Cricket: Tantrum Twin stays ahead of the mind game
Schoolboy prodigy, bad boy of Middlesex, English cricket's potential saviour - Mark Ramprakash has been all these things. Derek Pringle met him
Monday 09 March 1998
No player with a Test match batting average as meagre as 17 has had quite as much written about him as Ramprakash. The reasons for this, despite the damning statistics, are simple: the man simply oozes class, something he has done ever since he burst into our living rooms as a precocious teenager in 1988 as he scored a match-winning fifty for Middlesex in the NatWest final.
Life can often be a disappointment for the supremely gifted youngster. As the most talked-about player of his schoolboy generation - a vintage that also includes Michael Atherton, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe - there is little doubt that Ramprakash would have expected success, even demanded it.
What followed, however, was a nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions, a trial played out as much in public as it was in Ramprakash's head, which is often where the problems of the gifted lie. With youthful petulance and frustrated ambition proving a combustive mix - one that saw him twice disciplined by Middlesex for various incidents in 1992 - Ramprakash looked set to remain a talent unfulfilled.
A few years on however, and the tempestuous waters appear to have calmed. Nevertheless, observation is one thing, explanation quite another. So how do you go from being a batsman with a large question mark against your temperament to looking the calmest, most accomplished player on a pitch whose vagaries even made Brian Lara appear mortal?
For someone with as much emotional baggage as Ramprakash - he once had psychotherapy sessions with Mike Brearley - answers do not come on a postcard.
"As I said before the Guyana match [a game in which he scored 77], I tried to have no real expectations of myself. The Test was only my third proper knock in five months. When you've been to the brink as I have, you think you'll never play for England again. The fact that I am means I'm taking nothing for granted and I'm determined to enjoy each game as it comes along."
Going as low as you can go - and no one with such obvious talent as Ramprakash has been lower - actually has its advantages. Once you're there, and you realise that life does in fact carry on, one of sport's great secrets is revealed. Indeed, it is only the fear of the descent that compromises performance.
"Looking back at my Test career, I've been so disappointed. It just hasn't been me. The person batting hasn't even played like me. It's right that I knew I couldn't go any lower, but it's such a relief to see the other side of it and to show people I can play. I've had a lot of experiences at Test level that were negative, so this one feels good and I just hope I can go on and be consistent with it."
For someone who has every right to feel insecure, Ramprakash looked anything but when he came to the crease in the first innings in Georgetown, despite his team being 65 for 4 and in real danger of following on. In fact, he was England's top scorer in both innings, his unbeaten 64 in the first a masterful exhibition of technique and determination.
"I didn't really have an eye on the scoreboard. I just wanted to keep it simple, enjoy the battle, stay out there as long as possible, and put away the bad balls. It was only when we began to lose more wickets that I decided to be a bit more cautious."
Considering that they did not have to face their own bowlers, the two highest innings of the game, Shivnarine Chanderpaul's 118 and Lara's 93, were not as accomplished as Ramprakash's, which was played well after the pitch's surface had begun to break up.
But if the look rather than the behaviour of the pitch prompted batsmen to dither and hesitate, Ramprakash, one of the few batsmen to get confidently on to the front foot, made it look like a Lord's shirt front.
"I could see the craters forming just short of a length, but I hadn't noticed anything go up. In fact if anything, balls were tending to keep low. I remember thinking back to the Bourda four years ago when I paid the penalty for not getting forward, so I was determined this time to get right behind it and get my weight going into the front foot."
As someone who clearly used to feel as nervous about Test matches as Dickie Bird looks, Ramprakash's new-found calm at the crease cannot have happened by chance. But while his Middlesex team-mate, Angus Fraser, puts it down to the stabilising effects of marriage and baby Cara (wife and daughter are both here in Barbados) many believe that the team's psychologist, Stephen Bull, may also have been an influence.
"There is no doubt that having a family alters your outlook on life, and I now have to worry about other things. Also the captaincy at Middlesex has made me to dwell less on my own game. As far as Stephen Bull is concerned, I've had two half-hour sessions with him, one in Lanzarote during our training camp and one here before the game against Guyana.
"What he's good at is getting you to talk about how you are approaching things, and he helps put those thoughts into a framework. We use things like visualisation and and self-talk, where you keep repeating buzz phrases such as `Enjoy and Relax' or `I've been here before, but I'm a better player now'. There's no magic formula, but he has helped to put things into perspective, and I've got a little mental checklist I run through before I go out to bat."
He was one half of the so-called Tantrum Twins - the other was Nasser Hussain - and Ramprakash spats were legendary. Many a bat, having failed its owner, was later trashed in the dressing-room. One incident in 1992, when he persistently sledged a Cambridge University student at Fenner's, saw him disciplined by his county, a step taken again later in the season when he misbehaved at Uxbridge.
"What you have to understand," he says, choosing his words slowly, "is that when I came into the game at 17, I was very confident, maybe even arrogant. But when I had those disciplinary problems in 1992, after things hadn't gone right for me at Test level, I began to concentrate on behaving rather than being myself. After that, I definitely lost an edge to my game.
"Of course, at the time I thought it was all right to come off into the privacy of the dressing-room and have a tizz. But while I cringe now about some of the things I did, nobody around me took the time to understand that it was misdirected energy and frustrated ambition.
"As captain of Middlesex, I prefer to see young players show a bit of fire. You need that. The trick though, something I've now worked out, is to channel it in the right direction. It's a very English thing to keep your emotions in check. But that's something I've had to come to terms with."
First picked for England in 1991 when he was 21, Ramprakash's entry into the big time coincided with the arrival of Graeme Hick. Pitted against the mighty West Indies, Ramprakash, unlike Hick, did not look out of place despite a highest score of 29. In fact he played in all five Tests and was subsequently picked for that winter's tour to New Zealand.
"When I think back, that is where things began to go wrong. Having been told that I wasn't likely to play much as soon as I got to New Zealand, I felt that it was a good opportunity for either the coach [then Mickey Stewart] or a senior batsman to take me under their wing and teach me all about the mental side of Test cricket.
"Maybe I should have come forward myself, but as a youngster on his first tour it's far easier to stay in the background. As far as I'm concerned it was an opportunity missed, and in hindsight, I believe it set me back years."
Recalled for two Tests against Pakistan in 1992, Ramprakash was now desperate to succeed. When he twice failed with ducks, it set him off on a binge of bad behaviour, indiscretions that would cost him a place on that winter's tour to India.
"When Ted Dexter [then chairman of selectors] rang to tell me I wasn't going because of my disciplinary record. I had a long winter to reflect on what I was going to do. I really didn't want to go through all that shit of being in the papers for the wrong things again. So I had a long think, saw Mike Brearley a few times, and decided to use 1993 as a period of consolidation with Middlesex."
But while his behaviour has improved to the extent that he has succeeded Mike Gatting as county captain, he feels he still needs to recapture some of the spark he had as a young player.
"Over the last few years I've been trying to recapture some of that unquestioning self- belief I had as a youngster. One of the problems when you are on the fringes, you never feel at home, and that saps your confidence.
"Knowing your role can never be underestimated. We all know where we stand with our counties. When we play for England that can sometimes become blurred. So far I've batted between three and seven, and although the main thing is just to be back in the team, my next is to find the consistency that will hopefully allow me to settle into a role."
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