England's new openings for Ramprakash

'Yes I can vent my frustrations, but actually I wouldn't mind seeing that from a few young cricketers. I really don't think it's bad to be seen to care'
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The Independent Online

The Nursery End practice area at Lord's is bathed in warm lateafternoon sunshine and the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, is putting his side through their paces, vigorously rolling balls towards them, which they pick up and wing at a single stump, hitting it more often than not. It's impressive stuff, not at all in keeping with England's current status as the Wimbledon FC of Test cricket.

Anyway, that status could be about to change. A two-match series against relatively humble Zimbabwe, beginning tomorrow, followed by five Tests against a West Indies side recently in disarray, offer England a wonderful opportunity to become at least, say, the Middlesbrough of Test cricket. Not that Mark Ramprakash (an Arsenal fan) is counting his chickens. "A few of us underestimated New Zealand last year and they played above expectations, so we won't be making the same mistake with Zimbabwe. And believe me, whatever anyone says, the West Indies still have a top-class attack. In English conditions they will be a real force." The practice session over, Ramprakash has showered and changed and climbed back into his considerable jewellery, and we are now sitting on the pavilion balcony imagining how different the panorama will look on the Saturday of the West Indies Test. "It will be good, really good," he enthuses. He is delighted that Brian Lara has now decided to tour, accurately pointing out that if England were to perform well against a Lara-less side, the feat would be diminished, if only by the media. Lara, he adds, is by far the greatest batsman he has shared an arena with.

"I haven't seen much of Tendulkar, but Lara is incredible. I was playing when he got his 375 (in Antigua, the highest score in Test cricket). He's such a quick scorer, and you just can't keep him quiet. He plays outrageous shots." Has Ramprakash learnt anything from studying the Trinidadian genius at close hand? "Oh yeah. Simple, obvious things. Mainly it's how incredibly closely he watches the ball onto the bat." Of course, aspiring cricketers could also do a lot worse than studying Ramprakash himself. The Middlesex man is widely considered to be the most naturally gifted stroke-maker in the England team, and for selectors it is an enduring frustration that his talent has so oftenexceeded his achievements.

In turn, selectors have at times frustrated him, by treating him insensitively. Ramprakash - "Ramps" to those who know him, although few can be said to know him well - is an introspective character, given to moodiness and notorious flashes of temper. But there is a sense of humour there, witness his impressions of Curtly Ambrose, Norman Cowans, Abdul Qadir and Roger Harper bowling (his own bowling action apparently owes a lot to his Harper impression), and Desmond Haynes and Viv Richards batting. "It's a bit worrying that most of them have retired," he says, with a rare, engaging smile.

More significantly, he is a loyal, generous and influential teamplayer, assets sometimes ignored by those eager to portray him asa tortured soul, who naturallyseized on the revelation that heonce consulted the well-knownpsychotherapist Mike Brearley. I ask him about that. He explains that it was just an informal chat, and no, he didn't lie on a couch. It is certainly true, however, that he is highly sensitive to criticism, one of the reasons he recently relinquished the Middlesex captaincy, although he felt too that he couldn't give the job the attention it deserves in this, his benefit year. And it is also true that he is desperately ambitious, sometimes unhealthily so, for himself and his teams.

So it must have hurt when he was left out of the side to tour South Africa last winter, then suddenly called up as a replacement - requiring him to leave his wife and baby daughter on Christmas Eve - and still not selected. During the fortnight he was there, though, the foundations were laid for the next phase of his Test career, as an opener.

"Duncan Fletcher and Nasser [Hussain] ran it past me. They asked if I would consider opening and I said I just wanted to play, it didn't matter where.

"Anyway, batting in Test cricket is hard wherever you bat. Batting at No 6 is difficult because you can come in with the team in trouble, at maybe 70 for 4, and the bowlers are reverse-swinging the ball, or you're facing a top-quality spinner." While pondering the different demands of opening the innings, he consulted his old Middlesex mucker Desmond Haynes. "He told me that opening is not necessarily about getting your head down and grafting.

"If you get a bad ball you must still put it away. It's not a case of blocking to see off the new ball. But Ibelieve you have to play straight early on, and you have to be careful driving. You can't drive on the up.

