Cricket: Ramprakash gets his timing right: The stage is set for a grand entrance in tomorrow's second Test. Martin Johnson reports from Georgetown

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The Independent Online
MARK RAMPRAKASH was a 10- year-old schoolboy when the West Indies last lost a Test series, and no one knows why better than him. To put it bluntly, waiting for their fast bowlers to give you a ball to hit for four requires almost as much patience as Middlesex and England have expended in waiting for Ramprakash to grow up.

In the 1991 home series against the West Indies, Ramprakash, one of the most gifted strokeplayers that England has produced in decades, batted for 16 hours and 41 minutes against the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, and Courtney Walsh, and all he had to show for it was a total of 210 runs.

Seven times in nine innings Ramprakash vanished between 21 and his top score of 29, and the fact that England are currently not too far from the Bermuda Triangle is a reminder that Ramprakash's own career has several times come close to blipping off the radar because of his own volatile temperament.

In 1989, he had his hands around the throat of Middlesex's acting captain, Paul Downton, after being given a verbal rocket for a misfield, and during the following winter he was suspended for three weeks from playing grade cricket in Melbourne after an altercation with a team-mate.

In 1992 his reaction to being ticked off by another acting captain, John Emburey, after prolonged abuse of an opponent (in of all things a friendly against Cambridge University) ended with Emburey pinning him to the dressing-room floor. Then, in the same summer, during a Sunday League game at Uxbridge, Ramprakash had a verbal set-to with a group of spectators as he was leaving the field.

In fairness, Ramprakash, who is the son of an English mother and a Guyanese Indian father, cited racial abuse against himself as the reason for that particular blow-out, but what Middlesex were not prepared to excuse him for was the fact that - having won the Sunday title on that afternoon - Ramprakash drove away from the ground in a huff without turning up for the presentation ceremony.

However, something far worse than being fined and disciplined by his county was to follow. The Test and County Cricket Board - despite having paid him a winter contract fee - omitted him from both the England tour to India and the A tour to Australia, and made it perfectly clear to him that unless he cleaned up his act, the door to the England dressing-room would remain permanently locked and bolted.

For a player as desperate to succeed as Ramprakash, it was a pivotal moment in his career, and he himself recognised it. 'I never really felt that enough senior players or officials took time out to sit me down and give me the right advice,' he said. 'But in the end it was down to me. I realised, later perhaps than I should have done, that there was a lot more to being a professional cricketer than simply what you do on the field.'

As with many people prone to sudden and irrational bouts of gasket-blowing (David Gower is a classic example), Ramprakash's normal demeanour is that of a quiet, friendly, placid character. Unlike Gower, he is a teetotaller, a dedicated trainer, and more inclined towards a good book and an early night than the restaurant wine list or a night-club.

His occasional explosions are the hallmark of a fiercely ambitious young man desperate to succeed, and who has not had the best of deals from the England selectors. However, his shoulder-shrugging reaction to the potty decision to leave him out of the first Test match in Jamaica last month suggests that Ramprakash may now have learned to live with the fact that life is not always fair.

'I didn't make the team in Jamaica, but I just told myself to keep going and take the opportunity if and when it came along. If I play here in the Guyana Test (as he is certain to) then I'll just hope to do well and take it from there. If I have a good tour, that's great, but if I don't, then it's not the end of the world. I'm only 24, and there are a lot of years ahead of me.'

This kind of philosophical attitude is a long way removed from the one that had a bearing on his 1992 summer of discontent, during which he had felt (with some reason) like a man who had been given the rawest of deals. Having batted with such determination against the West Indies, Ramprakash was not only not picked for the World Cup in Australasia that winter, but was also left out of the Test series in New Zealand in favour of Graeme Hick, who had failed so badly against the West Indies that he was eventually dropped.

Ramprakash's more equable approach may stem from his getting married at the end of last summer, and the loss of that 'life's a bitch' attitude that came from a rare slice of good luck towards the end of the season. Graham Thorpe broke his left thumb in the nets on the morning of the final Test at The Oval, and Middlesex versus Northamptonshire at Lord's was not only the one match close enough to accommodate a speedy replacement, but it did not contain a left-hander of the requisite quality to replace Thorpe. Ramprakash thus got the call and finally made his first Test fifty.

Had Hampshire been at Lord's that day, who knows? Gower might have been summoned instead of Ramprakash, and been out here with a bat in his hand instead of a typewriter and a microphone. However, such is Ramprakash's talent that there is every chance he will become as permanent a fixture as Gower once was.

Those who know him in the Middlesex side are in little doubt that his star is in the ascendant. Angus Fraser regards him as 'the most talented batsman I have ever bowled to. Bar none. In the nets, which normally gives the bowler a bit of help, he is so frighteningly good it verges on taking the piss.'

The Middlesex vice-captain Emburey, recalling the time when he had both hands around Ramprakash's jugular, said: 'He has had to learn the hard way, and because of that he has become a more determined cricketer. He only needs one decent score in a Test match for his natural ability to come out, and then he'll dominate all types of bowling.

'As for his bad-boy record, the senior players such as myself are to blame to a certain extent for not getting hold of him (metaphorically rather than physically) sooner. In the past, he gave the impression of not giving a stuff about anything other than himself, but now he's a revelation. He joins in tactical discussions, offers good thoughts, and - as is the case with Phil Tufnell at long last - he is getting himself involved with the club.

'Ramps is a shy character with people he doesn't know, and although it comes as a shock to see this mild character suddenly go off like Vesuvius, it hasn't happened for a long time now. He now realises that he's got to play with 10 other people, not just for himself, and he's both a better player and bloke because of it.'

Ramprakash first sprang to national attention when he thrashed a memorable half-century in the 1989 NatWest Trophy final, and although he has always been a brilliant, natural strokeplayer, he has learned to adapt his game - largely through listening to the advice of Desmond Haynes at Middlesex - to play long, disciplined innings when required.

He is ideally suited for this tour, with his powerful play off the back foot and his bravery against fast bowling. Having played well in the early games here, only to be left out of the first Test, there was a time when all the toys would have been thrown out of the pram in one major tantrum.

Ramprakash is also entitled to feel puzzled that England have still not made it clear what they want from him. Is it the heavy responsibility of the No 3 position, or do they want someone to whack it around at No 6? He was stunned not only by his omission in Jamaica, but by the fact that the team was read out with no explanation from the captain until the Test was well under way.

However, with Ramprakash's mood having further brightened with the arrival of his father, Deo, on Sunday, and his mother, wife and sister also flying out for the final two Test matches in Barbados and Antigua, this may yet be the tour which marks the flowering of a rare talent.

(Photograph omitted)

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