Ramprakash ready to reveal full repertoire

CRICKET: Is the Middlesex middle-order charmer finally going to bat to his full potential this summer? Tim de Lisle talked to him
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The Independent Online
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them, and some are earmarked for greatness at an early age but struggle to take the last few steps. That, so far, has been the fate of Mark Ramprakash.

A correct and stylish batsman, a natural athlete and electric fielder, he was picked for England at 21, as most of the greats are. But that was four years ago, and he remains the young man who has everything except a settled England place.

He has played 15 times for England, and been left out 25 times. At Edgbaston this week, after he had laid the foundation for England A's big score with an unruffled 79, I asked if he had found it frustrating, this stop- start Test career. There was a sigh, and a long pause.

Then he said: "I can't state enough how frustrating it's been, to be honest. I was very ambitious as a young person, 17, 18, got into the Middlesex team, rose very quickly, got on the A tour, played against West Indies at 21, and for four years I've been in and out, I've had my ups and downs. But I've learnt a hell of a lot from the last four years. I think my game has matured and I feel I've developed, so hopefully I can go forward. I'm just trying to make the best of it now. Simple as that."

Starting outspoken, ending up diplomatic, this answer mirrors Ramprakash's progress in general. The word on the circuit has not always been kind to him. Hot-headed, people said; arrogant, intense. The first charge stuck: there were run-ins with captains and spectators which led to an unofficial suspension from international cricket for the winter of 1992-93. (This still rankles. "I don't think it was handled in the right way." Why? Diplomacy descends again. "I don't want to go into that. That's history.") As for arrogance and intensity, there have been times in the past four years when England could have done with more of those.

Now the word is that he has grown up, knuckled down. He had about as good a winter as it is possible to have if you are not included in the senior tour party.

The selectors demoted him once again to the A tour, but had the inspired idea of making him vice-captain. With 99 and 36 not out, he was the outstanding batsman in the first A Test against India. Then he flew to Australia as the sixth and last of England's reinforcements, and played in the fifth Test at Perth. You could not devise a trickier transition: spend weeks facing spinners on slow turners, then go into a Test on the fastest wicket in the world. Ramprakash was equal to the task, making 72 and 42, the only Englishman to get runs in both innings. It was the first time he had done so in Tests.

The younger Ramprakash might have balked at going back for what remained of the A tour - a week in Bangladesh. The new, matured version saw a chance to add to his cv. "I thought the three one-day games would be good experience because the World Cup is in Asia next year."

He made a deep impression on the tour manager, the former Sussex captain John Barclay. "He was a very dominant influence on the whole expedition," Barclay said. "He was the first batsman to dominate the Indian spinners, and that gave everybody confidence. He did very well as vice-captain - brought up some very good points in meetings. And he's a fantastic fielder. I think he's got great class."

With Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting's places up for grabs, Ramprakash should now be a near-certainty to face the West Indies at Headingley on 8 June. He does not see it like that.

"No way. Absolutely no way. I was very happy with my winter, but playing in England, start of the season, is a totally different thing. A lot of times I've started very slowly. I need a good start cause there's lots of other competitors who are desperate to play for England as well."

Not eager to play for England, or anxious - desperate. You do not have to spend five minutes with Ramprakash to detect a formidable desire to reach the top. He is outwardly calm, and the adjective that is often used of his batting is "composed"; but there is a light in the level brown eyes which burns with ambition.

As we were talking, on a bench just inside the players' entrance, Ray Illingworth came through the door.

"Hi," said Ramprakash.

"Hi," Illy said. "Well played."

"Thanks," said Ramprakash, with a guarded smile. This was the second conversation the two men have had this season. The first, at Lord's, was almost as brief.

"He said, `Did you enjoy the tour?' I said, yes, very much, I enjoyed being vice-captain."

With the press, Illingworth is more forthcoming. He has already said that he wants to play five bowlers this year. Unless Alec Stewart keeps wicket, that means only five batsmen. Atherton, Stewart, Hick, Thorpe and one other: so Ramprakash, John Crawley, Robin Smith, Jason Gallian et al will be fighting over a single place, while another is reserved for a bits-and-pieces player like Craig White.

The flawed logic will not be lost on Mike Atherton, who is a Ramprakash fan of long standing. Eight years ago, they opened the batting together for England Under-19s in a "Test" in Sri Lanka. Ramprakash made 118 and 120 not out, to Atherton's 10 and 84 not out. Ramprakash, still at school, was player of the series.

His career since then is a fine example of the English way of bringing on young players, or not. At 18 he was man of the match in the NatWest Trophy final, pulling Middlesex out of trouble with a fifty that showed "confidence, style and rare charm", according to Wisden. Imran Khan was among those who thought he should go straight into the Test team.

By English standards, his wait was not long, but after a full series against the West Indies in which he kept getting out in the twenties but batted for hours and proved his mettle, his place was given, with magnificent shortsightedness, to Dermot Reeve.

Now 25, Ramprakash is the same age as Brian Lara and Inzamam-ul-Haq. Both Lara and Inzamam have played in 80 one-day internationals. Ramprakash has played in four. "I can't work it out myself. I would have thought if anything I would have played more one-dayers than Tests. I've got quite a good one-day record for Middlesex, and with fielding and everything..."

Ah, fielding: the facet of modern cricket which seems vital to everyone except the England selectors. Ramprakash is probably the second-best outfielder in the world, after Jonty Rhodes. Superb on the ground, he also takes a lot of catches: 11 in 15 Tests, three at Edgbaston this week.

On his first day in the field for England, he caught Phil Simmons with a salmon leap and ran out Carl Hooper with a direct hit. "We were inspired by some brilliant work by Mark Ramprakash," Gooch wrote in his book Captaincy. He spoilt the compliment slightly by claiming these "two marvellous moments" as "a complete justification" of his policy on fielding practice, but the point stands: fielding has a close relationship with team morale. It is not entirely coincidental that, with Ramprakash prowling the covers, England have won six Tests and lost six, while without him, they have won five and lost 13.

In an age when sport is said to be run by agents, Ramprakash does not have one. He has only one commercial contract, with the bat-makers Gunn and Moore, and negotiates it himself. This is not by choice, particularly: nobody has signed him up. He is young, good-looking, at ease with the media and a couple of even breaks away from a long Test career. If I were an agent, I would give him a call.