Mark Ramprakash: 'I try to be the best I can be. I leave no stone unturned'

Brian Viner Interviews: The most talented batsman of his generation and author of 'Four More Weeks' talks about disasters at Middlesex and Surrey, the world champion sledging of Australia, and his passion for Arsenal
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The Independent Online

Soon after Mark Ramprakash completed his magnificent, personal-best innings of 292 for Surrey against Gloucestershire last week, the text messages started raining in.

Congratulating him on his epic knock? Not quite. Commiseration rather than congratulation was the gist of most of them, expressing sympathy that he had fallen just short of the triple century. So, if even his mates tend to look at his record and see what he hasn't achieved rather than what he has, what hope the rest of us? Despite being one of the most prolific scorers in domestic cricket, with an outside chance of scoring 100 first-class hundreds before he calls it a day, Ramprakash knows that a Test average of 27 makes his destiny the same as the man with whom he shared an England debut; like Graeme Hick, he will be remembered as a wonderful batsman who never quite lived up to his vast potential.

The "Ramps" of a few years ago might have found this difficult to deal with. But the Ramps of today is a less intense creature, a man whose demons appear to have been exorcised. Maybe this is because he accepts that his England career is over, that when he bats for Surrey there are no selectors earnestly taking notes. In fact, watching him at the Oval last week was someone altogether more venerable; 109-year-old Henry Allingham, whose only previous visit to the Oval had been in 1904 to watch W G Grace. Speaking of W G Grace, I ask Ramprakash - who is sitting on a sofa in the capacious kitchen of his pleasant, detached home in a leafy suburb on the fringes of north London, looking almost laid-back - whether he takes much interest in the heritage of cricket?

"Yeah, I'd like to think I'm a bit of a student of the game," he says. "I watch videotapes of previous eras ... Sobers, Dexter ... and I've been lucky enough to spend my career at Lord's and the Oval, where there's a lot of history. My dad talked a lot about Ted Dexter, said he was a very good player of fast bowling, played well off the back foot. I look at the footwork of the guys in those pre-helmet days and I think the game has lost something. I've seen it in my own career. I learnt without a helmet, in fact, I batted without a helmet in my first first-class match, and I was a very different player then. I wouldn't think of coming forward to someone of good pace. I played everything off the back foot, even when the ball was pitched up. But now you see people coming forward even to the likes of Harmison and Flintoff. So I give a lot of credit to the guys who batted well without helmets against Lillee and Thomson, for instance, and I also appreciate the skill it must have taken to play on uncovered wickets."

However much intelligent thought Ramprakash gives to cricket past, he is even more analytical of cricket present, which makes him an ideal person to write a column in The Independent (starting tomorrow), and also explains why his book Four More Weeks - his diary of the 2005 season, in which he captained Surrey following Mark Butcher's withdrawal with injury - is such an excellent read. In it, he is unequivocally critical both of himself and several of his team-mates, and the role they played in Surrey's relegation from the County Championship's First Division.

"When I started out on the book, I never envisaged that we would have such a turbulent season. I was going to write nice things, I wasn't going to get embroiled in anything. But as the season wore on there was a lack of communication with the coach, Steve Rixon, and I felt that in terms of standards of behaviour and professionalism, a lot of players let themselves down. Because I was captain, I carried the can, and I was very disappointed. They let me and the club down as well as themselves, so the question was, how honest to be in the book?"

It is not Ramprakash's way to be less than honest, as his teammate Jimmy Ormond can testify. At a team meeting in March, where the book was discussed, the fast bowler said he wished Ramprakash had told him what he was going to write. "But he couldn't argue with it because it was true."

The book reveals that Ormond, following a thumping defeat by Kent at Guildford last July, came into the dressing-room and thumped the wall, breaking his hand. "In a way, I don't mind seeing that passion," Ramprakash says. "He was out for five weeks, but even that I could cope with. What I couldn't forgive is that while he was out he put on about two stone. Jimmy's a massive player for us, and he should have played in our last three four-day games. He could have got the wickets that kept us up, but there was no way he could have played. In Jimmy's defence, maybe Surrey could have done more in terms of trying to rehabilitate him, but the player's got to meet you half-way." A pause. "I was gobsmacked."

The irony was that Ramprakash had left Middlesex in 2001 for precisely the reason he now found himself "gobsmacked" at Surrey: a perceived lack of professionalism.

"I'd been there as a schoolboy, had 14 seasons there, and I'd learnt a tremendous amount from Mike Gatting, Don Bennett, all the senior players there, but ... I try to be the best I can be. I leave no stone unturned in trying to be as professional as possible, so I can never look back with any regrets. I was frustrated with the club because they were not in any way shape or form being as professional as they could be. When I was captain at the end of 1998 I took 17 names to the cricket committee of players I thought might be on the move from their counties, but they didn't sign anyone. I felt there was apathy there."

