Like the man with whom he made his Test debut, Graeme Hick, Mark Ramprakash is forever destined to be a cricketing enigma. His technique is near faultless; he is the consummate professional; and he has scored with such unerring consistency in county cricket that he is closing in, inexorably, on 100 first-class hundreds. And yet, for all his palpable class, his Test average is a meagre, inadequate 27.
Initially, it might be tempting to simply label him a man incapable of making the step up to Tests; a cricketing yo-yo too good for county attacks but never able to cope with the higher level. It is tempting, certainly, but the argument falls down under any serious scrutiny. If Ramprakash was such a player, how to explain his excellent average – 42 – against Australia, the best side of his era?
It is nigh on impossible to spot any rational patterns in his record. His only two Test centuries were scored against the 2001 Australians and away to the West Indies of Walsh and Ambrose. And it was because of his failures against New Zealand, the side who bear most resemblance to the county attacks he plundered so relentlessly, that Ramprakash was twice dropped.
What is clear, however, is, like Hick, Ramprakash was a victim of selectorial upheaval, an easy scapegoat when England were struggling. Over his 52 Tests, he was dropped on ten occasions. Ten. During his longest run in the side, from his brilliant breakthrough century against the West Indies in 1998 to the end of the New Zealand series in 1999, Ramprakash established himself as a fine batsman and an integral member of the side. Though he did not quite resemble the angst-free first-class animal, Ramps offered England middle-order solidity; in these 18 Tests, he averaged 41 against some extremely testing attacks.
And then, indicative of the bizarre selections of the day, he was dropped, after one modest series against the Kiwis, despite the fact only three batsmen had fared better. It is astonishing, even now, that a man finally finding his feet in the Test arena could be dropped for Chris Adams and Darren Maddy – good county players, but never destined to be anything more.
No doubt compounded by his perennial fear of being made scapegoat, Ramprakash was seldom able to truly relax in the international arena. As he admits, he was often guilty of being too intense, and of caring too much, as exemplified by his infamous tantrums in his earlier years. In his autobiography, Nasser Hussain compared Ramprakash’s meticulous preparation to that of Alec Stewart – but, Hussain believes, Ramprakash suffered for his “theories, nervousness, bat handle obsession and stuff like that”. Moreover, Mike Atherton said of him “he seemed to look for the negative aspects of each challenge”; for Mark Ramprakash, international batting was never simple.
The game at Johannesburg in 1995 served to epitomise his problems at Test level. In the first innings, he took an excruciating 35 balls to score 4; in the second, he took an ungamely swipe at his second ball and was bowled. His vastly contrasting approaches to two innings in which he entered with South Africa in the ascendancy were, to Atherton, “a sure indication of his confused mental state”.
But, above all, he was a failure of man-management. It is surely indicative that only the ebullient David Lloyd (sacked prior to the ’99 New Zealand series) got the best of Ramps, a man who needed both reassurance of his worth and a coach to help him calm down.
A glance at his Test average may suggest Ramprakash was lucky to play as much as he did; but his run-scoring feats in the county game were continually so extraordinary that the selectors had little choice. At times, it seemed they could neither live with nor without him. They failed to hand him the extended run that would give him the best chance to maximise his potential, but could not dispense completely with Hick’s sole rival at the top of the first-class averages. The end result, alas, was an international career that continually frustrated; and the rare talent who emerged when winning the Man of the Match award in a Natwest Final aged just 18 was, internationally, unfulfilled.
Ramprakash’s single-minded determination to succeed in the international arena was highlighted by his highly controversial decision to cross the Thames in 2001 – in search of the Division One cricket he believed would aid his chances of an international recall. He was soon vindicated and, in scoring 133 at The Oval against Australia, looked to be a beneficiary of the new Duncan Fletcher era – a time when players would only be dropped after being given a fair chance to prove their worth, unlike for so much of Ramprakash’s career.
The winter of 2001/02, however, stands as perhaps the biggest disappointment of his career. At last, he had a coach who valued selectorial consistency; and, in India and especially New Zealand would surely cement his place. Yet, bewilderingly, he averaged just 23 in six Tests – a victim, this time, not of playing within himself but of playing too aggressively, too early. In his desperation to impose himself on the opposition, Ramprakash compromised his outstanding technique and Fletcher decided his time was up. The general lack of coherency in his batting approach was encapsulated by Wisden’s description of an “aberrant swipe” as England fell to defeat in the last Test.
Yet, amidst all the troubles of his international career, Ramprakash’s incredible run-scoring capacity at county level never diminished; and, in the years since his last England game, his performance has reached new heights as he has become more relaxed. He hit 2000 runs in 2006 – at an average of over 100 – though people sneered at these being scored in Division Two. It was testament to his extraordinary aptitude for runs, then, that he repeated the feat in Division One this campaign, scoring centuries of the likes of Shane Warne and Mushtaq Ahmed, while continuing to excel in the limited-overs formats too. No one in the history of the English game can boast two seasons of such stunning personal achievement; it is truly astonishing.
There can be no doubting he could and should have fared better in Test matches; but, even as he passes 38, Mark Ramprakash remains amongst the most technically proficient and aesthetically pleasing players in the country. For all his failures, watching him bat has been a delight.