Mark Ramprakash – Past, Present, Future

Mark Ramprakash is the greatest modern embodiment of the type of player who occupies an uncertain place, somewhere between success and failure.

On the one hand he was a batsman of immense ability and technical refinement, in the purest sense one of the very best players produced by his country since the Second World War.  On the other he was a failure: a player who, despite his gifts, was never capable of displaying his best form at the highest level of the game.  A Test average of 27 from 52 matches tells the story.

This piece was written in 1992, at a time when there was still hope.

At the conclusion of the 1992 English cricket season, the promising, though as yet unfulfilled, career of Middlesex’s sublimely talented batsman Mark Ramprakash, was widely perceived to have reached a point from which it might embark on one of two widely differing paths.  Either he would become what those of us who have followed his progress since boyhood felt he always would, a leading international player, or the succeeding seasons would see him assume the uncertain status of the successful county player who never managed to realize his potential in the game’s highest theatre and is left to wonder whether he will ever receive another precious opportunity.

That such a position has arrived comparatively early in his professional career is a result in part of Ramprakash’s precocity.  He is just twenty-three, an age when the majority of English cricketers are still looking forward to Test cricket, rather than looking back and hoping to taste its rich flavour again.  But it is based to a far greater extent on the events of the summer of 1992, which twice saw him disciplined by his club for professional misconduct and omitted from both English national touring parties for the following winter.

However, as someone who, as a member of Middlesex, has taken an intense interest in Ramprakash’s development since he was a boy and is still convinced of his potential, one finds it hard to escape the feeling that the causes of his fall from grace may be more numerous and complex than is immediately evident.

I first became aware of the potential of an exotically named and equally talented schoolboy of Guyanese extraction in 1983.  At that time my elder brother was playing for an old boys’ club in west Middlesex and returned home from a game one evening to talk about a player called Ramprakash, whom some of his younger colleagues, still at school and involved in Middlesex schools cricket, had played against.  Ramprakash, I was informed, was about thirteen, attended a state school in the Harrow area, and had scored twelve centuries that season (a truly remarkable achievement, since it was only July).  My initial reaction was that this was a player of whom far more would be heard, but my mind also dwelt on something else my brother had told me, the substance of which was that Ramprakash was a player known for being unable to complement his talent with the degree of modesty and responsibility which people expected. The unpopularity of this was understandable, for there is, surely, nothing more alluring in sport than the performer who carries enviable gifts with an equal degree of modesty.

In 1984 I came across Ramprakash’s name in the national press for the first time.  The Daily Telegraph carried summarized scores of the annual match between the English Schools Cricket Association Under-15 side and the President’s XI, played at the conclusion of that year’s ESCA junior festival in Hull.  Ramprakash scored 84 for the ESCA side in a winning second innings run-chase and confirmed his place (a year under age) in the England team for the subsequent internationals against Wales and Scotland.  This set me thinking again: what might this boy achieve when his promise was fully realized?

In 1985 Ramprakash consolidated his progress, being awarded The Cricket Society’s award as the year’s outstanding English schoolboy and making runs for all the teams he represented, from his school side, Gayton, to his club, Bessborough, for whom he spent his second full season in the First XI. S uch performances as his 204* for Middlesex Under-16s against Guernsey served to illustrate vividly the way in which his abilities were beginning to outgrow their restrictive confines and demand the new challenges which the following season would bring.  Many of us waited in eager anticipation of his response and he did not disappoint.

Centuries were scored for the ESCA Under-19 side (he was still just sixteen) against Scotland, for M.C.C. Schools, his first at Lord’s, and, as a matter of routine, for his club.  He also made his initial appearances for England Young Cricketers and Middlesex Second XI, passing fifty on three occasions.  I have a particular memory of going to a game in the Second Eleven Championship against Hampshire at Shell Oil’s Lensbury Club in Teddington and having to leave early for some reason, disappointed at not seeing him bat.  I discovered from the paper the next morning that he had made 61 and felt frustrated but secure in the knowledge that I would soon be seeing him bat on greater stages, for, by this time, there was no doubt among those who knew of him that he would soon be a successful professional batsman.

