July 11, 2012

The burden of being Ramps

In all the talk about Mark Ramprakash's unfulfilled talent, there is little acknowledgement of the unique pressures he faced

"Beware Ramps". Thus, until very recently, did a sign at Hove warn drivers. Insert a dash between those two words and it would have doubly forearmed the Sussex bowlers whenever that cleanest and most clinical of drivers Mark Ramprakash ventured to the seaside. Insert a comma and it would have served as a concise and apt summation, to the man himself, of a career that delivered less than it might have but a great deal more than his critics might care to acknowledge.

Amid the endless flurry of riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma-type theories published about Ramprakash - especially since Surrey decided they had no further use for the former Strictly Come Dancing champion and finest strictly county batsman of modern times, compelling him to announce his retirement - all sorts of reasons have been proffered for his failure to convert domestic godness into international stature, all amounting, in essence, to either excessive intensity or fragile temperament.

"He was a world-class player - or should have been," reckoned Nasser Hussain, who saw his long-time pal's struggles as evidence "of what a thin dividing line there can be between the great and those who underachieve". "He obviously has the technical ability," attested Alec Stewart in the foreword to Ramprakash's account of the 2005 season, Four More Weeks - Diary of a stand-in captain, "but mental strength and self-belief are also required…"

Not once over the past week, though, have I seen any reference to the burden he shouldered.

Born to an Irish mother and a father who had left Guyana at the outset of the sixties, blessed/cursed with dark, handsome features (well, Arlene Philips, the Strictly Come Dancing judge, did hail him as "a mesmerising matinee idol"), Ramprakash was always a cricketer apart, a boy apart. While both fed on it, the steelier Hussain - whose Indian father, helpfully, was a legend in East London cricket circles - was more able to rise above prejudice and shrug it off.

When we first met, outside the Grace Gates in April 1987, a couple of days after he'd made a debut half-century, he was 17: sweet, intense and glory-eyed. We'd done our A levels within half a mile of each other, either side of Harrow Hill, and I began following and reporting on his fortunes with the sort of paternal zealousness that infests all sportswriters when they fall for a bright young thing worthy of their adjectival sponsorship. He was still only 18 when crowned Man of the Match in the 1988 NatWest Trophy final, his first 50-over outing, a nerveless 56 guiding Middlesex to a three-wicket squeak. At the nadir of one of English cricket's lowest ebbs, we were talking worlds and oysters.

Before long - perhaps too hastily, assuredly too soon - he became a man apart. On occasion, someone, usually the worse for beer, would splutter something racially abusive. Turning the other cheek was easier some days than others. When we last met five years ago, deep in the bowels of the BBC's White City studios after a practice session for Strictly Come Dancing, he made light of it, as ever, but beneath the fortitude and forbearance lurked a touching sensitivity and disarming vulnerability. While willing to cite only one instance of "racialism" - upcountry at Uxbridge - he "never found it that easy to take stick from crowds, let it go over my head the way Mike Gatting did".

If there can be a numerical definition of disappointing, you'd be hard-pressed to beat 27.32, his average from 52 Tests. It is probably the second-most oft-quoted four-figure cricket number (to two decimal places) behind 99.94. In baseball, any batter averaging less than .200 - a hit every five at-bats - is said to have sunk below the Mendoza Line, named after Minnie Mendoza, an inept Minnesota Twins hitter of the 1970s (by way of underlining the infectiousness of our sporting lingua franca, Michael Feroli, JP Morgan Chase's chief US economist, recently described his country's fiscal form as dipping below the Mendoza Line). Perhaps the cut-off point for underachieving willow-wielders should be the Ramprakash Line?

Was it stage fright? Not obviously. Rewind to Headingley 1991, scene of his Test debut against West Indies. He was 21. Confronted by the mighty might of Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall, Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh, he added a crucial 78 with Graham Gooch in the second innings to help plot England's first home win in a Wisden Trophy contest for 22 years. An ever-present in the series - a barely feasible accolade for a non-established England batsman over the last fifth of the 20th century - he passed 18 eight times in nine innings but never reached 30. The pattern was set: immaculate from first gear to third but a stuttery accelerator prone to road rage.

