Firebrand at the forefront

Derek Pringle says the Tests can bring out the best in Mark Ramprakash
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The Independent Online
WHEN Mark Ramprakash first started playing for Middlesex, he was 17. Unable to drive a car, he mostly travelled to away matches with Angus Fraser and another senior player. Right from the start, Ramprakash insisted that just because he was smaller and younger than his travelling companions, it did not mean he should automatically have to sit in the back.

In fact so insistent was the fiery stripling that it was often left to the senior and more sizeable Fraser to back down in order to get the journey under way, and any motorist crawling round the M25 with a keen eye for the ludicrous could not have failed to notice a big-boned bowler scrunched up in the back looking distinctly hacked off.

"Actually, I've always liked his attitude," Fraser said. "It's good to see someone who gets bolshy and who rates himself. OK, he could be unreasonable and lose control at times, but it takes bottle to stand up for yourself. Even back then, I could see Ramps was the kind of stubborn sort not easily turned, so in the end, instead of continuing to have big arguments, I just went home in a different car. It seemed the easiest solution."

While liberals might have seen this attitude as admirable and spirited, many in cricket saw it as arrogance, and simply not the kind of behaviour expected of a fresh-faced youth, particularly one just coming into the hierarchical world of county cricket with its peculiarly English code of manners.

Even so, it set the supremely gifted Ramprakash apart from other talented youngsters and had this aggressive sense of self-esteem been harnessed - as it is in Australia - instead of trodden on, he may now have been England's Brian Lara or Sachin Tendulkar, for he has that level of talent. Pure talent, however, is often not enough and Ramprakash is the first to admit that most of the liability for his lack of progress at Test level lies squarely with himself.

"I was very ambitious to play Test cricket," he said, recalling his summer against the West Indies four years ago. "So when it happened, I wasn't quite experienced enough at 21 to make the most of my opportunity. It was such a big thing playing against the West Indies that I went into those Test matches with an image of how I ought to play, instead of a plan. I had this obsession that Test cricket was all about technical perfection, when really all it is about is scoring runs. Looking back, I just wasn't aggressive enough."

In all he batted for over 24 hours in that series, with a highest score of only 27. Inevitably, frustration took hold, particularly when he ended up as a spectator for most of the 1991 New Zealand tour that followed, the final sapping rebuff coming when an injured Allan Lamb was preferred for the World Cup squad.

Whatever aggression he felt he had lacked in the Test arena came gushing out the following summer, often unchecked. Twice he was disciplined and fined for altercations with players and spectators, though the more painful punishment came when he failed to make either of England's tours that winter.

"Not being picked for anything gave me a lot of time to think," he said. "It was the bad publicity that hit me hardest. I didn't feel it was wholly fair." It was at that point that he decided to consult Mike Brearley, the former Middlesex and England captain, now a psychoanalyst. "Let's just say I thought it would be better to voice my feelings to someone not so close to the team," he said, dead-batting the question as if tucking in behind a Curtly Ambrose lifter.

Clearly something has worked, for word is that Ramprakash has mellowed, a change that Fraser puts down to recent marriage. Maturity has similarly tamed his close friend and one time fellow "Tantrum Twin", Nasser Hussain. Interestingly, apart from being abundantly talented and passionate about their cricket, both come from a mixed-race background. While it has given their cricket an exciting edge it has blurred their sense of belonging, making them easy targets for abuse from players and spectators.

For years Ramprakash - whose father Deo is Guyanese of Indian extraction but whose mother Jennifer is English - preferred West Indian patois to the propped-up aitches of Hertfordshire where he was born, though his elevation to the vice-captaincy of last winter's England A tour to India was an inspired appointment, removing in one stroke the tempest from a tempestuous mind.

But if responsibility in India made him feel wanted, it was only after his runs (72 and 42) in the Perth Test that he knew he really belonged. "There was something completely different about Ramps in Perth," said Fraser, who also played in the Test. "During the West Indies tour a year earlier, he was surprisingly nervous. But in Perth he really believed he was going to do well, rather than relying on fate to deal him a good hand."

The effects have been tangible and he has shown rare early- season form, averaging more than 60 with the bat and playing some useful run-a-ball support roles against the West Indies in the one-dayers. All that is needed now is a Test century, just to settle any lingering doubts. If it comes at Headingley, nobody will begrudge him that front seat for the journey home.