Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Ramprakash and Hick: onwards down the years...

Thursday 6 June 1991, Headingley. First Test, England v West Indies. The Windies team-sheet is a study in greatness, or at least in grandeur beginning imperceptibly to fade: Simmons, Haynes, Richardson, Hooper, Richards, Logie, Dujon, Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh, Patterson.

England's side has some old stagers with no illusions - Gooch, Lamb, Smith, Russell, Pringle - two established fast bowlers in Defreitas and Malcolm, an opening batsman, Mike Atherton, who has made three centuries in his first thirteen Tests and is already regarded as a future captain, and three debutants blinking softly in the Yorkshire gloaming: Steve Watkin, Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick.

Under rain-streaked skies, Viv Richards wins the toss and bowls. Hick, at three, doesn't have to wait long for his chance. After 22 minutes, Atherton is bowled by Patrick Patterson and he walks out. Few modern players have taken guard in Test cricket for the first time with quite as many runs behind them. In the seven years he has spent qualifying for England, he has made 2,000 runs in a season, a thousand runs in May, been named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year and has a top score of 405 not out for Worcestershire against Somerset, an innings so vast and rare that it was reported on the Nine O'Clock News.

He bats for 51 minutes, hits one boundary and is caught by Dujon from the bowling of Walsh for six, leaving England on 45-3. As Hick walks off, Mark Ramprakash walks out. They pass one another just inside the boundary rope.

Many years later, I had the chance to talk to Mark Ramprakash about that day. While he wasn't carrying quite the expectations that Hick was, he'd made his County Championship debut for Middlesex while still at sixth-form, struck a first class hundred at the age of eighteen and followed it with an innings of 56 in the NatWest final, which won him the man of the match award. Now he was twenty-one years old and playing for England.

What he remembered most was not just the unforgiving brilliance of the West Indies bowling, but how good their fielding was. After a while he'd looked around and thought, 'how am I going to score a run here?' Yet he made 27 of them, the third-highest total in an innings of 198 all out.

His knock was set in further context when England dismissed West Indies for 173, with only Simmons, Richardson and the great Richards, with 73, making double figures. From there the game assumed its real significance. When England batted again, Gooch scored 154 of the team's 252, an innings regarded now and perhaps forever as the best played by an Englishman in Test cricket, and ranked in the top two or three of all time. West Indies were bowled out for 162 and England won by 115 runs, a first home victory over the Windies for twenty-two years. They went on to draw the series 2-2 by winning the last Test at the Oval.

Mark Ramprakash scored 27 in that second innings at Leeds, too, and it would become, eleven years later, his final average. It was one of the strange symmetries that echoed through the careers of he and Graeme Hick: the shared debut, the shared trajectory, the notion of each being, in their way, an enigma. They are, and will probably remain, the last two players to score 100 first-class hundreds, the traditional mark of a kind of batsmanship and a type of career that has now passed. Two others in that Headingley game, Viv Richards and Graham Gooch, immediately precede Hick and Ramprakash on the list. Viv Richards was Ramprakash's batting hero, and each would end their career with 114 hundreds.

In the Ashes series just gone, Hick and Ramprakash opposed one another as batting coaches for Australia and England respectively. Each would have recognised in their line-ups some of the struggles that they endured, in James Vince's ability to get started and then get out, perhaps, or in Shaun Marsh's endless drops and recalls. People often wonder what batting coaches at that level actually do, aside from develop the world's strongest shoulders via the dog-thrower.

Last year, for Wisden Almanack, I spoke to Joe Root about his innings of 254 against Pakistan at Old Trafford. Root felt he'd been playing well going into the game, but remembered that Ramprakash had asked him whether he was 'still in one-day mode' after watching him give it away a little in the defeat at Lord's. Root at first disagreed, but then thought about it some more, and with Ramprakash, made some small but crucial changes to his technique against Pakistan's three left-arm quicks, each of whom bowled quite differently.

The result was that definitive innings, and Root was happy to acknowledge Ramprakash's unobtrusive but key role in it. That's what batting coaches do, although, like everything in cricket, it doesn't always happen and it doesn't always work. Having the knowledge to understand what to say, and the sensitivity of when a player may want to hear it said, are skills that can take a lifetime to develop, especially in the blizzard of noise that surrounds every international performance.

For a long time, I wanted to write a book about Hick and Ramprakash, a kind of double-biography which would begin at the Headingley game and somehow spin outwards to talk about England in the 1990s, and about notions of success and failure and what those twin states actually are. That one's just another on the great pile of 'books' destined not to exist, like Martin Amis' joke in The Information about the novels of its central character Richard Tull: 'Unpublished, then unfinished, then finally, unwritten and unthought of'. But I did get to write a chapter in The Meaning of Cricket, The Descendants, about it and about that day talking to Mark Ramprakash.

The era still feels like an extraordinary time. Joining the quartet of bowlers that Ramprakash, Hick and Atherton squared up to at Headingley would come Wasim and Waqar, Warne, McGrath, Muralitharan, Kumble, Donald, Pollock, Saqlain and many more. With that little lot, plus reverse swing and mystery spin, almost every bowling record would be shattered during a decade that looks, in hindsight, more like a reign of terror. It's easy to imagine Ramprakash and Hick, Nasser and Athers and Graham Thorpe and the rest listening to the discussions about Australia's Ashes attack, wearing the kind of smiles that are always best described as wry...


sirish aditya said...

As always a pleasure reading you, sir.

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Anonymous said...

Super post and one that was always waiting to be written

I remember first seeing Ramprakash at 19 in a televised county game. " This guy has got it " I thought to myself and may even have expressed it to friends. It wasn't just his batting, either. His fielding was a sight to behold. Such a downright shame that he never quite fulfilled his god given potential when playing for England.

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