On the morning of Saturday 15 August Mark Ramprakash was at his local park in London's north-western outskirts, watching his two daughters, Cara and Anya, playing on their bikes, when his mobile phone bleeped with a voicemail message. It was the chairman of the England cricket selectors, Geoff Miller, apologising for the news that had been leaked in that day's papers. Ramprakash hadn't seen them. He rang back, to ask what had been leaked. "The squad for The Oval, which was supposed to be announced tomorrow," Miller said. "I'm sorry, but you're not in it."
"OK, thanks for letting me know," Ramprakash said. The news was really no less than he had expected, and yet he felt a smack of disappointment. His form with Surrey was as imperious as it had been for four years, and England, after the humiliation administered by Australia in the fourth Test at Headingley, and with the Ashes in the balance, were manifestly in need of new batting blood, 24-year-old Ravi Bopara having repeatedly failed.
But could a man three weeks short of his 40th birthday, a man who had registered only two centuries in 52 Tests between 1991 and 2002, be considered new blood? Emphatically yes, said Alec Stewart, Ramprakash's former Surrey and England team-mate. Most assuredly, said old Tom Graveney, who was himself recalled to play Test cricket at the age of 39, and stayed in the England team for three more years, averaging above 50. Ramprakash, they both pointed out, was no longer the fragile character of the mid-1990s. He was the premier batsman in England, with 108 first-class hundreds behind him, and total familiarity with The Oval track. Moreover, despite his feeble Test average of 27.32, against only Australia it was a redoubtable 42.40. In the days before the squad was announced, Ramprakash gave interviews to the BBC and Sky, insisting that he was ready, willing and certainly able.
The selectors were unconvinced. They picked Warwickshire's Jonathan Trott, and of course were vindicated when Trott scored a splendid second-innings century to put the match, and the Ashes, beyond the Aussies. The last flickering chance that Ramprakash might be reborn as an England cricketer was extinguished, of all places, at The Oval.
It is there that we meet, at the Jack Hobbs Gate, at the end of the domestic season. His own campaign ended with a broken thumb, freezing his average at exactly 90. As we make our way to the pavilion I remark that the great Hobbs scored more than half of his first-class hundreds after the age of 40. Ramprakash grins, ruefully. "Yeah, a few people have mentioned that," he says.
He tells me that on the day before The Oval Test started, Miller travelled to Colchester, where Surrey were playing Essex, and sought him out. "That was a bit bizarre. He explained that age played a part, and that picking me was looked upon as a backward step, and I tried to put him straight on a few things. One or two of my ex-team-mates had questioned in the media whether I would be able to handle the occasion mentally, which was very unfair. Those people were thinking of the player I was 15 years ago, but I've continued to evolve. I've scored over 6,000 runs in county cricket over four seasons, averaging over 90.
"People pointed out that I played in the Second Division [of the County Championship] but so did Bopara and [Alastair] Cook, and it can't be deemed a negative in my case but not theirs. As for age, look at my fitness results, and the amount of time I spend on the field. Is that more or less than Kevin Pietersen, for example?"
Ramprakash says all this equably enough, and adds that he appreciated Miller's thoughtfulness both in phoning to apologise for the selection leak, and in coming to see him. "That wouldn't have happened 10 years ago. And it wasn't like I was desperate to play, although I would have cherished the chance. I just wanted to be treated fairly by the people who matter, which at the moment are Miller, [Ashley] Giles and [Andrew] Strauss. For a few years now I don't think I have been treated fairly. Looking back, it [selection] was never going to come my way, because I think I had a very strong case to be included in the last two Ashes tours, and it didn't come my way then. So I wasn't holding my breath."
Was Miller receptive to his opinions? A shrug. "It was a frank discussion, but it was done with respect, the way it should be. I felt the timing of it was a bit strange. A week earlier, and he could have taken my views into the selection meeting and thrown them around, though it probably wouldn't have made any difference."
Unsurprisingly, Ramprakash rejects the notion that England teams should be picked with half an eye on the future. "I think you should pick your best players and stick by them, whether they're 21 or 31," he says. Or 39, I venture? Ramprakash treats me to one of the disarming smiles which so dazzled the nation as he salsa-ed to victory in the BBC 1 show Strictly Come Dancing three years ago, although this one fades as quickly as it appears. "If Bopara is the next best player then pick him. Don't pick him because he's 24. I don't like looking at Australia for everything, but they picked Mike Hussey, Phil Jacques, quite late. Now, Jonathan Trott is 28 and he's done his time in county cricket. But again, the only reason to pick him should have been the belief that he was the next best player. And maybe he was. All credit to him, he played in a calm, collected way."
