Cricket: Only a very few have the hunger and the talent Ramprakash will crack it this time

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The first article I wrote this season was about Mark Ramprakash. It seemed blindingly obvious that he was on the brink of stardom. Several other papers ran big features on him. And in a way, we were right. Ramprakash has had a fabulous year - but only at county level. In Test cricket, where we expected him to break through, he has gone backwards. He has had an annus mirabilis and an annus horribilis.

When we met, on a three-sweater day at Edgbaston during Warwickshire v England A, his main worry was starting the season well - "a lot of times I've started very slowly". That hurdle was cleared: in May, when the county captains were asked by a newspaper to name their England squads, every one included Ramprakash.

He played in all three one-day internationals, and was quietly effective, for a No 6, making 32, 16 and 29 not out. Again, he was an automatic choice for the first Test at Headingley. In the first innings, he made four, failing to get on top of a square cut. If the shot was bad, the company he was in was not: Robin Smith, Graeme Hick and Alec Stewart had all gone the same way.

In the second innings, he came in at 82 for 4. England were still one run behind, and the tail began at No 7. Ramprakash helped Graham Thorpe add 48. Aha, we thought, he's going to crack it. The possibility may have occurred to Courtney Walsh, too, because at this point he bowled a perfect leg-cutter, slanted in, pitching off, hitting off.

And so to Lord's, the ground Ramprakash knows best. He sat on the balcony while Thorpe and Smith added 111. Then Smith went down the wicket to Carl Hooper and yorked himself. Hooper was tidy; Ramprakash was edgy. Stuck on nought for 13 balls, he drove the 14th to slip.

In the second innings, he came in on the Saturday evening. Before he was off the mark, bad light descended. Being on a pair is one thing, but being 0 not out overnight is another. Next day, third ball, Ramprakash held his bat out and gave another slip catch.

Next day, England won a famous victory, and Ramprakash played the good team man, racing in from cover to celebrate each wicket, especially the catches by his county team-mate, Paul Weekes. Meanwhile, I understand, Ray Illingworth had already decided to drop him, but to recall him for the winter if he did well for Middlesex.

The message was relayed to Ramprakash. Even so, his season might have fallen apart, the way Mark Lathwell's did in 1993, or Graham Gooch's in 1975. His early good form for Middlesex had already faded. Instead, he converted his disappointment directly into runs. Without changing his technique, which was already more solid than any current England player's, he took a leap forward. Only a very few have the hunger and the talent to make big Championship scores in large numbers: Gooch, Gatting, Hick - and now Ramprakash.

Relishing the hard pitches, he ended the season with 2,147 county runs, 79 more than Brian Lara made in 1994, and 10 centuries. Finally you could see what Angus Fraser had meant when he said (possibly before encountering Lara) that Ramprakash was the most complete batsman he had bowled to.

On Monday, Ramprakash made 73, to seal his place at the top of the averages. And yet, when he flies to South Africa next month, he will still have it all to prove. Why? He is a poor picker of opponents. By the time Botham faced West lndies, he had played 25 Tests, and passed both 1,000 runs and 100 wickets. Ramprakash made his debut against West Indies, and has kept bumping into them since: 11 of his 17 Tests have been against them, with a top score of 29. In two Tests against Australia, he has a 72, a 64 and a 42.

Nor has he been groomed in one-dayers. While his contemporary, Inzamam- ul-Haq, has played 80 of these games, Ramprakash has played seven. These two external factors have added fuel to another that is innate: an almost disabling desire to succeed. Last week Mike Getting was praising Ramprakash's dedication "every morning, he's first in the nets". The flip side of that is being too tight, too nervous.

Still, he's on the tour; and full credit to Illingworth. He said he wanted a spare opener, which would have meant choosing between Ramprakash and John Crawley; Crawley might have won, after making 50 in the last Test. But llly, mellowing fast, was persuaded that class counts for more than batting order.

It is odd that only seven batsmen are going for what will presumably be six Test places. But it should save them from becoming that dread figure on the modern tour, the Forgotten Man. At the risk of cursing him again, you have to say that Ramprakash will crack it this time.