Cricket: Nothing rash for Ramprakash: Enigma's opening gambit will be to establish claim for Test place

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MARK RAMPRAKASH, who discovered in the 1991 home series that it is one thing to bat for a long time against the West Indies, and quite another to score a lot of runs while you are out there, has been pencilled in as England's reserve opening batsman should anything happen to Mike Atherton or Alec Stewart in the Caribbean.

Ramprakash displayed limpet-like qualities against the likes of Curtly Ambrose and Malcolm Marshall in the 1991 series in England, batting for the thick end of 17 hours in the five-Test series. None the less, his near-strokeless crease occupation yielded only 210 runs at an average of 23.33 and he discovered his own personal Bermuda Triangle whenever his score moved into the twenties, blipping off the radar between 21 and 29 seven times in nine innings.

The 24-year-old Middlesex batsman, whose facility for spending almost as long on disciplinary carpets as he has batting against the West Indies had a large bearing on his omission from both the England and England A tours last winter, was yesterday named to open the innings with Mike Atherton for the tourists' four-day match against the Leeward Islands starting here today.

The one proviso is that Matthew Maynard, who was unable to bat in England's second innings in St Kitts on Monday because of a cricked neck, passes a fitness test this morning. Otherwise, Alec Stewart will come in to partner Atherton, with Ramprakash moving down to the position he may yet nail down for the Test series, No 3.

Ramprakash made a disciplined 136 batting there in the first innings in St Kitts, and he and Surrey's Graham Thorpe, who is down to bat at No 3 here, are currently ahead of both Nasser Hussain and Maynard in the pecking order for the available batting places.

At the moment the plan for six specialist batsmen and a proper wicketkeeper leaves just the two vacancies, although if Ramprakash makes runs in this match, Jack Russell's disposition may become a little less cheery. Russell traditionally pays the price when the top order makes a pig's ear of things and the temptation to employ Stewart as a wicketkeeping all-rounder is never far away.

Before cementing a place in the Middlesex side, Ramprakash had played most of his career as an opener, and certainly has the technique to make a decent fist of it. So too does Robin Smith, although England quite rightly see him as far too valuable a pivot at No 4, not least because Smith's penchant for playing spin as though he has breakfasted on several bowls of rum punch is unlikely to be tested in this series.

One batsman who has failed to impress against any type of bowling (other than his own team-mates' in the nets) has been Hussain, who badly needs a score in this game to enter selectorial thinking. Keith Fletcher, the team manager, said wistfully: 'Nasser was in tremendous form before we actually starting playing.'

Fletcher's satisfaction with the performances of Devon Malcolm, Angus Fraser and Phil Tufnell in the St Kitts' game means that all three are rested here and will doubtless return for next week's game against Barbados, the last before the first one-day international.

Fletcher also declared himself to be unbothered about the fact that the Leewards are significantly under strength here, particularly in their bowling line-up. 'Whenever the counties put out weakened sides against tourists they are thrashed all over the place and it actually breeds confidence in the opposition. There is nothing like scoring runs, no matter who is bowling.'

The negative side of the equation, of course, is that it will not do a great deal for England's confidence if they manage to get themselves mangled by the Leewards' second-stringers. While a good performance here might not prove very much, a bad one certainly would.

ENGLAND (v Leeward Islands, today): M A Atherton (capt), M R Ramprakash, G P Thorpe, G A Hick, N Hussain, M P Maynard or A J Stewart, R C Russell (wkt), C C Lewis, I D K Salisbury, A R Caddick, S L Watkin.