The England dressing room, unhelpfully, was riddled with insecurity; Graeme Hick, a fellow debutant that summer, was another victim. "There were a lot of casualties, a lot of one-cap wonders," Ramprakash reflected that afternoon at the Beeb. "It's the luxury of having 18 first-class counties: the selectors probably gave in too quickly to the claims of alternative candidates."

Nor did it help that he so plainly sought the unattainable - perfection. A cheap, insubstantial or dubious dismissal and the remains of the day were spent in self-flagellation. All too symptomatic was that obsession with bats. "Not even my team-mates are safe," he once admitted, "because I'm always going round the dressing room checking that they haven't got anything better than mine. I know, it's an illness…"

Seldom, moreover, did he have the luxury of a settled position, batting everywhere from No. 1 to No. 7. Not until Bridgetown 1998, at the 38th attempt, did he broach three figures. The best lifted him; against lesser mortals he self-destructed, whipping himself so hard that fear of failure became a greater motivation than hunger for success. Half his 14 scores of 50-plus - including his only other century - came against arguably the best attacks Australia have ever fielded. Five of his 13 innings at Lord's, the square he knows best, brought five ducks - a ground record. The greater the expectation, the likelier the swoon. He could defeat bowlers and fielders, just not himself.

At bottom, he was born about 15 years too early. Too early to benefit from central contracts, from continuity of selection, from psychologists, from enlightened management, from a society less shocked by difference, and above all from an England less conscious of skin colour

Almost as profound a source of regret has been the eerie similarity of the path trodden by Owais Shah, who looked up to Ramprakash as an older brother and also suffered for being different and, at times, difficult, particularly under the aegis of Duncan Fletcher. Both could have done with a supportive father figure other than the one to whom they'd been born. Shah's was overbearing, too demanding, too unforgiving; Ramprakash's had wisdom to impart but found wilful ears. "My dad had so much information he wanted to give," he wrote, "but when I was younger I always wanted to do things my own way."

Would those Test stats look any better had he, rather than Hussain, been appointed England captain in 1999 (the Essex man was considered marginally calmer, which didn't say much for his rival)? Hussain didn't deem it that long a shot. "If I could change my ways as captain, I'm sure Ramps could have done too, and I'm sure he would have made a good captain."

Yet for all the intensity of the fire blazing within, Ramprakash was wary of putting others through what he had endured during his formative years as a professional, in a domineering Middlesex dressing room full of singular chaps brimming with intimidating self-belief. That's why he rejected the hair-dryer approach favoured by both Hussain and Steve Rixon, the Surrey coach who decided he could never be more than a stand-in.

In his 30s came Surrey and serenity. From 2003 to 2010, aided by a change of trigger movement in the winter of 2004-05, he pocketed 53 first-class hundreds and 13,062 runs at 78.22, averaging 90 in 2009 and more than 100 in both 2006 and 2007. He also bagged a century of first-class centuries, the 25th member of a club that is most unlikely to admit any more. With 114 in toto, he stands shoulder to shoulder with King Viv, his boyhood hero. Among the 44 batsmen who have tallied 34,000 first-class runs, only Geoff Boycott, Wally Hammond and Len Hutton have averaged more than Ramprakash's 54.60. Not what you would call shabby company.

"To say Mark underachieved is extremely harsh," asserted Angus Fraser, who used to pick up the 16-year-old Ramprakash en route to Lord's. "In an age when traits like patience, discipline and attention to detail are ignored for the desire to entertain and be sexy, we may never see his like again."

At bottom, he was born about 15 years too early. Too early to benefit from central contracts, from continuity of selection, from psychologists, from enlightened management, from a society less shocked by difference, and above all from an England less conscious of skin colour.

Did he possess the "slavery gene"? Michael Johnson, the only man to win gold at 200m and 400m at the same Olympics, and hence something of an expert in such matters, alludes to this in a Channel 4 documentary to be screened on Thursday. "All my life I believed I became an athlete through my own determination, but it's impossible to think that being descended from slaves hasn't left an imprint through the generations. I believe there is a serious gene within me." Perhaps, in Ramprakash's case, that gene is too serious?

Then again, a local hero twice over, as John Lennon never quite said, is still something to be.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton