That Ramps, he's a funny one. Shane Warne said that last summer, but a few down the years have echoed the thought with a shake of the head. You wonder what the Australians would have made of Mark Ramprakash had he been born and raised in Wagga Wagga, NSW, not Bushey, Herts. He has an Aussie sense of ambition, an Aussie's bluntness, but it is certain that the Australians would have made up their minds about him one way or another long before the age of 32. Give him a trot in the side, mate, let's see what he can do. Right, next please.
So here we are once again pushing open the swing doors of the last-chance saloon, except that Ramprakash himself has been such a consistent stool-dweller he no longer worries about what lies beyond closing time. On Tuesday, he will travel to India for a three-Test series, a batsman with credit on his tab for once after a century against Australia at The Oval in the final Test of last summer. He has already shifted his mind into touring mode, organising bats, pads, box, biscuits, Tetley tea bags, the essential survival kit for one of the most demanding and yet prized of cricketing tours. He will slip a few crime novels into his luggage – Iain Banks, Patricia Cornwell, stuff to pass the time of day in airport lounges and hotel rooms – and is learning to use the computer to ease communication with his wife, Vandanna, and four-year-old daughter.
During the pre-tour debate about security, Ramprakash listened to the words of the British High Commissioner in Delhi and decided that if 700 diplomatic staff could work and live in India without undue alarm, he could go and pursue his profession for a few weeks. His last tour there, with the A team in 1994, was a resounding success. England played attractive, winning cricket under the leadership of Alan Wells and a team which included Ramprakash as vice-captain and Dominic Cork, another with a reputation for boat-rocking, developed a genuine and robust sense of community. Ramprakash muses on which came first, the winning or the team spirit. As captain of Middlesex, he could generate neither consistently and fell out with John Buchanan, the Australian coach, over the location of the fault line. Buchanan wanted a team song; Ramprakash thought it more important that his bowlers bowl straight and his batsmen play straight.
You sense Ramprakash might not be the type for team songs. "I can adapt," he says. "At Middlesex, we didn't have a team song, at Surrey we do. Adam Hollioake gives us a team talk in the dressing-room and we have a huddle. Nasser [Hussain] tends to give us a chat and a huddle on the field, which works well. John [Buchanan] had a lot of good ideas, but around the periphery of a good team. I just thought there were other priorities at the time."
Few players divide opinion as starkly as Ramprakash. Critics say he has been given more chances than he deserves; his supporters regard his chequered Test career as a classic case of mismanagement. His transfer from Middlesex to Surrey earlier this year, the cricketing equivalent of Sol Campbell's move from White Hart Lane to Highbury, was either deliberately perverse or utterly understandable.
One truth is that, through it all, Ramprakash has never shirked his responsibility. He was the one who downed everything one Christmas to bolster Mike Atherton's side in South Africa. He barely raised a bat in anger and came home, but he did not beef about it; he wanted to get back in the side. And, consider too, that 1994 tour when he was playing on a low, slow turner in Bangalore one moment and taking on the Australian attack on one of the sportiest wickets in world cricket, at the WACA in Perth, the next. That winter, Ramprakash topped the England A averages and, in England's heaviest defeat of the Ashes series, scored 72 and 42. Talent is the other undeniable truth.
At times, the selectors' insistence on scrambling the mind of a precocious young cricketer has verged on the sadistic. Eleven of his first 17 Tests were played against West Indies, with Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. Yet he was overlooked for the tour to New Zealand, which would have been the ideal bridge into Test cricket. Nor has he ever batted consistently at number three or four, the position in which he has scored 20,000 runs in county cricket.
The "opening thing", as Ramprakash refers to it, was another example of serial insensitivity. Asked to open the innings for the first time in his professional career two summers ago, against Ambrose and Walsh again, he failed. But, instead of being pushed back down the order to his rightful position, he was made the scapegoat for someone else's experiment.
"That was the lowest point for me," he says. "The rest of the year I did have to think 'What am I going to do, am I going to retire from Test cricket?' because it wasn't really happening for me. I had a long think about things and decided to give it one last go. That's what made my hundred against Australia so special. From a year before thinking of retiring to making a hundred on home soil, on my home ground against the likes of Warne and McGrath. It was a massive feeling and there were many times when I never thought it would come along."
Yet, always with Ramprakash, there are complications. Why has he only scored two Test centuries in 82 innings? Why is his county average, at just under 50, nearly double his Test average? Why Surrey? Why are we still looking to the future of a 32-year-old? The answers always sound like excuses. "It's the first time anyone has asked me my opinion," he smiles. "Mostly, I've heard everyone else's. I was picked for Test cricket at 21 and, in hindsight, I wasn't sure if I was ready. I didn't really know if I belonged alongside all these top players and with every low score, the pressure got worse. Graham Thorpe got a century on his Test debut. How wonderful that must have been, knowing you could relax. But for me it's been very hard work. You're up against top bowlers, you get out a couple of times and you're out of the team."