The English winter of 1986-87 saw Ramprakash travel to Sri Lanka as a member of the England Young Cricketers side, captained by Mike Atherton.  He adapted quickly to the differing conditions (both in terms of the pitches on which he was required to bat and the crowds who watched his every move), a successful tour culminating in scores of 118 and 120* in the third Test at Galle.  We now waited for the first-class debut that would surely come sooner rather than later, and I felt a palpable sense of excitement when he appeared in the Middlesex side for the first Championship game of the 1987 season, against Yorkshire at Lord’s, because of injuries to Roland Butcher, Mike Gatting and Clive Radley.

Ramprakash made 17 in his initial first-class innings, and 63* in his second, sharing a partnership of 116 for the fourth wicket with another promising young player, Michael Roseberry, and drawing an impressive range of plaudits from those present.  Indeed, although his opportunities that season were limited (he was still, after all, at school), it wasn’t long before the national media started to take notice of his exploits and wonder at the richness of his ability. Writing in The Observer that summer, Scyld Berry gave a detailed appraisal of Ramprakash’s upbringing and background, focusing on the views of the people who had followed his progress from the time he joined Bessborough, and describing him as ‘a supreme talent’.  This view was a product both of the quality of his performances and the apparently immaculate ‘character references’ that he had received.  I took these as an indication that Ramprakash had left the turbulence of his youth far behind.  Perhaps ominously, the piece was headlined Wonder of the Age.  There was no question mark.

Despite the fact that I was as ready as anyone to advance Ramprakash’s cause, I felt at the time that some qualification of this statement was both desirable and necessary in the light of the unquestionable fact that the continued progress of a prodigy in any field of endeavour is never completely certain.  Even though he had taken his first steps into county cricket with some success, he had yet to face the country’s best bowlers on its worst wickets, he was yet to suffer the torment of the poor decision at the vital moment or the heightened tension of international competition.  Despite this, at this stage of his career, the pressure on Ramprakash to live up to the expectations and hopes of his followers began to increase.  Partly as a consequence of what had gone before and partly because of what was still to come.  It continues to increase today.

In 1988 Ramprakash played in a further eight County Championship matches, scoring three fifties and finishing at the head of the Middlesex averages.  To those who were there, though, his most impressive performance came in the final of the NatWest Bank Trophy against Worcestershire, Ramprakash’s mature 56 converting a position of 25 for 4 into a relatively comfortable victory for his side.  Predictably glowing reviews followed, and, because the match was televized, his name came to the notice of many to whom it would previously have been unfamiliar.  For those of us who had been following him from the start, however, the Lord’s innings came as sweet confirmation of his talent and our faith in him.  At a reception afterwards he displayed pride at his achievement and modesty in his ability.  Surely, now, I felt, there really was no limit to what he might achieve.

The 1989 season, his first full one in the Middlesex side, saw him record a maiden first-class century at Headingley and captain England Young Cricketers to an uneasy series defeat by their New Zealand counterparts.  It was a hectic period, but one from which, as a batsman anyway, his reputation emerged enhanced.  In 1990 we saw his final drive to maturity, as he confirmed himself an integral member of the Middlesex’s championship-winning middle-order. Two instances of the mastery he displayed that summer stick in the mind: within a fortnight at Uxbridge in July he helped, with disciplined yet powerfully brilliant centuries on each occasion, to win matches against both Surrey and Somerset.  The first came in a tense NatWest second round match, in which he came to the wicket with his side 0 for 1 chasing a target of 289 to win in 60 overs. Despite a potent display of fast bowling from Waqar Younis (then an unfamiliar name, who seemed, amazingly, able to bowl yorkers at will), Ramprakash, in conjunction with Keith Brown, took his side towards their objective with delicious skill and an icy temperament.  At the end of a beautiful day, I left a seething ground, along with many others, enraptured by his excellence.  He later gave a repeat performance, with even greater confidence and command, in a Championship game against Somerset, finishing with 146*.  It still rankles that I wasn’t present on that occasion (especially as I could, and should, have been), but I was happy that his embryonic county career had been consummated in such emphatic fashion.

