When a batsman retires after twenty-five years in professional cricket and you can clearly remember where you were when he played his first match, well, you’re getting old. In fact, both of you are.
So it was with me and Mark Ramprakash when I wrote this in July 2012, with the shadows beginning to lengthen on his career.
These days Toby Radford coaches the West Indies. But when I first saw him he was batting with Mark Ramprakash.
Radford was young then, about seventeen, younger even than Ramprakash, and he was resolutely and quietly orthodox in the slightly uneasy way which young players who’ve been brought up by cricket coach fathers are. I remember him only as a counterpoint to the main act, which involved Ramprakash repeatedly advancing down the wicket to Hampshire Seconds’ Paul-Jan Bakker and attempting to hit him into the next parish. For the most part he failed and was soon cleaned up by a man, Alan Mullally, with whom he later played for England.
Everyone knew he’d be good, though, and when, a couple of months later, he took his side to the NatWest Trophy with a display of mature coolness and skill, the world seemed to be at his feet. It was just a matter of time.
But his time never came.
Maybe it’s just me, but the images which scroll into my mind when I think of Ramprakash tend to be of struggle and failure: the teeth-gritted battles against the West Indies in 1991 which promised so much, the Lord’s pair against the same opponents in 1995 and the fish-out-of-water failures when opening in 2000. However, if you think a little harder you can see him, arms aloft on a sunny day at the Kensington Oval, with his maiden Test hundred in the bag. As usual, everyone thought he’d cracked Test cricket then, but he never did.
The obvious, brutal, truth about cricket is that statistics, when compiled over an extended period, don’t lie. And if you end up with an average of 27 from 52 Tests it means, for whatever range of reasons, that, at the highest level of the game, you weren’t really very good.
For most people who fail in Test cricket there’s little anxiety or discussion outside their own heads. They didn’t quite have it; they came, they went. Rarely do they get more than fifty matches to show themselves. Ramprakash was different, though, which was why he got all those games and why so many people – especially those who follow the two counties he graced, really graced, for a quarter-century – have always found what happened to him at the highest level so confusing and difficult to understand.
I’ve discussed Ramprakash and his legacy here before, and I don’t have any definitive answers. But as someone who first heard about his potential in 1983, followed his first-class career from its very first day to its last, and first wrote about him in 1992, my instinct is that he was someone whose consuming desire to succeed outweighed his ability to deal with the prospect of the sense of inadequacy which was bound to follow a failure to do so, especially once, early in his Test career, the big scores failed to come. He simply wanted it too much.
And, God knows, some of the attacks he faced in his early days – the West Indians in 1991, Wasim and Waqar in 1992 – had their merits too.
The suspicion lingers that under his edgy, passionate exterior, Ramprakash was always much more vulnerable than he seemed. And the landscape surrounding the England side which he came into at the turn of the nineties could not have been more different to the air of security, mutual support, belief and trust which surrounds it today.
When they’re reassured, and encouraged, and given time to develop, fragile yet gifted players can thrive and be recognized for what they are. Just look at Ian Bell.
For the years which followed his leaving of Test cricket in 2002, Ramprakash was destined for life as the greatest prophet without honour the modern game has seen. His batting for Surrey during his real glory years between 2002 and 2010 was, regardless of bowling or conditions, among the very finest seen from an English batsman since the Second World War. It was his way of absolving the memory of the other, less glorious, chapters which had gone before.
People will tell you things about Mark Ramprakash.
But don’t ever let anyone tell you that Mark Ramprakash wasn’t very good.
Different Shades of Green, 5th July 2012