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April 25, 2012
Mark Ramprakash, the most prolific batsman in English first-class cricket, has become the first player to crack under the pressure of playing on county pitches that are more treacherous than they have been for 25 years.
With April looking bound to become the wettest on record, and flood alerts anticipated in many regions over the next four days, the ECB's gamble on the earliest start to the Championship season has already turned sour.
Ramprakash, who at 42 is England's most experienced current player, has been penalised under the ECB disciplinary code for abusive language to the umpires Nigel Llong and Jeff Evans during Surrey's Championship match against Worcestershire at The Oval last week.
All 22 players batted on the third day, with Ramprakash getting one of the unkindest deliveries of all - a shooter from Alan Richardson which extended one of his most unsuccessful sequences in a record-breaking career. Surrey's first-innings total of 140 was their lowest at The Oval since 1999.
Ramprakash, who is now only one transgression away from an automatic suspension, has condemned the start to the Championship season as "a lottery" and described batting conditions as the most difficult since his career began in 1987 - a debut that coincided with English cricket's final move to an era of covered pitches.
"There has been extravagant movement and it has made batting at times a lottery," Ramprakash told The Daily Telegraph. "In our dressing room we are saying that conventional play is not effective and you feel like you need to chance your arm because the bowlers are so much in the ascendancy.
"It is the hardest I have found it since 1987 when I started. I think it is really tough, especially for the younger players who have worked hard all winter. It is hard and the guys don't know whether to stick or twist at the moment. You try to 'guts it out' but then you feel it is not getting any easier and you never really get in.
"The pitches are doing plenty throughout the game. It has been very difficult and it is more about trying to bat in a very aggressive way whenever possible. I don't feel that is proper batting. I feel proper batting is treating the ball on its merits."
Groundsmen, who have been allowed minimal square preparation time in a season that began on April 5, the earliest Championship start date ever, have pronounced it virtually impossible to produce good batting pitches in cold, wet weather that makes it difficult to remove enough moisture from the pitches.
Players brought up on dry four-day pitches, and influenced by the more aggressive nature of the one-day game, have shown little appetite for the sort of dutiful, defensive innings that were a regular feature of the game in the era of uncovered pitches. England's professional game switched to covered pitches in 1980; a further experiment in 1987, Ramprakash's debut season, in which pitches were left uncovered during the hours of play, was abandoned after only one year.
Ramprakash was reported by the umpires for a level one breach of the code: using language that is obscene, offensive or insulting and/or making an obscene gesture. An ECB statement said: "As this incident follows a previous breach of the fixed penalty system within the last two years, Ramprakash has received three penalty points. This penalty will remain on his record for a period of two years and he now holds six penalty points. The accumulation of nine or more penalty points in any two-year period will result in an automatic suspension."
April is expected to be the wettest on record with some areas forecast to be hit by a month's rain over a few days as the drought that has afflicted many parts of the country breaks in spectacular fashion. The Met Office has issued several severe weather alerts, with southern England and eastern Scotland likely to be worst affected. "Strong and gusty winds and significant and heavy falls of snow on higher ground" are also predicted over the coming days.
Ramprakash, who has 114 first-class centuries, the most made by any current player, has managed only 62 runs in six innings at an average of 10.33 so far this season. He will attempt to put that right, weather permitting, against Durham at The Oval tomorrow, one of eight Championship matches scheduled. Rain is forecast in all of them with temperatures forecast to be as low as 7C.
Edited by Alan Gardner
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