Cricket: Ramprakash the man for all reasons

Simon O'Hagan applauds an innings which may prove to be an England watershed
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TO SEE the smile that lit up Mark Ramprakash's face for minutes on end after he had reached his first Test hundred in Barbados on Friday was to understand that this was, above all, a very personal triumph. At such a moment no sportsman can be expected to put into words quite what it means to him, and the "fantastic feeling" Ramprakash referred to later barely hinted at the depths of elation, fulfilment and relief he must have been experiencing.

Yet the innings resonated on another level altogether. This was not just the long-awaited realisation of one man's huge potential after so many years of frustration, a road down which others - notably Mike Gatting and Steve Waugh - had so painfully travelled before. It was an innings that seems, overnight, to have changed the face of English cricket, with implications perhaps yet to become fully apparent..

In recent times truly great innings by Englishmen in Tests have, by definition, been few and far between. Derek Randall's 174 in the Centenary Test at Melbourne in 1977 was a work of quite outrageous inspiration, Botham's Ashes hundreds in 1981 expressions of a colossal personality the game had not seen since the days of WG Grace. Graham Gooch's match-winning, bat-carrying 154 not out against West Indies at Headingley in 1991 comprised indomitability and heroism on a scale that was awesome; Mike Atherton achieved as much with his monumental, 11-hour rearguard action in Johannesburg two winters ago. To these can now be added Ramprakash's 154 in Barbados in 1998, another innings which took adversity as its starting point and built to something utterly memorable.

Context is everything, of course, and the one in which Ramprakash finally came of age sees the England team steadily emerging from an era of fallibility and inconsistency, with the clear makings of a side who could become a force in the world game. That process has been given a tremendous burst of acceleration now that Ramprakash has established himself alongside Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain in a batting line-up which has a more rounded, secure, not to say dominant feel than has been the case for many years.

Then there is the still bigger question of the overall standing of cricket in English sporting life. When Lord MacLaurin took over at the administrative head of the game just over a year ago, he spoke of the need for stars for youngsters to be inspired by.

That was all part of the remedy for a game in which decline was an underlying trend. The conservative wing of English cricket saw to it that Lord MacLaurin's radical reforms of last year would never see the light of day. In the past week publicity of an altogether more distasteful kind has attached itself to the game. All of which has only shown how much a change of image is required, and charismatic players clearly have a role to play in this. The Hollioake brothers have been quickly seized upon as representing a spirit of modernity otherwise lacking; but more so even than either of them, Ramprakash has the presence and the talent to help keep cricket alive in the public imagination at a time when football, with the World Cup around the corner, is threatening to swamp everything in its path.

What about Mike Atherton and the England captaincy in all of this? Remember this was the tour for which Atherton might have stepped down as leader. The decision to keep hold of the reins was arrived at only after much soul-searching, and now he is out there he is having, from a personal point of view, a difficult time of it. If Atherton is to be replaced for this summer's series against South Africa, it's not impossible that Ramprakash might be the man to succeed - leapfrogging over Nasser Hussain and Adam Hollioake. Ramprakash did well in his first season in charge of Middlesex last year.

Attitudes to Ramprakash remain puzzling. Should he ever have been left out of the side for the early Tests on this tour? It was surely churlish of David Lloyd, the team manager, to say that he felt the player "milked" the moment he had reached his century, in which his behaviour was no more excessive than Hussain's arms-aloft reaction to reaching his maiden Test century against India in 1996.

And there are those who felt that Atherton's response to Ramprakash's achievement could have been a little more enthusiastic. But then maybe he too realised that this was not just another maiden Test hundred, but a watershed.