Mark Ramprakash's last assignment, as England's batting coach, was to oversee the techniques of some of the best cricketers in the world. When that ended, he was all prepared to remain in the international game, having received an offer to become head coach of Sri Lanka, or to take on a franchise in Bangladesh or Scotland. Instead, to the surprise of his peers, he will oversee the development of schoolboys, returning to the north London borough where he grew up.
It must be said that this will not be at any old school. It is Harrow, whose annual fixture against Eton, dating back to 1805, is the oldest at Lord's. It is the alma mater of Winston Churchill; of Lord Byron, who played in that first match; of Archie MacLaren; and more recently, of Nick Compton and Gary Ballance - though those two signed up on scholarships that did not have a great deal to do with academia. As did two members of England's rugby World Cup team, Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje.
This is a notable coup for Harrow. Already on the staff at the school is Robin Martin-Jenkins, the former Sussex allrounder, who has switched from being master in charge of cricket to a housemaster.
Ramprakash, who starts next term as director of cricket, is no county old sweat of the kind who have long coached at public schools as an alternative to being a publican or salesman. He is the scorer of 114 first-class centuries, holder of 52 Test caps, and was coaching, until last May, the likes of Joe Root and Ben Stokes. At 50, he remains as fit as when he won Strictly Come Dancing. And yet, for the foreseeable future he will be coaching only schoolboys.
"I could tell it caused a surprise. I had had a chat with Middlesex at the end of the 2018 season but they went for Stuart Law as their new coach. I would have taken the Sri Lanka job had not the offer from Harrow come in," he says. "I think it is very important for English coaches to have experience overseas but it would have meant nine months away from England during 2020. My two daughters are still at home and I am not sure where the professional game is going."
The future of the game concerns him, particularly in England. "The Hundred has been pushed through and other competitions sidelined to a degree. The T20 Blast has been pushed aside and the status of first-class cricket eroded in the last few years. Our spin bowling is in a dire state now, compared to when I started at Middlesex, with John Emburey, Phil Edmonds and then Phil Tufnell."
"When I was a boy, playing in black trousers and trainers, what happened at Harrow on the Hill was a bit of a mystery"
Rampraskash lives in Elton John's Pinner, two stops on the Metropolitan line from Harrow on the Hill; Colombo is ten and a half hours' flying from Heathrow. In the context of travelling and family life, his mindset becomes clearer. He was not offered any position in the Hundred and his five years with England came to an abrupt end. He was also interviewed for India's batting coach role, and does not rule out an international return in the future, but there are no regrets about moving away from the professional game.
"I didn't expect to go beyond the Ashes series last summer as England's batting coach, but my contract ran until the end of September and things were not handled well. I had put a lot of energy into my five years." Was his contract fully paid up? "I had to come to an arrangement, financially," he says. Ties have not been completely severed with the ECB, however: since May, Ramprakash has run five level-three presentations for 20 coaches sinces.
"I have no idea whether Joe Root wanted me to continue," he says. "I think so highly of him - he was wonderful, searching for excellence with a tremendous work ethic. The England batsmen only needed to have their techniques tweaked. It is about how they think and how they practise. There is a tricky balance between wanting to build a trusting relationship and allowing a player to grow and have his own space.
"I listen to some coaches and cringe at the way they take ownership of a player's career when that player is successful. There are many influences - I had Mike Gatting and Desmond Haynes when I was playing for Middlesex. England players handle themselves so well now. But I wonder, could I have been more interventionist?"
Ramprakash has been involved in professional cricket, as batsman and coach, since he was 17. His talent was immediately apparent as a teenager ("Better than me," says Gatting). His career and the discrepancy between his first-class batting average and his Test one - 53.14 as opposed to 27.32 - has been picked apart so often as to need no further repetition. "There are many things that, with hindsight, I might do differently. I don't remember understanding the bigger picture on tour," he says.
In his playing days, when there were no central contracts, and Test selection was more haphazard and brutal, Don Bennett, the wise old Middlesex coach, suggested Ramprakash go and seek advice from Mike Brearley, whose career ended five years before his started. There seemed to be confusion over whether he should be seeing Brearley the psychoanalyst or Brearley the former England captain. "I don't know if it was a help. Mike let me talk, and I guess I wanted him to divulge his knowledge. I possibly needed more guidance."
Away from cricket Ramprakash is measured, polite, with a wonderfully friendly smile. Intensity and flashes of temper are confined seemingly to the dressing room of yesteryear, and it is doubtful the schoolboys will experience much of those aspects of his personality, although he will expect high standards. He is, though, more outspoken on Twitter.
His politics seemingly have long been constant, although he challenges that perception. "What are they?" he asks quizzically. His recent retweets are of utterances by Jeremy Corbyn and the left-wing Momentum movement, who expressed a wish in the run-up to the general election to abolish private education. At the very least, Labour would have added VAT to school fees, likely preventing some of the boys he will soon be coaching from gaining a private education. How does Ramprakash, who went to a comprehensive in Harrow, square this with joining the staff at one of the most famous public schools? "I want a fairer society, an NHS for everybody. I don't like where we are at the moment - we are very polarised. As a result, race hate has gone through the roof."
What particularly appeals to him about going to Harrow is that he has been asked by the headmaster to forge closer links with the local community, including his old school, whose playing field has been built over. There is also an element of moving into a different world. When growing up in the area, did Ramprakash perceive the school to be full of toffs? "When I was a boy, playing in black trousers and trainers, what happened at Harrow on the Hill was a bit of a mystery," he says.
A new indoor school will be built soon, which will also be used by youth in the wider community. "It is a school that can change lives. If a cricketer wants to get to the top of the game, that can be done at Harrow. I very much want to nurture and develop aspiring cricketers, but I won't be going overseas to find them."
"There is a tricky balance between wanting to build a trusting relationship and allowing a player to grow and have his own space"
Ramprakash will work full-time at Harrow, overseeing all the teams of boys from the ages of 13 to 18. He has been made aware of the drawbacks of the system in the past, where the likes of Ballance and Compton arrived in the sixth form, taking the places of boys who came through the age groups and who found they would be left out of the XI to play Eton at Lord's - a fixture that often draws larger crowds than a Middlesex Championship match.
In the winter he will coach in the indoor school. "I want to keep the traditions evolving and reflective of a modern society," he says. He will, of course, have to retain motivation to coach a schoolboy of average ability in freezing January when he could have been honing the techniques of Test cricketers in the warmth of Sri Lanka.
In the summer school holidays, and indeed other times of the year, he will be free to undertake some television and radio work, which he enjoys, and to play golf off a handicap of ten. He will be in the Sky studio for England's tour of South Africa. He will not do any academic teaching but might undertake some football refereeing - he is an FA level-two coach who played for Watford Under-14s. Any prospects of a different career came to an end when they were beaten 7-0 by Arsenal. He was playing in central defence. "Around the age of 15 I realised cricket would be the pathway."
Ramprakash's daughters are aged 22 and 17. In a few years' time, presumably, they will be off his hands and he will be in his mid-fifties - still young enough to take on another big job. Or the combination of coaching in his home borough, assisting boys and girls who will have the run of facilities that he never had, and media work in the holidays, might prove ideal. For now, though, Eton and other school opponents will have to raise their game.