April 23, 2008

The call of the long haul

England's top six could do worse than get their heads down and churn out the hard yards rather than dream of IPL cash

Ramprakash: over 4000 first-class runs across two seasons, but no England call-up © AFP

Which event will interest you more when the Olympics start in Beijing - the marathon or the 100 metres? Most people will no doubt want to see the final of the men's version of the sprint whether they follow athletics or not; but most will have greater admiration for the male and female winners of the marathon because for most of us the thought of running more than 26 miles in heat, humidity and polluted air is too dreadful to contemplate. What is guaranteed, of course, is that if one of our own nationality is involved in any Olympic final, with the chance of a medal, we will take a heightened interest, no matter if the event is archery, shooting or weightlifting.

All of which is relevant, I think, to the extraordinary contrast last Friday between the third day of the first round of matches in the LV County Championship and the first evening of the IPL. At The Oval (where I was) the game had become literally a damp squib, while in the M Chinnaswamy stadium all was bright lights and fireworks. In London a few hundred huddled for warmth in the gloom whilst umpires inspected under grey skies; in Bangalore many thousands were caught up in the gay fashion of the moment. But there the local interest was spurious, because they were watching a game between sides made up of mercenaries and little-known youths. At The Oval, unless you were watching with strained but objective eyes through the forbidding window of a press box utterly spoilt by having no windows that open and glass that has been smoked to prevent glare to the players, you were definitely supporting either Surrey or Lancashire.

The starts of marathons are seldom very exciting, whereas Brendon McCullum's reprise (with a few extra flourishes) of the barnstorming one-day innings he has been playing throughout his home season, mainly at England's expense, although also for his home province of Otago, was as spectacular as it is possible for cricket to get. It made for a very one-sided match, however, of the sort that makes so many one-day games rather tedious.

Meanwhile, if you looked for them, there were consolations at what I should properly have called the Brit Oval. A modernised ground, for a start, with the old Tavern banqueting suite being razed to the ground behind the Pavilion as the match proceeded, in readiness for the latest development plan, one that has been refused, much to the dismay of Surrey officials, because of fears concerning the famous gasworks. On the field itself, although Surrey were robbed by the weather of a good chance of repeating their victory in the momentous closing match of last season, there were some intriguing duels, not least between Andrew Flintoff, the bowler, and Mark Ramprakash. Flintoff the batsman versus Saqlain Mushtaq, a man separated from his illustrious Test match past by a British passport, a rehabilitated knee and a bushy black beard, was a disappointingly short contest. Flintoff bowled with some of his old fire and gusto but batted all too briefly for his run-a-ball 23. But once Ramprakash had been badly missed by the wicketkeeper before scoring and had worked his way diligently to 50, there was only one man in the centre of the stage. Had Ramprakash accepted the offer from the Rajasthan Royals to play for them for a week as sub for Graeme Smith, for a reward not far short of £50,000, he would not now be only two centuries away from becoming the 25th batsman in history (and very likely the last) to score a hundred first-class hundreds.

Had Ramprakash gone to Sri Lanka the chances are that he would have played at least one of those long, match-determining innings that none of the others could produce. That would have been bad news for one of Andrew Strauss, Michael Vaughan, Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood or Ian Bell

It was a typical innings by the "new" Ramprakash, the television dancing star who in the last two seasons for Surrey has scored more first-class runs than Denis Compton in 1947, the summer of imperishable memory for all old enough to remember it. In exactly the same number of innings, 30, Compton scored 3816 runs in 1947 at an average of 90; Ramprakash 4304 first-class runs in 2006 and 2007 at a combined average of 102. Each made 18 hundreds.

Inevitably his opening century raised the question once again of whether he should be playing for England. My Times colleague Simon Barnes was emphatic that he should not when he wrote last September of Ramprakash's wretched Test record (52 matches, average 27): "Are his skills simply inappropriate to a higher level, as Ian Fleming was incapable of writing Ulysses? Is that, when the bowling is consistently better, when his skills desert him? Or is it merely vertigo?"

When I raised the topic with Ramprakash himself early last year it was the one thing he was not prepared to discuss, dismissing the very idea with a smile and a dismissive "It's not going to happen so it's not worth discussing." Duncan Fletcher was still at the helm then, but the remaining selectors chose not to go back to the best technician in the country when, at the end of last season, they could have chosen him for the series in Sri Lanka and assured him that he would remain in the England fold until the end of the Ashes series in 2009, thus removing the constant fear of failure that seemed to freeze his talent when he played for his country in the past. Had Ramprakash gone to Sri Lanka the chances are that he would have played at least one of those long, match-determining innings that none of the others could produce. That would have been bad news for one of Andrew Strauss, Michael Vaughan, Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood or Ian Bell.

As we know, the winter's cricket eventually turned out happily for Strauss, whose 163 from 130 balls for Middlesex on Sunday in the first round of the 50-over Friends Provident Trophy made up for two low scores in Middlesex's defeat by Leicestershire. Meanwhile Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara, the latter a failure in Sri Lanka but bound to be on the IPL's radar, were starting the season well, even as Michael Vaughan, who scores pathetically few runs for Yorkshire given his great talent, was failing twice against University bowlers.

It will do no harm to any of England's top six if, far from dreaming of distant rupees, they are forced to get their heads down and churn out the hard yards. That's what marathon runners are supposed to do.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins has been a leading cricket broadcaster, journalist and author for almost four decades, during which time he has served as a cricket correspondent for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Times