Ramprakash was dropped nine times in 10 years, which is approaching Graeme Hick's league. The problem was that Ramps, like Hick, looked so good and came with such impeccable references no one really bothered to check the strength of the psyche. Everything about Ramprakash, from his technique to his athleticism in the field, exudes class.
He has, by common consent, the purest technique in cricket – his off drive comes straight off the pages of the MCC coaching manual – fields brilliantly and has a sharp cricketing brain. His ability was so transparent that Middlesex had him in their system at the age of 10 and fast-tracked him through to the first team a mere seven years later.
Ramprakash's talent was initially fostered by his father, then by Jack Robertson, his first coach at Middlesex. But it was surrounded by the venerable trio of pros in the Lord's dressing-room that Ramprakash really began to learn his trade. "Just listening to Gatting, Emburey and Dessie Haynes. They were all in different parts of the dressing-room, so there would always be banter and chat flying around. They would talk constantly about cricket, about technique, about other players, about different situations. It was very, very valuable." He also learnt how professionals prepared for work and how public perception of players differed from the reality.
"Haynes had this image of being laid back and a fun guy and he was, but when it came to batting he was as intense as anyone. I remember at Headingley once, he was out for nothing in the first innings and then in the second dragged a hook shot on to his stumps for single figures. He came back and put his fist through one of the windows in the shower room. You can get wrong impressions of players. When I'm batting and the camera comes close on me, I'm concentrating very hard. People talk about me being too intense at the crease. But there's a ball coming down at 90mph at your feet or your head, so of course I'm intense." Intense. It is a familiar adjective in the Ramprakash lexicon, sometimes interpreted as selfishness.
"Intensity," he mulls over the word. "Yeah, I've heard that a lot, but I've not heard selfish so much. If you regard ambition as being intense, then I would make no apology for that. What Middlesex did and Surrey do now is encourage their players to represent England. That's a good thing. Early in my career if things didn't go my way, I would get very frustrated. Often I would go off on my own, walk round the ground, watch from the top of the pavilion. I'd missed out on my enjoyment for the day. That's a perfectly normal reaction. Too often I see young players today come in after being out, put their bat down and within a few minutes they're laughing and joking. I'm surprised at that. I don't mind young players showing a bit of desire and frustration.
"Look, I've striven my whole career to be the best I can be. I don't want to look back and say if I had tried a bit harder, look what I could have achieved. I know I've tried as hard as I can. I've tried to learn about the game and I'm happy with that."
Ambition took him across town to The Oval, into the thrusting environment of a dressing-room full of internationals. With 45 Test caps to his name, he was still designated the junior man, made to change under the television by the door, but a century on his Surrey debut cleared up any lingering doubts about his right to a place in the side. It was to Middlesex's shame that his departure after 14 seasons, 18,000 runs and a benefit year, was messy and undignified. Ramprakash was openly accused of being a negative influence in the dressing-room, yet he had more than paid his dues to his county. He had hoped to go back, but that seems a forlorn hope now for such a proud man.
There is one further question. Ramprakash st Gilchrist b Warne 26, Third Test. "A vivid example of England's ineptitude," as one correspon- dent wrote of his headlong charge. Ramprakash has considered the moment, replayed it in his mind and this is his version of a dismissal which revived all the doubts over his temperament.
"We had lost a wicket or two, but I was playing Warney OK and I felt confident. Ian Ward came in and we have batted together quite a lot for Surrey in a very positive, aggressive way. Warney had just taken the bat-pad fielder out and put him at short extra-cover, which suggested that they knew I was batting well. Mid-off and mid-on were up. Wardy hit a four and a two and I was wanting to keep the momentum going, even though there were only eight overs to go in the day. The ball was meant to go straight back over Warne's head, but I wasn't quite there and dragged across the shot. I was not happy with the execution, but I was happy with my thinking."
He thought he would be dropped, but survived to score a century two Tests later. A turning point? "I never dare to look past the next match. I've taken too many knocks for that. I know the game and I'm going to play the way I think is right. I'll live or die by that."
Biography: Mark Ravindra Ramprakash.
Born: 5 Sept 1969; Bushey, Herts.
Middlesex debut: 1987. Cap 1990.
Surrey debut: 2001. First-class record: 300 matches, 20,142 runs at an average of 46.51. 55 centuries, 101 half-centuries. HS: 235.
England Test debut: 1991, v West Indies, Headingley. Made maiden Test century v West Indies in Barbados in 1997-98. Test record: 46 matches, 2,114 runs at an average of 27.81. Two centuries, 11 half-centuries. HS: 154.
England ODI debut: 1991, v West Indies, Old Trafford. ODI record: 18 matches, 376 runs at 26.85. HS: 51.Reuse content