Cricket: Hope of middle-order England; MARK RAMPRAKASH; INTERVIEW

The Middlesex captain and England batsman will be providing a fascinating insight into the forthcoming Ashes series against Australia with a regular column for 'The Independent on Sunday'. Here, he speaks to Stephen Brenkley
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On a late summer's day 10 years ago a teenager in an old-fashioned cap played an enchanting innings at Lord's. The headgear merely emphasised that until a few weeks before he had still been a schoolboy. Nobody watching would have reckoned it would take him quite so long to grow into a man.

Much, much longer than was suggested in his every nuance that afternoon. He went in with his side in a position of extreme peril but a relaxed, exceptional combination of skill and artistry secured their victory. It brought him to public notice and it was one of those sporting occasions (the NatWest Trophy Final to be exact) when it was possible to be sure that a performer would be around again.

So it proved, but that serene innings of 56 for Middlesex was a false indicator of a smooth journey ahead for Mark Ramprakash. Known to everybody in cricket as Ramps, the sobriquet is similarly misleading considering the mountains he has had to climb. He was duly in the England side at 21 but his early promise, revealing an enviably constructed technique which gave him plenty of time and exuded style, did not translate itself into vast amounts of runs. The selectors were to be capricious in their favours. Ramprakash never established himself in the side and it could be argued that he was never allowed to establish himself. Conservative if wise estimates say that it can take 20 or so games to become a true Test performer (witness, famously, the 27 it took Steve Waugh, now the most complete international batsman of all, to register his maiden century), but it took Ramprakash six years to be granted that many appearances.

"I'm not too worried about fulfilling the expectations of others," he said last week as he prepared for England's tour of Australia. "They can be different from what you expect of yourself. My job for England, as I see it, is to do the best for the team in a given situation whether that demands strokeplaying or something else like ensuring time is used up. You always have to remember that Test matches are played over five days. A quick 30 in half an hour can be no good at all in the context of a game."

Still, there is no doubt that, for a player of his prodigious talent and refinement, he took his time getting accustomed to international cricket. He played in all of England's Test matches last summer for the first time since making his debut in 1991, having resurrected his career for what was surely the last time the previous summer.

Recalled for the final match against Australia at The Oval, he assembled a priceless 48 in England's second innings. The side won a palpitating victory and Ramprakash was on the plane for the West Indies. There, he was strangely ignored for the first three matches but then broke through. A composed half- century in Guyana was followed by a resplendent maiden century (which became 154 not out) in Barbados. It was his 38th Test innings and the ecstasy on his face did not need the supplement of words to articulate how much it meant.

"Playing Test cricket is a huge jump. I'm afraid a lot of domestic cricket is fairly soft by comparison because there are too many teams really for the number of players. It means that the cricket sometimes isn't that competitive or taxing and I think it makes the jump that much bigger. A lot of England players have struggled to adjust."

Even now, Ramprakash, these days the captain of Middlesex and seemingly ensconced in England's middle order, has not answered all the questions which can be posed in the most rarefied form of the game. Last summer's Tests brought him only two fifties, one in the gruelling series against South Africa, the other against Sri Lanka on a surface at The Oval where it was, initially at least, fill-your-boots time. He batted for long periods in which he never looked like getting out but did not score runs in a fluent rush either. It was, he said, a question of balance, of protecting the tail, giving the team breathing space, not throwing away his wicket.

"The series against South Africa was very draining," he said. "We knew how tough it would be because they are an exceptionally good bowling side. They are quick and they don't give you many chances to score. Batting at number six as I was is a bit different from batting at three as I do for Middlesex. Quite often the ball's softer and the fields are more defensive so runs can be more difficult to come by. I was reasonably happy with the summer but there were some occasions, like at Old Trafford, when I twice reached 30, that I should have gone on. You've got to admit that kind of thing."

Perhaps he should but it was also a summer of dodgy umpiring decisions of which Ramprakash had a full share. His dismissal at Lord's earned him notoriety and an pounds 850 fine. Having been adjudged caught behind after the ball brushed his elbow he suggested to the umpire Darryl Hair on his way out that he was messing with players' careers. He has mellowed considerably since his early days in the game when he could not be so much feisty as combustible.

He has become thoughtful and diplomatic but his pointed words to Hair showed he can still speak his corner. He kept admirably quiet (and gave nothing away in his face either) when he was the victim later in the series of at least two more extremely dubious decisions. Then, there were his tonsils and a season of perpetual travails at Middlesex involving the disagreement over the methods of the new Australian coach, John Buchanan.

"When you play for England that is all you are concentrating on," Ramprakash said. "But it can be harder if there are other matters on your mind. I'm sure to that extent it might be smoother on tour this winter. The tonsilitis could be pretty debilitating sometimes but now I've had my tonsils out. It was a transitional season at Middlesex and that was always in the background."

If the throat problem has been fully rectified the Middlesex position may be only partly resolved. While Buchanan will not be returning and Mike Gatting has been appointed as cricket director ("I'm very happy to have him as coach") there is some doubt over Angus Fraser's future with the county. Ramprakash is genuinely perplexed by Fraser's apparent reluctance to sign a new contract and although the bowler aired his doubts in the Sunday Telegraph last week his captain knew nothing about them until he attended a benefit dinner on Wednesday night. "I know the county have offered Gus a package but he had not indicated to me that he might not be happy. Obviously, I'd like him to stay. We all would."

Maybe Ramprakash and Fraser can discuss the issue on the way to Australia. Once there, only the Ashes and the regaining of them is likely to be exercising their minds. "We can win, certainly we can, but I do think it will be very close," he said. "Their bowling attack is well rounded and Glenn McGrath is one of the best of all fast bowlers because he can bowl quick and then he can bowl tight. The spin attack we all know about. It might depend on the wickets they prepare. If they start dry and encourage turn it may be that that decides the series. England have got a good batting line-up. We've got experience and talent and it's a very important factor that this is a side whose members respect each other."

The series would be blessed indeed if it was to witness Ramprakash in his pomp, achieving full Test maturity. He is 29 now and the road since the NatWest final of 1988 has been long and bumpy and too often enveloped in dark clouds. What a sight it would be for English cricket for him to be cruising on the freeway in bright sunshine, cap or no cap.