A pearl richer than all his tribe who, alas, loved batting not wisely but all too well. If tragedy seems too strong a term for Mark Ramprakash’s career there remains ample room for sadness when one considers the fate of the best batsman England has produced since Gooch and Gower announced themselves more than 30 years ago.
The answer to the eternal question ‘What might have been?’ is rarely less than melancholy but never sadder or more frustrating than when pondering Ramprakash’s fate. The outline of his story is familiar to all who’ve followed English cricket these past 20 years: the most gifted batsman of his generation couldn’t find a way of parading those gifts at the highest level. A test average of 27 from 52 tests testifies both to Ramprakash’s frustrations and the repeated disappointments suffered by selectors who granted him always one more chance to uncork his talent.
Might he have thrived with greater consistency of selection or a more supportive environment? Perhaps. If Ramprakash’s failure looks like misfortune, Graeme Hick’s contemporaneous disappointment suggests a certain carelessness at the heart of English cricket. But while Hick seemed startled and eventually crushed by external expectation, Ramprakash’s woes appeared to stem from a self-imposed pressure to succeed.
No-one ever suggested Ramprakash was some brand of flat-track bully. This was no example of a player’s technique or fortitude being found wanting at the highest level. On the contrary the unchallenged verdict on Bloodaxe’s shortcomings is that he cared so much — too much, in fact — that he never was able to relax at the crease. A career strike rate of just 36 runs per hundred balls testifies to the queer brand of mental paralysis with which Ramprakash was afflicted. Only occasionally, and then usually outside England, did he escape these shackles and offer all too fleeting demonstrations of his true ability.
So a sad and eternally frustrating career that mixes pity with much regret. Robbed of the runs he could — no, should — have scored Ramprakash’s admirers have cause to feel somehow cheated. There’s a streak of anger amidst the sadness. And perhaps some resentment too.
At the county level, of course, it was all so very different. One should be wary of suggesting no-one will ever score 100 first class centuries again but it must be possible that Ramprakash will be the last member of that exclusive club. 35,659 first-class runs at an average of 53.14 is a mighty achievement.
But all this made Ramprakash a curiosity: he became The Best Batsman You Never Saw. As he plundered runs from Durham to Hove and all points in-between his run-scoring became a phenomenon. But, given the absence of television cameras from country cricket, it was a kind of underground phenomenon too. Ramprakash’s innings existed in samizdat form; more than a rumour but seen and enjoyed by only a fortunate few.
The rest of us had to make do with match reports and eye-witness testimony. These were unanimous: this was the best batsman in England in his pomp and as pure an example of classical batsmanship as had been witnessed in England for, well, who knows quite how long. Gluttonous is the wrong word to describe Ramprakash’s appetite for runs since it suggests a kind of vulgar excess. Instead there was just perfect control of judgement and technique; a blissful union of form and function.
In this, as in the manner in which those of us not present had to make do with constructing an imagined idea of Ramprakash at the crease, he seemed a kind of phantom from a bygone age batting in the here and now. Perhaps this, just as much as the changing nature of the game, helps explain why Ramprakash’s retirement spawns the unwelcome feeling we will not see his like again.
A strange game cricket, in that one man can simultaneously be such a success and such a failure. The best of them all and yet the most disappointing too. What might have been? Aye, there’s the rub.