"Mainly, though, I'm approaching my batting in the same way I always have." His batting style was shaped on the concrete drive of his parents' house in Harrow, and further inspired by the stirring exploits of Viv Richards. "I remember watching him on TV in the summer of 1976. I was seven, and I thought he was fantastic. I liked Tony Greig a lot too. Later, I learnt a lot from Desmond Haynes and Mike Gatting. I liked the way Haynes would open very aggressively, especially if we were chasing a lowish total. He always wanted to kill the game off. And with Gatt it was the way he played spin. He was a great player against spin." With the exception, I note, of the odd delivery from Shane Warne. Another fleeting smile. "Yeah, that was a pretty good ball." When Ramprakash was 10 he was given a trial for Middlesex Under-11s. He scored 0, which some would cite as early evidence that he is daunted by the big stage. But the county picked him anyway, showing the kind of faith and foresight not always evident among England selectors. And the youngster repaid that faith a hundredfold, breaking into the second XI at the age of 16, the first XI a year later, and scoring an elegant 56 in the 1988 NatWest final against Worcestershire, impertinently stealing the thunder from another youngster of abundant promise, Graeme Hick. Indeed, Hick and Ramprakash have in a sense led parallel careers, both making their Test debuts against the West Indies at Headingley in 1991, and scoring prodigiously for their counties, yet at Test level not living up to great expectations. Ramprakash, though, believes that it is unfair to stigmatise Hick as an underachiever.

"There was a period around 1995 and 1996 when he averaged 48 in Test cricket, and he got a fantastic 100 against South Africa at Centurion Park, 140-odd against Donald, Pollock, you name them. It depends on expectations.

"If you're expecting him to play like Bradman, that's unlikely." Besides, as Ramprakash knows better than anyone, expectation can be unfairly onerous. For years he carried the burden like a lead-lined rucksack, finally and extravagantly casting it off in his 38th Test match, aptly against the West Indies, in Barbados, with a classy maiden century of 154. Reaching his ton, by clattering Nixon McLean off his back foot through the covers, was by some distance the most satisfying moment of his career.

"There had been a lot of people who questioned me, but also a lot of people who backed me, like Mike Gatting and John Emburey, and it was nice to score that for the supportive ones. Believe me, I'd gone through a lot of despair and disappointment wondering whether I'd ever score a Test 100. And that's a record for an Englishman in Barbados. Nobody can take it away from me. And now I know that I can do it at that level." It has been a long, arduous journey from his debut series nine years ago. He played solidly that summer, not least because he was mentally at ease. "I was happy with life," he recalls. "And it was exciting, because the West Indies still had all the great names - Richards, Richardson, Haynes, Dujon, Walsh."

His first ball in Test cricket was bowled by Courtney Walsh. "He bowled a couple of maidens at me and I didn't know where the hell I was going to get off the mark. Finally he bowled one that jugged back and I got an inside edge down to fine leg." After consistently playing himself in, Ramprakash could have been forgiven for thinking that his England place was established, but then he was told that he would be taken on tour to New Zealand as a young player merely to look and learn. "That was disappointing. I didn't like being 12th man, spending eight weeks on the sidelines. It had never happened to me before.

"Then, in the summer of 1992, I got nought in the first Test against Pakistan. And from then on I was very ill at ease in the Test environment. I didn't enjoy the whole situation, right from turning up on the Tuesday to prepare. And there was no hiding place. I either seemed to be facing 90mph inswinging yorkers, or wrist spinners turning it square, and while I knew that I had the shots and the technique, mentally I wasn't right. Every time I didn't do well the pressure mounted. And usually I knew that I was playing for my place.

"It was six of one and half a dozen of the other, because I didn't perform well when I had to. But I do think there could have been more of an effort to help me settle down. That changed when David Lloyd came in. He tried very hard to create a team ethic. I noticed a big difference when I was selected in 1997, and David Graveney and Graham Gooch came over to wish me luck and ask if I needed anything. Since then it has been much better. For instance, Chris Adams had five Tests in South Africa which wouldn't have happened before. That way you can relax and play your normal game." As, dramatically, he did in Barbados, having in the previous Test scored 60-odd in his father's birthplace, Guyana. Most Ramprakash watchers emphasise the significance of his Guyanese heritage. It is evident in his physique and his repertoire of shots, but also in his psychological make-up.

It has been suggested, for instance, that both he and Nasser Hussain are, as the products of mixed-race marriages, even more motivated to succeed for England. I put this to him. Not surprisingly, he plays a straight bat. "I don't know about that," he says. "I do get comments from the crowd now and again, here as well as abroad. And that can sometimes spoil your day." Comments in the middle, too, have been known to spoil his day. Not of a racist nature, necessarily, just the usual jibes from the opposition. "I do seem to cop plenty of that," he says with a wry smile. "I don't know why. But then Nasser and Athers cop plenty as well." Still, he gives comment as well as gets, controversially muttering to umpire Darrell Hair, as he passed him after Hair had wrongly judged him caught behind against South Africa at Lord's two summers ago: "You're messing with my career." Ramprakash has "many, many times" assumed his Test match career to be over.

As he now stands on the brink, one hopes, of an extended run of Tests, does he think his temperament has mellowed sufficiently to cope with whatever slings and arrows and 90mph inswinging yorkers life still has to throw at him? He sighs. "The press loves a reputation. I would argue that I'm always on time, always well dressed, and always well behaved. Yes, I'm veryambitious and I can vent my frustrations, but actually I wouldn't mind seeing that from a few young cricketers. I really don't think it's bad to be seen to care."