Did Ramprakash watch Trott's innings at The Oval with mixed emotions, though – delighted to see the Ashes coming home but a little miffed that nobody could any longer reasonably criticise the selectors for overlooking him?
"No, I watched and admired. He was bang in form, and looked very comfortable. But if I'd played, I would have backed myself to do well."
Was there, deep inside him, a tiny twinge of hope that Trott might fail? "No. I've been in that position myself, and you can't wish bad things on other people, because that rebounds on you."
With his international career unequivocally consigned to the past, then, what does Ramprakash expect of the future? Can he continue to put county attacks to the sword, deep into his forties? "Well, I look at some of the people I played with, like Nasser [Hussain], [Mike] Atherton, Thorpey [Graham Thorpe]. Age caught up with them, but also they had achieved a lot of what they wanted to achieve, so maybe their motivation went. For me, things didn't go as well as I would have liked at international level, so my passion and motivation haven't diminished."
It must be dispiriting, though, to play in front of three men and a burger stand in a Championship game, having known what it is like to stride out at a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground? "No, because it's still a battle between you and the bowler, and the pitch, and the conditions. I still love that feeling of going out on nought, trying to play myself in and score runs..."
And so to the $64m question for Ramprakash, perhaps the most naturally gifted English batsman of his generation: when he does eventually retire, will he look back on a career unfulfilled?
"I have to be very strong on that," he says. "The answer is that, given the cards I was dealt, I tried my best. I played my first Test at 21 against the West Indies, and I don't know what the selectors were hoping to get from me in a series in which even experienced players struggled, like Allan Lamb. These days, a lot of debutants come in and and do very well, because of that Team England thing. They feel like part of a team rather than a county player playing for England. Ravi Bopara played four Tests and seven one-dayers this summer without scoring a half-century.
"So it's a different era, but you know what, I'm very proud of the fact that I managed to hang in there for so long, and there was a period in Test cricket when it did go well for me. I topped the averages in Australia [in 1998-99] supposedly against one of the best teams in history. I don't know whether people remember those things, but they're important for me to remember."
How will posterity judge Ramprakash the cricketer, though? I quote to him a line from the website cricinfo, to the effect that he has a classically English technique combined with a very non-English intensity. It is intended as a compliment, but he responds defensively.
"I don't think I should apologise for being highly motivated," he says. "For wanting to be the best I can be. Sometimes this manifested itself in the wrong way [by all accounts, Ramprakash has left his mark on more than a few dressing-room walls down the years], but I could have been managed better. At Middlesex I learnt a tremendous amount from Mike Gatting and Desmond Haynes, but it was a tempestuous, explosive environment. That's not the dynamic in dressing rooms today."
It is doubtless no coincidence, I suggest, that he flourished for England when the team was coached by David Lloyd, a man who knew when to put a consoling arm round the shoulder. "Yes, he always had kind words, which go a long way." Does he wish, as a devoted Arsenal fan, that his own career had been managed by someone like Arsène Wenger? "Absolutely. His ability to spot talent and nurture it is incredible. I could have done with that."
Whatever, it is significant that Ramprakash cites others, either for what they did or didn't do, in contemplating a career so full of marvellous achievement, yet so clouded by underachievement. I don't think he absolves himself of responsibility for his failures, yet by his own admission he feels hard done by. The Ramprakash I first interviewed 10 years or so ago would have brooded about that. At 40 he seems far more comfortable in his own skin, content for us to assess him however we damn please, and secure in the certainty he has always given his all, even in the salsa. This winter, he tells me, he aims to get his golf handicap down from 21. I have a feeling he might be playing off single figures, come the spring.
Ramprakash in numbers
301 runs Ramprakash's highest first-class score, against Northants in 2006.
2,278 runs Highest total number of runs in a season – for Surrey in 2006.
42 runs Average Test score against Australia.
2 centuries For England: (154 against West Indies in 1998 and 133 v Australia in 2001).
40 years old The batsman was born on 5 September 1969 – when Zager and Evans topped the charts with "In the Year 2525".
1st position Where he finished TV's Strictly Come Dancing in 2006.
Strictly Me: My Life Under The Spotlight by Mark Ramprakash, is published by Mainstream, priced £18.99Reuse content