July 5, 2012

England's flawed technician

David Lloyd
However much his domestic record may glitter, in the end we have to ask why a player with so much going for him produced so little where it matters most of all - on the Test match stage

If Mark Ramprakash had taken to the Test arena as he later took to the dance floor then anyone assessing his 25-year playing career would happily follow in the footsteps of television judges Len Goodman, Bruno Tonioli and Co by awarding a perfect ten.

But as we are talking strictly cricket, on the day "Ramps" is set to announce his retirement, the jury is likely to agonise long and hard before declaring itself unable to deliver a unanimous verdict.

For the uninitiated, Ramprakash swept aside all rivals to win the 2006 edition of the popular British television programme Strictly Come Dancing, earning himself a host of new admirers in the process. He had seemed a most unlikely recruit for a competition that invites those taking part to fall flat on their faces (literally), but by all accounts, people who know their sambas from their salsas said the then 37-year-old was a star turn from the very first rehearsal.

Some 15 years earlier, most of us who saw Ramprakash make his Test debut - against West Indies in Leeds - thought precisely the same thing. True, the Headingley were no more substantial than a brace of 27s but the poise he showed at the crease (against a fiery attack containing Curtly Ambrose, Patrick Patterson, Malcolm Marshall and Courtney Walsh) convinced a majority of onlookers that we were witnessing the start of something big.

In fact, we were witnessing the beginning of something pretty much unfathomable. Technically and physically, the boy from Bushey, Hertfordshire, had everything and more that was needed to make a huge impression at the highest level. And yet, when England discarded him for the umpteenth and final time after a personally dire tour of New Zealand in 2002, his record reeked of under-achievement: an average of 27 across 52 Tests with just two centuries.

Given stats like that, it may seem curious he played as much as he did. But four coaches (Keith Fletcher, Ray Illingworth, David Lloyd and Duncan Fletcher) and four captains (Graham Gooch, Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain) all hoped they might be the one for whom Ramps would bloom, thereby converting consistently excellent county form into a mountain of Test runs.

Statistics seldom tell the whole story, of course, and while Ramprakash's overall figures for England make sorry reading, it must be remembered that in 12 Tests against Australia - Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and the rest - he averaged a far from shabby 42. On top of that, one of his two hundreds was scored against the then all-conquering Aussies (at The Oval, in 2001).

But to seize on those last couple of facts while trying to gloss over the others would be an exercise in straw-clutching: as an international cricketer, Ramprakash achieved only a fraction of what should have been. Just look at his domestic achievements, first for Middlesex and then Surrey. He registered 1000 or more first-class runs for a season on 20 occasions, went beyond 2000 three times, and in 2006, when many an unofficial selector wanted him recalled by England, his Championship average for Surrey was a staggering 105.28.

That is special; very special. And there is more: his first-class average closes at 53.14 and he hangs up his bat, a couple of months short of his 43rd birthday, with 114 centuries in the bag. We could talk about his limited-overs performances, too, but enough of figures.

We should celebrate Ramprakash's achievements and agree with former England captain Michael Vaughan when he says that the man in question is "the best technician the English game has had in the past 20 years".

But, sooner or later, we have to return to the subject of why a player with so much going for him produced so little where it matters most of all - on the Test match stage. And that is where members of the jury are likely to disagree.

As well as the most technically accomplished player of his generation, Ramprakash was also the most intense. Sublime technique came with something more restricting

Some will lay a fair proportion of the blame at the feet of various selectors, coaches and supremos who chopped and changed the England team throughout the 1990s, meaning that players like Ramprakash and Graeme Hick - that other obviously unfulfilled talent who made his debut at precisely the same time - seldom felt secure in the side. It is strange to recall that Ramprakash was dropped for, among others, the likes of Chris Adams and Darren Maddy in the days when consistency of selection was hard to find.

Others may point out that Ramprakash had more than enough chances to shine and simply did not have what it takes temperamentally to cope with pressure at the highest level. For sure, he beat himself up unmercifully after a failure. By way of just one example, this observer well remembers seeing our subject skipping long and hard under a ferocious sun in South Africa as if to punish himself for a soft dismissal. Dressing-room tantrums were also commonplace as he forever searched for perfection. As well as the most technically accomplished player of his generation, he must also have been the most intense. Sublime technique came with something more restricting.

But perhaps, as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between; maybe Ramprakash was just around at the wrong time, internationally speaking. England were a poor Test outfit for most of the 1990s, and while the likes of Gooch and Atherton managed to flourish in the face of so much adversity, an intense character like Ramprakash became simply too desperate to succeed and too worried about looking over his shoulder.

You play the cards you are dealt and Ramprakash could and should have used his hand a lot better. But if he were now 22, rather than 42, and a new member of this current England set-up, where the team is everything and competition for places is accepted as a force for good rather than feared, then we might be looking today at a champion Test batsman in the making. And to hell with the dancing.

David Lloyd is a former cricket correspondent for the London Evening Standard who witnessed all 52 of Mark Ramprakash's England matches and a fair proportion of his 114 first-class centuries