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Cricket: Ramprakash discovers the Boycott within

MARK RAMPRAKASH did not make a run in the first Test at Edgbaston, or take a catch, or get a bowl. But he had an interesting match.

Alex Tudor's 99 made the difference between the two sides and Ramprakash, as Tudor's netting buddy, has rightly been given a slice of the credit. He is a senior member of the England set-up now. It's official: in the team photo, Ramprakash is sitting on Nasser Hussain's right. England never name a vice-captain in home Tests - don't ask why, it's just another of the game's delightfully illogical traditions - but if they did it would probably be Ramps, who was Hussain's only rival for the captaincy.

Over the past 18 months Ramprakash has been England's top Test batsman, with 989 runs at an average of 39.56. (Don't read too much into the fact that no one has managed 40: the first Test of the period was the infamous one at Sabina Park, the last at Edgbaston, and there were a few other terror tracks in between). After eight years as an England player, and eight occasions when he was dropped, Ramprakash has finally cracked it at Test level. Or has he?

When he strung together a few scores for the first time, in the Caribbean the winter before last, and crowned the sequence by striding out in a crisis at Bridgetown and making 154, it seemed as if everything had fallen into place. He was even a useful change bowler in that series, spending the many spare moments he had early on the tour getting John Emburey to hone his off-spin. Ramprakash appeared to have banished the stage fright and found a way to convert his intensity directly into runs.

Usually when players take ages to make their first Test hundred, they immediately add a second, London bus fashion. Mike Gatting's first two tons came in consecutive Tests in India in 1984-85, and Steve Waugh's first two hundreds came in consecutive Ashes Tests, at Headingley and Lord's in 1989. In the case of Ramps, the second ton is threatening to take as long coming as the first. Thirteen Tests have come and gone since Barbados and there have been six fifties from Ramprakash, but no hundreds.

Too much should not be read into this either. A couple of times he was stranded by England's useless pre-Tudor tail. The worry lies more in the way he has batted. He has turned into a master blocker. When it comes to preserving his wicket, he is among the best in the world, up there with the leading defensive technicians in the best Test teams, Jacques Kallis and Justin Langer.

Against South Africa last summer, Ramprakash hung around for 16 and a half hours and was only out eight times. In Australia, in the same number of completed innings, he lasted just over 21 hours. He has become the sort of Test batsman they don't make 'em like any more, a Barrington or a Boycott. His duck at Edgbaston, with attacking fields and a fast outfield, occupied 27 balls.

Ramprakash's catching at cover and midwicket is often inspiring. It contributed to the two great victories last summer, with three catches at Trent Bridge and one at Headingley. His batting seldom has the same match-turning effect. He is a very good Test batsman with only one fault: he needs to find a higher gear, a way of not merely wearing the opposition out, but walking all over them.

He is a fixture in the side and seldom in recent years has anyone so deserved to be. But the slot he has been given, at No 5, may be the wrong one. In the middle order, you have to be able to attack as much as defend. If Ramps remains locked in they-shall-not-pass mode, he should swap places in the order with Hussain. At the moment, dropping down the order may be the last thing on Hussain's mind. But No 5 or 6 is a good place to run things from - ask Steve Waugh, Hansie Cronje, Clive Lloyd, Allan Border or Viv Richards. Hussain has also forced himself to become a barnacle in order to establish himself at Test level. But as his imperious second- innings at Edgbaston showed, he remains in touch with his inner dasher.

There are two other things England could do for Ramprakash. When they eventually return to the one-day game in 2000, Ramps must be restored to the team, from which he has been mysteriously ostracised. It would loosen the stays. And his fielding alone would save more runs than some of the batsmen selected ahead of him have scored.

Secondly, they could tear up that old tradition and make him vice-captain now. He is sufficiently like Hussain to echo him when necessary, but he is also different. Ramprakash is a doting father these days, and there is a gentleness in his intensity. He could be the nice cop, and let Nasser be the nasty one.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly.