Illingworth ready to give Ramprakash prime role

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England have yet to play their first proper match - it begins in Soweto today and the main selectorial dilemma of the tour already appears to be settled. Mark Ramprakash, whose form in both the nets and the two warm- up matches has been encouraging, is earmarked for the No 3 batting position in the Test series ahead of John Crawley.

Ramprakash is thus far (and he is 26 now) one of the great underachievers of English cricket. Nobody disputes his sublime talent and yet he has failed to give full range to such gifts on the loftiest stage. The common consensus is that the Middlesex right-hander becomes too tense, too desperate to succeed when he plays international cricket, and this has a debilitating effect on his batting. In other words, he freezes, although Ramprakash disputes this. He insists his struggles have been due to bad luck, playing the majority of his Tests against the West Indies and not having a run in the side.

Well, he enjoyed plenty of luck making 89 not out in England's victory over Eastern Transvaal on Wednesday. The opposition this winter is South Africa - and he seems certain to receive plenty of opportunities. There can be no more excuses and Ramprakash will bat first-down today. "This is a make or break tour for Ramps," said Ray Illingworth, "but we believe he is the technically best-equipped man for the No 3 spot. We are desperate for Ramps to come through and will give him every opportunity we can. John Crawley might have to fight for another place."

England have won both their matches - although they were hardly impressive against Easterns - but a South African Invitation XI over four days will provide a sterner examination. Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes, the national team's captain and most popular player respectively, are in the opposition.

Gentle pressure was exerted on England for Devon Malcolm to play in what is the first first-class game in a township. Malcolm, something of a cult hero with the young blacks after his 9 for 57 against South Africa at The Oval last year, is keenly aware of the symbolic value of his appearance. Yet he has enough on his plate - like convincing Illingworth he can be England's most potent weapon.

Illingworth and Peter Lever, the bowling coach, are trying to stop Malcolm falling away in his delivery stride. It seems Malcolm is either unable or unwilling to put their advice into practice. ''We still have a bit of a problem with Devon, but I don't want to say too much at the moment,'' Illingworth said. ''We want him to make a big effort because we have only three matches before the First Test."

n Middlesex will not stand in the way of their veteran spinner John Emburey taking up the role of coach at Northamptonshire next season. Emburey, manager of the England A tourists who left for Pakistan yesterday, has been strongly tipped for a move there after 22 years at Lord's.