Selection for a winter tour now seemed a formality, and, in due course, a place on the England A tour and a county cap were his.  Many from beyond the boundaries of the old county of Middlesex will be familiar with the story since: sound runs in Sri Lanka and a Test debut in victory against the West Indies at Headingley in June 1991, the subsequent struggle to pass thirty without success.  A disjointed, frustrating winter and further insecure failures against Pakistan in 1992.  Although the period in question was interspersed with brilliant fielding and batting, in addition to the disciplinary troubles hinted at earlier, the end of the 1992 season signalled, in some people’s eyes, the arrival of Ramprakash’s career at a turning-point.  Why, given the extent of his talent and the solidity of his achievement, should this be?

Firstly, despite the manifest quality of many of his innings during his ascent to the England side between 1987 and 1991, I always felt that there were weaknesses in his technique which may not have been evident to those who saw only his best performances.  A propensity to play from the crease too much in defence and to lift the ball when he ought to have been keeping it on the ground, footwork that was sometimes lazy, a tendency to impetuosity.  Of course, such faults were usually heavily camouflaged by his marvellous gifts, but were more likely to be exposed once he reached Test cricket.  This is not to say that his failure to score more than 29 in any Test innings prior to the time of writing can be attributed wholly to such defects (he has been dismissed by more than one excellent delivery and has suffered at least one questionable decision), but some of his travails at the hands of Mushtaq Ahmed in 1992 may, perhaps, be blamed on uncorrected technical faults.  They are, however, few, they are rarely evident any more, and they should not hinder his international career in the long term.

Also, the pressure on Ramprakash to produce achievements which match his abilities has increased exponentially since 1987 (the type of publicity he was receiving early in his career has already been illustrated), and this has become even more noticeable since his Test debut in 1991.  Had he succeeded in converting one of his many excellent, primarily defensive, innings which were so valuable against the West Indians in 1991, into a big score, the tension would have been lifted.  But as long as the gap between expectation and realization remains so large, the pressure will only increase, inviting greater fear of failure and loss of composure in consequence.  For a player of whom less had been expected, Ramprakash’s record in Test cricket so far would not appear as poor as it does, but it is his fate to be judged by more exalted standards, and it is something he will have to live with.  For me it was sad indeed to overhear someone describing Ramprakash as the ‘most over-rated batsman in the country’ on an English ground in 1992.  Although cruel and inaccurate, the remark gave an insight into how many may now feel about him.  It is up to Ramprakash to prove the doubters wrong, and one’s own feeling is that he can and should do so, providing, of course, he can rein in the volatile temperament that has also served to restrict his development.

Such a position is, of course, deeply unfamiliar to someone who has known only prosperity at each level of the game prior to his arrival in Test cricket, and it highlights another of Ramprakash’s problems; the psychological adjustment required to adapt to the fact that success will not now come as easily as it has done in the past.  The signs in 1992, given what happened at Fenner’s and Uxbridge, were that the adjustment was proving traumatic, but, once again, I am sure that it can be made.

That this faith in Ramprakash’s ability (which, I am sure, he shares) has proved so enduring is because of the fact that, when all has been said, he is still so very good.

Henry Blofeld once wrote of Martin Crowe that ‘one could sit happily for hours watching…[him]…push the ball back to the bowler.  Each defensive stroke is a work of art.’  At his best, this is as true of Ramprakash as it was of Crowe in his greatest days.  In his 233 for Middlesex against Surrey at Lord’s in May 1992, or later in the summer at Old Trafford when he produced the best single stroke this writer saw in 1992 (with sincere apologies to Devon’s Andy Pugh, who came close), Ramprakash achieved a beautiful purity of style; a gorgeous synthesis of physical grace and fine batting technique.  In my mind I can still see Ramprakash dancing down the wicket to Mike Watkinson and playing him to deep extra cover for a comfortable single, the smoothly crafted quality of the shot as memorable as the warm Manchester sunshine.

Although he clearly has his weaknesses, both as a man and a batsman, there can be no doubt that Mark Ramprakash remains what he has always been, a cricketer of exceptional ability.  All that is required now is for him to taste the fruits of his gifts at the game’s highest table.  If he does, it will be a rich and sweet diet, both for him and for those of us who have believed in him for so long.

The Journal of the Cricket Society, Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 1993