So Ramprakash crossed the Rubicon, or at any rate the Thames, and joined Surrey, soon becoming, with a hundred against his old team-mates, the first player to score a Championship century against all 18 first-class counties.

One of his new team-mates, whom he knew well from the England dressing-room, was a man who shared his fierce professional intensity: Alec Stewart. The pair got on, and continue to get on, very well; Stewart wrote the foreword to Four More Weeks.

"And I forgive him that he supports Chelsea," says Ramprakash, a diehard Arsenal fan. "It's true that we're similar in some ways, although he handled his England career so much better than I did."

Ramprakash does not say this ruefully, although like Hick he must know that the ultimate measure of any top batsman is his Test average. But if maturity (he is 36) and fatherhood (he and his wife, Van, have two daughters) have not blunted his dedication to the job, they have perhaps made him more philosophical about his disappointments. Two centuries in 52 Tests is not a good return from a man widely considered to be the most naturally talented English batsman of his generation. On the other hand, what centuries they were: 154 against the West Indies in Barbados in 1998, and 133 against Australia at the Oval in 2001.

He looks back at his England career as having two phases: pre-1998 and post-1998. In the first phase he was dropped and picked again repeatedly, a policy that would not have happened with central contracts, and would not have happened under the present England coach, Duncan Fletcher. Whatever, the inconsistency of selection fuelled his insecurities, even though at county level he continued to hammer the bowlers, such as Allan Donald, who got him out in Test matches.

"I began to doubt whether I really belonged at that level, and I didn't enjoy the limelight that went with being in the England side. I'm quite reserved, similar to Graeme Hick in that respect. So I had a wretched time for a few years, which I think was an equal failing on my part and the England management's part. I didn't manage to take the opportunities I had, and the management didn't support me enough. There was no communication to shore up that confidence."

Least communicative of all was Ray Illingworth, whose astute captaincy of England did not stop him becoming a notably unsympathetic chairman of selectors. "In 1995 in South Africa I remember him saying two sentences to me during the first game, and that was it for the rest of the tour." A wry grin. "It was interesting to see them operate, Illingworth, [John] Edrich and Peter Lever. After all, what is the idea of management and coaching? It's to get the best out of individuals. That didn't happen with me, but look at what Duncan Fletcher has done now with Team England. It's totally different. Look at Ian Bell during the Ashes series. He was persevered with, and went on to do well in Pakistan and India. I suppose the difference is that we were losing. When you win you develop confidence and team spirit, although what comes first: the win or the team spirit? I've never been sure."

Ramprakash would be resigned to never playing for England again if "resigned" were the right word. It's not, quite.

"There's a massive difference between the way I wake up in the morning when I'm playing for Surrey, and how I was when I was with England. Now, I'm happy. Then, I felt I was on trial the whole time. I remember Alan Knott saying to me that he played every England match as if it were his last, and that's a good attitude."

He does not waste time wondering how his international career might unfold if he were 15 years younger, he insists. "It would be self-destructive. And for all the difficulties I had, I've been on the field with some great players, and I've seen what the game is like at the highest level. To face Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall, Merv Hughes, Craig McDermott, McGrath, Warne..."

Which begs one question: not which of them was the hardest to face, but which of them sledged the worst? "I don't think you'll be able to print it." We can print anything in The Independent, I tell him, but, alas, he declines to go into detail.

"It's funny, the West Indian bowlers never said a word. Their fielders were vocal in encouraging the bowlers, but they never sledged. The Australians were totally the opposite, always trying to unsettle the batsman. They have different ways. With McGrath and Warne it's very blatant, obvious stuff. McGrath in particular. I felt that some of his behaviour was very poor at times. With Steve Waugh and Ian Healey it would be more a case of trying to get under your skin. "Come on, this bloke's got 20 and that's his career average, he's not going to get past that.' All that sort of thing."

So much for his past; what of the future? Is 100 hundreds an ambition? He stands on 81. "My main aim is to enjoy the game until the end of my contract next year, and to be part of a successful Surrey side. I don't set run targets. At Middlesex, Mike Gatting and Desmond Haynes always had a competition who could score more runs. I steer away from that. The best advice I can give is to take one ball at a time."

Which cliché brings me to football. Ramprakash has done his FA level two coaching badge with his muckers down at the Arsenal, but does not see himself doing a Clive Woodward and switching sports. "I would love to spend more time at Arsenal, though, to see how they do things. They've got all those young millionaires, speaking different languages. How do they integrate them into a team? How do they promote togetherness? The way [the manager] Arsène Wenger handles different personalities, I honestly think that can help with cricket coaching."

And I honestly think that Ramprakash might go on to become as good a coach as he is a player, if not even better. But he has some more centuries to score first. And a weekly column to write.

Mark Ramprakash joins 'The Independent' tomorrow to write a regular column throughout the cricket season