Ramps keeps a-rolling
There are no cheerleaders at The Oval. No DLF maximums. No mid-over bursts of Jimmy Soul. And no Ravi Shastri patronising the crowd with cries of "Kennington, you've been amazing!" But phenomena come in all shapes and sizes, and Mark Ramprakash's first County-Championship innings of the season has been a reminder that they don't have to be glitzy, glib, garish or ghastly to leave an impression.
Ramprakash is 39. He will be at least 42 before he retires, which is the kind of age when most sportsmen are already deep into second careers as coaches, commentators or after-dinner wits. That makes it hard to look beyond the question posed by Nasser Hussain in his perceptive essay on Ramprakash and Graeme Hick in the recent Wisden Almanack: "Mark," he asks despairingly, "how can you still have the appetite for this?"
It is one of the questions of English domestic cricket, and the answer may tell us a lot about both Ramprakash himself and the game he plays. Ramprakash's mediocre Test career and its psychological repercussions have been raked over often enough. Yes, he was too tense. Yes, he lived in a bubble. Yes, it was a crying shame for English cricket.
But not even the desire engendered by 2350 Test runs at a mere 27.32 can account for the sub-Bradmanesque nature of his performances in the last few years. The most remarkable aspect of his 133 here at The Oval was that it was not remarkable at all. Shaun Udal, the Middlesex captain, plainly regarded it as so inevitable that he was giving Ramprakash singles as early as the 60s.
Stats can spoil the view, but in Ramprakash's case they enhance it. This was his 51st first-class hundred for Surrey alone - and he's only been here since 2001. In that time he has averaged 75. His overall county championship average, taking in his years at Middlesex (against whom, incidentally, he now averages a cathartic 104) is an all-time record 59, which places him one run ahead of Geoff Boycott, and three ahead of slouches such as CB Fry and Wally Hammond. And all this in an age where cricketers struggle for credibility unless they're milking the Twenty20 cash cow.
Ramprakash feels like an anachronism, both a beneficiary of the system in which he has grown up and its greatest victim. It's unlikely, after all, that any other domestic set-up in the world would encourage a man nearing 40 with no hope of an international recall to keep churning out the runs and ticking off the victims (104 first-class hundreds pulls him one clear of Glenn Turner and John Edrich and up alongside Tom Hayward in 19th place on the list; three more and he's rubbing shoulders with Andy Sandham, another Surrey great, and Colin Cowdrey).
But it's also unlikely that any other country would have messed Ramprakash around as much as England's selectors did in the pre-central-contracts days of the 1990s. This was the man who, after a quick warm-up against Zimbabwe, was brought back to face Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose in 2000 and asked to open the batting, for goodness' sake. His failures that summer were painful and possibly unfair. County cricket has subsequently provided him with a home, and the spectators who show up are all the luckier for it.
The truth is that Ramprakash's brickbats at Test level and bouquets with Surrey are flipsides of the same coin. The intensity that paralysed him when playing for England turns into a precious commodity in the domestic game, where intensity is a Platonic ideal rather than a fact of life. Ramprakash stands out in the championship precisely because he chooses to. And because the bowlers aren't good enough to apply the consistent pressure that can mess with minds in Test cricket, the tension inherent in his game loses its edge.
He has matured too, despite the blow-up at Murray Goodwin last year when the stresses of his pursuit of 100 hundreds took their toll and earned a two-match suspension plus a £3500-shaped hole in his pocket. Ramprakash remembers bumping into a friend on a train in 2005, who told him about the multi-million dollar deal he was working on. "Christ, that is pressure!" wrote Ramprakash in Four More Weeks, his diary of that summer. "Here I am fretting about being eight not out in a game of cricket." It's an observation that's hard to square with the man who once told Darrell Hair he was "messing with my career" following a decision in a Test at Lord's.
In his own focused, driven way, Ramprakash seems to have found a kind of tortured peace. He is playing a sport that tolerates individualism - indeed, which cannot thrive without it - and so accommodates the man wrapped up in his own world. When Hussain tries to answer his own despairing question, he comes up with this: "The moment he gets that bat in his hand, it is as if he is still cashing his first hundred." Twenty20 tournaments come and go, but Ramprakash's continued pursuit of yet another notch in the record books may be a more profound wonder of the age.
Lawrence Booth is a cricket correspondent at the Guardian. He writes the acclaimed weekly cricket email The Spin for guardian.co.uk