Ramprakash proves the class warrior

Fifth Test: At the end of a summer of small highs and deep lows, England's frustrated talent finds fulfilment
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The Independent Online

How he confounds us. A week ago Mark Ramprakash slashed carelessly at a high bouncer and was caught behind when England badly needed runs. Three weeks ago he was out stumped playing a shocker of a shot at Shane Warne at a crucial moment that decided the whole direction of the Trent Bridge Test. Ramps was unapologetic, but unsympathetic commentators, like myself, decided these episodes proved that he was not a cricketer of Test class.

Yesterday he gave the best possible answer to his critics, scoring 124 not out in five hours and 45 minutes, facing 215 balls and hitting 18 fours in an innings that was the principal ingredient in England ending the day only 33 runs away from saving the follow-on. This was defensive cricket, but a slow burn also has a capacity to absorb and even to thrill. "It's a very important hurdle for me,'' said Ramps after the days' play when he appeared barefooted and sweating heavily after a very hot day.

This Oval innings is his 81st in Tests and his 54th in England. His century exhibited his hallmarks of style and patience. Unlike the earlier innings this summer, it was chanceless. "I made a real effort to battle today. I didn't play fluently, I was happy just to get stuck in,'' he said. It was also his first Test hundred in England, and only his second overall. His first was 154 in the West Indies in 1997-8. It was confidently expected to release him from his inhibitions. Evidently it did not. Last summer Ramprakash opened for England and was dropped after three matches. That seemed to be it. "I was at an all-time low last year,'' he says.

Yesterday he was England's last ditch. Nasser Hussain (52) played with authority after his bad spell and Usman Afzaal (54) played with great ebullience, but neither lasted long enough to bite deeply into Australia's huge first innings of 641 for 4. Ramps, coming in at No 5 after Mark Butcher's dismissal, played cautiously letting Hussain and Afzaal make the running in stands of 62 and 89. A sceptical voice said that he was playing for a place on the Indian tour. Since the chance of saving the follow-on seemed slim, this was a legitimate objective. Having missed the last two winter tours, he moved from Middlesex to Surrey – at the end of a benefit year which raised £250,000 – in an attempt to regain his Test place.

His 50 crept up on us while Alec Stewart was playing a cameo worth 29 runs from his new position at No 7. On the way to 50, he had passed his 2,000th Test run. But they have come in 81 innings at an average of 26.51, which is why he has found the Test place so hard to hold on to. When Andy Caddick fell first ball to Warne, James Ormond made his first Test appearance. He was an unknown quantity and little was expected of him, but by the time he was out for 18, the pair had put on 37. Ramps had moved into the 80s with two fours and suddenly he realised that the hundred was possible. All the wiseacres assumed he would be stranded, not out. It was a common enough happening when he batted at No 6 against New Zealand a couple of years ago. But this was to reckon without Darren Gough. Though Goughie can play responsibly, it is not a method that comes naturally. Yesterday he tried to hold himself in check. There was the odd swish, but there was a swish from Ramps, too, when he was in the 90s and the nerves were getting to him as Steve Waugh put on pressure. But the hundred came up with two boundaries off rare full tosses from Warne.

Ramps was lucky to play in this series, being called in when Thorpe's injuries refused to heel. But he has not had much luck. Yesterday he grabbed what was left, and if England save the follow-on he will go to India as a hero – a hero from zero. When he was asked if this innings is a launch pad for a proper Test career, he said: "I'm hoping so.'' But he has seen enough launches to proceed with caution. "Who knows,'' he says.