lot to think about. If I don't say much in the field so far it's because I'm thinking how the bowlers ought to be rotated, how we ought to use the three seamers, when the spinners should have a go. But the thing I'll be aiming to do is make every player feel part of the squad, established or new. Players have got to take personal responsibility but it's got to be a team."

Ramprakash, 27, recalled his own entry into the Middlesex side 10 years ago. The team was replete with stars, the age gap was massive. It was not a comfortable introduction. "They were all very friendly but I don't remember staying behind for a drink. It can't have been easy for them."

From the quiet, studious tone of his voice it is clear he is committed to avoiding any similar discomfiture among the many young men who may progress into the Middlesex team. Ramprakash will speak to them all to ease their initial passage, ensure the rest integrate them.

Not that he is besotted by youth alone for he paid handsome, heartfelt tribute to the man he replaced as the county skipper, Mike Gatting, at whose knee, he readily conceded, he had learned much. It was a shock when Gatting went a month into this season and Ramprakash claims still not to know why.

"We all thought he'd stay at least till the end of the season. I'd only been appointed vice-captain late last summer when John Carr announced that he was retiring and it was only then I suppose I thought I had a chance of being captain. The first I really knew what was happening was when Gatt came up to me at Edgbaston on the Sunday and said he was thinking of putting my name forward as the next captain as he was ready to stand down. By the Tuesday morning I had the job.

"The dressing-room is still coming to terms with it. Gatt's always been around, always been in charge, always commanded such respect. Now I'm captain. Nothing has changed dramatically but it's still different. While the side is settled it's also in transition and it's important for me to get to grips with that. But Gatt can stay around for as long as he wants."

There was a charming moment late in the day at Lord's on Wednesday when the new captain was concentrating on his field, trying to put pressure on the new batsman. He spotted Gatting at long on and rotated his arms, signalling his predecessor to move up to mid-on. Gatting smiled to himself as he did so. When he left the ground that night he and the captain exchanged warm waves and grins.

It has not escaped Ramprakash's attention that he is following in a rich tradition of which Gatting was but the latest part. Plum Warner was captain both before and after the First World War, Walter Robins before and after the Second. For the past quarter of a century the job has been shared by two men, Mike Brearley who did it from 1971 to 1982 and, since then, Gatting.

They each won three Championships outright (Brearley won another jointly) and two NatWest Trophies, and Gatting also won two Benson and Hedges Cups and the Sunday League. Ramprakash is far from intemperate in suggesting what he can do in following such hard acts. "We have been too inconsistent these past three seasons, winning some matches big, losing others the same way and I'd say that still affects us. When we learn to play for every ball then we'll be in with a chance."

Brearley and Gatting both led England, of course, and both their teams won the Ashes. Ramprakash is a long way from that but do not think he has not thought about it. Now, that would truly seal the partnership.