Today, at the age of 42, Mark Ramprakash or “Ramps” as he is affectionately known, has called time on his cricketing career, after 25 years on the circuit. As a batting perfectionist, he has decided that he can no longer perform to the levels that he demands of himself and he cannot bear to let himself or his Surrey colleagues down. He has left the crease for the final time and to many, myself included, it is a sad day and one for reflection and memory.
He really is a true sporting enigma. He was one of the most talented players of his generation and supremely gifted, yet for all his runs at county level, he just was not able to transfer that natural talent onto the international arena, and that was the greatest sadness and disappointment to both him and the cricketing world. He craved success and the more it eluded him, the greater the pressure became. Ultimately, it was not to be and a massive talent has been largely unfulfilled at the international level.
Many column inches have been filled as to why he was not able to perform consistently on the biggest stage. He has been referred to as a ‘tortured soul’, that he did not have the mental fortitude when under the greatest pressure and maybe there is truth in both of these assertions. Maybe he suffered from not feeling wanted or loved by the England set up, for in the days before central contracts he was always fighting for his place and he was always one bad innings from being dropped. Without that security of his place in the team, his mind never appeared fully relaxed and for a worrier and slightly insecure character, that spelt disaster. However, in county cricket, where he was the ‘star’ and always the first name on the team sheet, he performed to quite extraordinary levels and was arguably the greatest county player of the last 20 years. His talent has never been in question.
For the record, he has scored over 35,000 runs in 461 first-class appearances and averaged over 53, which really is phenomenal. Furthermore, he played 52 Tests and 18 one-day internationals for England. He has scored 133 centuries but only 2 in Test cricket, and that is probably the most telling statistic of all.
To me though, he was and remains something of an ‘idol’, a player who I admired and desperately wanted to succeed, more than any other player in the recent era. It is a strange notion in many ways, but sport is all about heros and idols, those players we wish we could emulate and even as journeymen sportsmen or armchair fanatics, we all have them. There was just something about him, such a talent from such a young age, someone to relate to and a joy to watch when on form. My brother Nic, a far better cricketer than I, had a similar view. We both followed his career avidly and we inwardly felt such joy when he has succeeded. Yet it has been a tortuous journey.
I first came across him back in 1983 at the former Slough Cricket Club. Berkshire Schools Under 15s were playing Middlesex Schools Under 15s and word went round that a young prodigious 13 year old was going to be playing against us, and at that age an under 13 playing in under 15s representative cricket was quite something. He came to the crease, a dimunitive figure, but from the moment he took guard it was clear that he oozed class. He made 60 odd and we knew that he was going to be one to watch. And I have followed his career ever since.
Being born in Middlesex myself, the fact that he played for ‘my team’ was crucial in my support. Whilst in all sports you can admire players from other teams, heros or idols usually come from your own team. He first played for the Middlesex side at the age of 17 and scored 63 not out on his debut and never looked back.
Even when he crossed the river to play for Surrey after 13 years at Middlesex, my support never wavered, I still wanted him to score runs for the arch enemy and that is a testimony to my admiration for him.
His greatest career moments, other than winning Strictly Come Dancing, where his true natural talent caught the imagination of the nation, were arguably his 2 Test Centuries and I remember them well. In 1998 in Bridgetown Barbados, he made his first. I recall listening to the commentary on the radio whilst sat at home and feeling such delight that at last he made the breakthrough in the international arena that he so desperately craved. He went on to score 154 and you could sense that the shackles were off, his natural game was being released to the world and he was enjoying himself. Surely, I thought, this must be the start of something big. Alas, it was not to be. Whilst he went on to make several 50’s, he never quite made the runs he ought to have done and that his talent arguably deserved.
At about the time of the West Indies tour Nic decided to buy me 2 goldfish as a house warming present. Phil Tufnell, another Middlesex legend, was also playing for England on the same tour of the West Indies, so the goldfish were duly christened “Ramps” and “Tuffers” to much amusement all round. These aptly named goldfish legends went onto live for many years, even outlasting their namesakes’ international careers!
His second test century was particularly poignant for me. It was the Saturday of the final Ashes Test in 2001 at the Oval. Australia had made 641-4 on an absolute belter of a pitch in their first innings and England were up against it. Ramps came to the crease at 104-3 after England had lost a couple of early wickets in the morning. It was a big opportunity and a big day. Could he do it? He knew it, we knew it. The cricketing world knew it. And he delivered, at last. His first and only test century on English soil. I watched the drama unfold at the Brompton Hospital where I went to visit Nic, who was sadly suffering. We sat on his bed and watched Ramps score the runs to reach his century. In spite of his deteriorating condition, Nic was made up for Ramps and we were both elated for him. It was a wonderful moment for us both and one that will remain with me forever. Nic only lived for another 4 weeks and it was perhaps fitting that he lived to see his cricketing hero score that elusive hundred in England.
So, as Ramps has left the field for the final time, he will be remembered for being a man of enormous talent, a natural if ever there was one, and he scored a phenomenal amount of runs. Yet on the other hand, being the enigma that he is, he became a man who never quite fulfilled his enormous potential. His career glittered and sparkled on occasions, he tormented bowlers up and down the land, but it was his own inner torments and demons that he might be remembered for most. And that will be a shame, for he was a dedicated professional, who just loved scoring runs, and lots of them. Ramps, you will be missed. Thanks for the memories.
5 July 2012