Cricket: Ramprakash's waiting game: Scyld Berry casts his eye over the England candidates for the fourth Test against Pakistan starting at Headingley this week

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ABOUT a year ago you could not have become Mark Ramprakash's agent for love or money. Batting at The Oval in the fifth Test against the West Indies, he was not quite the monarch of all that he surveyed, but at least first in line to the throne.

With the scores level, and the series poised to be triumphantly squared at two Tests-all, Ramprakash was 19 not out. Again he had been steadfast in the breach, holding on at 80 for 4, when England needed 143 to win. Now, with a single run to be scored, Clayton Lambert was put on for his first Test over, and probably his last.

Ramprakash was then the third batsman in England - placed behind Graham Gooch and Robin Smith for not having their experience to know when to attack, but the only other batsman in the land who could hold on against the West Indies. Yet since that moment, on 12 August 1991, Ramprakash has not made a single Test run.

What has gone wrong? First, he swung at Lambert like a village batter and was out leg before, leaving Ian Botham to make the winning run. In the following Test against Sri Lanka, he forced off the back foot and sliced to the slips, trying to contradict criticism that he was too defensive, as if surviving against the West Indies was not an achievement for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old.

Last winter in New Zealand Ramprakash had no chance once he had lost his Test place to Allan Lamb. He experimented by opening up his stance, like Desmond Haynes and many of his Middlesex team-mates have done, then closed it again. When he went to the West Indies to represent England A, he threw a wobbly, and did it again in April, at Fenner's of all places, against a Cambridge student of all people. A frustrated young man was becoming angry at not being able to fulfil his talent and ambition.

He has still not scored his next Test run. At Edgbaston, when he was selected for the first Test against Pakistan, the faintest of touches saw him caught behind off his second ball, and just about the first of the match to bounce abnormally. His Test total still stands at 210 runs, but now in 11 innings. Graeme Hick's average is no better, but of Ramprakash it can be said - and this is what is so frustrating - that he has been entirely at home in Test cricket until the ball has come along to get him out.

He is an only son, who picked up the game playing with his Guyanese father or on his own at his Pinner home, rather than by mixing with boys of his own age. He has a lonely intensity that is almost Boycott-like, and there can be no doubt that Ramprakash is likewise searching for perfection at batting, or that he has indisputable class.

Today he should be named in the England party for the fourth Test at Headingley, to bat after Gooch, Stewart and Smith, and before Gower and Lamb. It was at Headingley that he made his debut last year, and scored those two innings of 27, without which not even Gooch could have won the match. He also made his flying leap of a catch at cover and ran out Carl Hooper with an agility that inspired the whole England effort.

But Ramprakash may not be chosen. It is more likely that Mike Atherton will be retained, and his slip fielding will have some value. But the main reason for Atherton's retention will be that he 'deserves a second chance', a specious reason if ever there was in the unsentimental business of Test cricket. What is relevant is that Atherton has made 79 runs in his last 10 Test innings. For the moment he is England's reserve opener, not one of the middle-order batsmen.

Hick's last Test innings at Old Trafford was his worst. The player that he was until 1988 would have driven the ball that dismissed him off the front foot. Now he is trying to become an all-round, front- and back-foot player, but he has not done it yet, and should be filed away until the winter. Lamb should return in Hick's place as England's next best slip-catcher, standing at first with Gower at second, where he has been fielding for Hampshire since Paul Terry hurt a hand.

Headingley can be the hardest ground in Test cricket on which to get the basics right. It can be impossible to bat if the sky blackens and the ball swings and the crowd is applauding every other ball. Yet it can be impossible to bowl as well, when the sky is cloudless, and the ball skates down the slope. The groundsmen say their preparation is going well, the pitch not too damp and grassy, and not so dry that it will break up.

A specialist wicketkeeper has to be selected: when Stewart kept on the last day at Old Trafford, he was at sea when Gooch was swinging the ball. At Headingley, more than anywhere, the ball swings after pitching: its flight cannot be taken for granted, as it could when Stewart was keeping at The Oval last August. Jack Russell should be chosen in spite of his poor performance in the third Test, with a word to fortify his confidence, not to threaten his place.

As the pitch's final character has not been decided, England have to name four seamers and one spinner, and leave out one on Thursday. There is no room for an outright fast bowler, as accuracy is all in a low-scoring match, so Devon Malcolm has to wait until The Oval. There is no room for a nervous debutant, as Steve Watkin was last year.

So the fourth pace bowler, in addition to Chris Lewis, Derek Pringle and Tim Munton, has to be Phil Newport, Neil Mallender or Martin Bicknell. While Bicknell should be a candidate for The Oval Test, Mallender is a Yorkshireman, and used to the England set-up after being called up in New Zealand last winter. He would also be worldly wise, relaxed enough to give of his best straight away, and not put out at being given a one-off Test.

Ian Salisbury, like Hick, has to wait until India. The novelty of a wrist spinner and therefore his effectiveness, diminish as a series goes on: it is the same for Mushtaq Ahmed. Phil Carrick would be a possibility, for local knowledge, but only if Phil Tufnell has not yet found his rhythm.

My party of 12 would be: Gooch; Stewart; Smith; Ramprakash; Gower; Lamb; Lewis; Russell; Pringle; Munton; Mallender; and Tufnell.

(Photograph omitted)