At county level he plays like a god; in Tests, heaven help him. David Llewellyn investigates a cricketing mystery
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The Independent Online
Mike Atherton and Jack Russell apart, the most vivid image of the Johannesburg Test was Mark Ramprakash's two-ball, rabbit- in-the headlights humiliation in England's second innings. His first ball from Brian McMillan crashed into his pads, the second went through a desperate off drive and shattered his stumps, and perhaps rather more.

In England mode, Ramprakash is rather like the Marie Celeste: the lights are on but no one is at home. He has floundered throughout his Test career, apparently overwhelmed by the international arena. All that prodigious talent, which has seen him recognised by his peers as the most gifted batsman of his generation, suddenly and mysteriously deserts him.

So why this conundrum? Why cannot that talent be translated from the County Championship, through which he sails, into something more tangible than a couple of half-centuries and a plethora of below-par performances in 19 appearances in the bigger pond?

His county captain is Mike Gatting, who hit his first Test century on his 31st appearance for England. He has done much to bring Ramprakash along since the youngster's Middlesex debut when he was 17 in 1987. It was no surprise to learn that he was going to telephone South Africa yesterday to speak to Ramprakash. "Not necessarily to talk about cricket," Gatting stressed. "It's just to see how things are. If he wants to talk about it, I will, but I'm not specifically phoning up to talk about it."

Well, like Bob Hoskins says, "It's good to talk", and Gatting has his feet firmly on the ground. He talks sound common sense and can give Ramprakash a perspective on his dilemma. But, ultimately, cricket is a mind game. It took one of England's classiest middle-order batsmen, Dennis Amiss, a while before he justified his Test selection. He scored just one fifty in his first dozen Tests, but then went on to score 11 hundreds, nine of them 150 or more, and finished with an average of 46, marking him out as a player of the highest calibre.

Amiss, now chief executive of all-conquering Warwickshire, says: "I think some players, and maybe I was one of those, wonder whether they are going to make it at the highest level because of the run of low scores early in their Test career. You wonder if you are ever going to break through.

"My advice to Mark is still to believe in his technique. I have seen him in County Championship matches and he is a class performer. There is nothing wrong with his technique, it's the big occasion, and it does get to you sometimes. It's obviously happening to him at the moment so he has to go in there and be natural, play the same way at Test level as he does at county level. Everybody says you've got to change your technique and do different things, and you listen to people, but in the end you have to come back to what you do naturally."

Gatting has similar, if slightly more pugnacious advice to get out of what is perceived to be a run of poor form. "The only way you can get out of it is by battling through," explains the 38-year-old Gatting, "by actually playing. Middlesex would play Ramps if he had a poor run of form. That's how he'd get through it, like we all do. It's the only way. I think he just needs a bit of support from the coaches and the management that's all."

Ramprakash made his debut against the West Indies in 1991. He played in all five Tests and proved he could stick around, but he could not get runs. His first half- century came two years later against Australia at The Oval and his second 10 months ago, again against Australia. The first 17 matches of what should be a long and successful Test career have not been an easy ride since he has faced the West Indies on 11 occasions.

The problem for him is that Gatting's advice, while being sensible, needs the England selectors' concurrence and Micky Stewart, the former national team manager, is brutally realistic when he says: "It's a cruel game, isn't it? At all times you have to select the side which you think is the best side to win the match. If they felt that that didn't include Ramps then they will not pick him."

Ramprakash earned his place on the tour by virtue of a stunning Championship season as Middlesex finished runners-up. He rattled up more than 2,000 runs with the help of 10 centuries (three of them double hundreds) for an average of 93.34.

Gatting says: "Ramps wanted to bat at three and he took on the responsibility marvellously well. He was quite brilliant. You don't become a crap cricketer overnight, he just needs an occasional bit of luck. And England have shown a lot of faith in other players in the past."

One of those other players is the Zimbabwe-born Graeme Hick, who made his debut in the same Headingley Test as Ramprakash. Like Ramprakash, Hick had a lean start, two half-centuries in his first 13 Tests. Even now, after 39 caps, Hick has only four Test hundreds to his name. The longer Hick was given the more confident he became - and the easier the runs came.

Whether Ramprakash will be accorded the same dispensation is unclear. Ray Illingworth, the chairman of selectors, is an uncompromising man, but he would certainly agree with Stewart and Amiss over their assessment of Ramprakash's potential. "I think you have to back class in the end," says Amiss, "and I have no doubt that he will come through."

Stewart is equally generous, saying: "His Test potential can certainly be realised. He has the talent to rise above this. What he needs is to get on a roll, that's what boosts confidence. He is one of the most gifted batsmen of his generation: he'll come again."

Mark Ramprakash: the full Test story

1991 West Indies Headingley 27 & 27

1991 West Indies Lord's 24

1991 West Indies Trent Bridge 13 & 21

1991 West Indies Edgbaston 29 & 25

1991 West Indies The Oval 25 & 19

1991 Sri Lanka Lord's 0

1992 Pakistan Edgbaston 0

1992 Pakistan Headingley 0 & 12*

1992 Pakistan The Oval 2 & 17

1993 Australia The Oval 6 & 64

1993/94 West Indies Guyana 2 & 5

1993/94 West Indies Trinidad 23 & 1

1993/94 West Indies Barbados 20 & 3

1993/94 West Indies Antigua 19

1994/95 Australia Perth 72 & 42

1995 West Indies Headingley 4 & 18

1995 West Indies Lord's 0 & 0

1995 South Africa Pretoria 9

1995 South Africa Johannesburg 4 & 0