Everywhere there are glowing reports about Mark at the moment. How exciting his innings are, how late he plays the ball, how he must be picked for England. Mark, they say, is the most talented young batsman the country has produced since David Gower. The trouble is they keep using the surname Lathwell, when surely they mean Ramprakash.
When the England party for India was announced last September, the Middlesex Mark was not best pleased. The selectors had ignored three of the best players in the land. Our leading Test run-scorer, the best wicketkeeper, and the most complete batsman - Ramprakash himself. No wonder we lost heavily.
Looking at Ramprakash's Test average (17.21) you might question his inclusion in this trio. But all but one of his Tests have been against the West Indies and Pakistan - the two best bowling attacks in the world. Against Viv Richards' pace quartet he batted a long time and rarely looked in trouble; Malcolm Marshall made no secret of the fact that his bowlers would have happily traded a flashy 40 from Gower for a dogged 27 by Ramprakash. All he needed was time and understanding. He has not had much of either.
It's easy to see why. Most people involved in county cricket are conservative and tend to be intolerant of non-conformists. But with exceptional ability comes an unconventional streak; in Gower it is translated as a blase facetiousness, in Russell as eccentricity, in Ramprakash as occasionally unhinged. In fact all these players are excellent team men if respected and encouraged.
It is true Ramprakash has a tendency for tantrums. When he first came on the Middlesex scene in 1988 as a precocious 17-year-old he looked destined to become a fully fledged member of the brat pack. If he got out to a dubious decision or a bad shot he would sulk in a corner, snapping angrily if offered any consolation. A ticking-off from the captain might result in a volley of abuse, and it was wise to give him a wide berth particularly when rumours of a physical clash with a football referee circulated. His exceptional ability was never in doubt, but opposing bowlers found him easy to bait - the most basic sledging would unsettle him. Even a remarkably mature innings in the 1988 NatWest final failed to conceal an unreliable temperament, and he soon earned the nickname 'Bloodaxe'. He seemed bound to end up on the scrapheap of wayward talent.
In spite of a couple of contretemps last season, he has matured. He has learned to shoulder the burden of a brittle middle order, and never complained when suddenly asked to go in first wicket down because Mike Gatting had suffered some mishap. Most importantly he has begun to deal with the pressure of expectation: from his family, from his colleagues, from himself. Despite the rich build-ups, the constant adulation which reached fever pitch when he was named a while ago as one of the 50 most desirable men in Britain, he has become humbler rather than more arrogant, never turning away young autograph- hunters, answering all his mail, preferring the quiet company of his fiancee to the idolising masses.
But relaxation is not something that comes naturally to him. Add to that a rapid rise to fame and the passionate ambition of his West Indian father - a Guyanese cricketer whose parents came from Uttar Pradesh - and you have a potent cocktail of pressures. So it's hardly surprising when the lid bursts off.
Two such explosions last summer seemed to be the main cause for Ramprakash's omission from England's winter activities despite being one of nine star players on a pounds 15,000 retainer. It was a hard but telling lesson and one not easily understood, but time spent with one or two objective admirers, Mike Brearley among them, has helped. 'It has taught me a hell of a lot about how things work and how the authorities think,' he says. 'I was too wrapped up in my own personal performances and I needed someone with experience to help guide me in the right direction.'
With Gatting now temporarily out of contention, England must look to reinstate Ramprakash. He played some astonishing innings in pre-season matches that left even his own team- mates gasping in awe. It was a pleasure to watch the power and sureness of stroke, the razor-sharp reflexes. He has the capacity to raise his game to whatever standard the conditions command. Lurking within a compact frame is that streak of unpredictability that makes him so exciting. His main problem is which shot to select from several different options while the ball is in flight.
He certainly looks the part, which will please the establishment. There is more than a touch of class about his batting, throwing, and catching; his strokes are a photographer's dream. Only his bowling is relatively ordinary, his action born of impersonating Roger Harper. He dresses immaculately, goes to bed early.
Success has not gone to his head. In August 1991, two hours after England's exciting series leveller with the West Indies at The Oval, the phone went. 'Hi Yoz, it's Ramps,' said the voice. 'What time do you want me at your benefit match tomorrow?' This was the same guy who, seasons before, had been close to assaulting a colleague or two.
With West Indian, Asian and English relations (his mother is English) it must have been hard at times for him to work out exactly where he belonged. He is multi-cultural, reading broadsheet newspapers, but preferring to eat curry in the company of the Caribbean contingent than drink beer with the boys. His batting exhibits the wrists of a Hindu, the exuberance of a West Indian, the concentration of a Pom. He can mimic other players brilliantly. This bodes well for a supplementary career in modelling; he can play any role - angry young man, gigolo, self-satisfied money broker. But the one he most desires is the No 5 spot in the England batting order. It will be our folly and the Australians' good fortune this summer if he doesn't get it.
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