MARK RAMPRAKASH AND THE DEMONS OF UNFULFILLED POTENTIAL
As sports fans, we love to engage in the mundane task of creating unscalable hype and hysteria around the emerging prodigies of the game. While most of these players tend to just be talented youngsters amongst many, some are labelled as ‘generational talents’. There are no strict parameters or any particular empirical formula that measures the caliber of such players. They are called ‘generational’ because there’s something special about them, something that is rarely seen before, something that defies conventional wisdom. The talent inherent in them makes them too big to fail.
One such talent was Mark Ramprakash, a young, lanky, right-handed batsman who plied his trade for Middlesex. Ramprakash, along with another young prodigy named Graeme Hick was viewed as the beacon of light for an English team who consistently found themselves mired in defeat, chaos, and the seemingly eternal darkness of mediocrity in the 90s.
Ramps, as he was lovingly called, started playing for Middlesex, at the tender age of 16. He was already an adept batsman, but it took him another three years to barge into public consciousness. Two days before his 19th birthday, he played a match-winning knock of 56 in the Natwest Trophy against Worcestershire in 1988. He came to the crease when Middlesex, chasing a total of 164 was four wickets down with a paltry score of 25. However, what followed was a resolute, determined, and clutch effort from a lad who wasn’t even 19 back then, leading his side to victory. Naturally, the plaudits followed.
In the subsequent domestic season in 1989, he scored above a 1000 runs at an average of 36. This, in retrospect, was certainly an achievement to be proud of for any batsman in a league where the collective force of premium fast bowlers like Wasim Akram, Malcom Marshall and Allan Donald operated with relentless ferocity and ofc, zero regard for any batsman. His first century came against Yorkshire in Headingley in 1989. On a pitch where fast bowlers from both sides were creating havoc with the ball, Ramprakash stood unflustered and scored 128 before falling to Arnie Sidebottom. To put things into perspective, none of his colleagues ever scored past 50 in that innings.
Ramps’ domestic performance gave a clear indication of his caliber. Everyone knew there’s a batsman of immense, unparalleled ability; a potential replacement for the legendary Graham Gooch, who was on the wrong side of 30 and a natural-born leader who would definitely lead England at some point of time.
The start of something beautiful
England was about to play a home series against West Indies in 1991, and English selectors, known for being impatient with players at that time, finally turned their sights towards two highly-rated young talents in the form of Ramprakash and Hicks. Both of them, having already garnered much public attention, were now met with the herculean task of proving their mettle against the deadliest bowling attack the game has ever seen.
Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Malcolm Marshall spearheaded the Windies’ pace battery, and each of them carried a predatory skill, tantamount to the lethality of ravening wolves. Although he couldn’t cross even the 30-run mark in his debut outing, there were enough hints of the brilliance for the fans and pundits alike shown by the 21-year-old batsman. Ramprakash played for over two hours in his first innings and endured every hardship thrown his way by the opposition speedsters like a man who looked way beyond his years on show.
Despite showing flashes of brilliance on debut, Ramprakash’s overall batting statistics across the 5-match series made for grim reading. He was unable to cross even the 30-run mark in any of his nine innings. In the subsequent test match against Sri Lanka, he got out for a duck and didn’t get the chance to bat in the second innings. With the string of low scores to his name, English selectors overlooked him for the next test series against New Zealand.
Soon, this turned out to be a routine affair for Mark Ramprakash throughout his international career. For one series he was in; for the very next, he was not.
His first century for England came after a long, arduous struggle of seven years since his debut, with a 154 against West Indies in Barbados. He scored his second century in a massive defeat against Australia at the Oval in 2001. He never crossed the three-figure mark again.
The decade of the 90s was perhaps the darkest period of history for English cricket. However, the English cricketing fraternity was hit with a double whammy after watching two of their most anticipated batting talents – Ramprakash and Hicks – repeatedly failing and squandering each opportunity with a similar level of recklessness.
Each failure brought heaps of self-doubt and angst that was often exhibited in his dressing room antics. A monologue of swear words, sometimes accompanied by a broken band of showers or shattered windows made its presence felt sporadically after Ramprakash’s dismissal. No wonder, he was nicknamed ‘Bloodaxe’ because of his destructive instinct. Considered as one of the most aesthetically pleasing and technically flawless operators, highly capable of filling the void left by Gooch, Ramps depressingly morphed into just another batsman who failed to materialize his talent at the international level. He ended his career with only two centuries and a miserable average of just over 27.
England’s three-match tour of New Zealand in 2002 happened to be the last time Mark Ramprakash donned the all-whites for England. Much like the rest of his international career, the last match too ended up on a disappointing note for Ramprakash. He failed to score anything substantial in either innings and ended another opportunity with a whimper.
Hitting new heights in county cricket
Through thick and thin, he was a regular in the county circuit, achieving new heights. Ramprakash played for Middlesex right from his youth up to 2001 when he decided to make a move to Surrey and stayed there for the rest of his county career. In 2006, on the back of five consecutive 150+ scores, a 294 against Gloucestershire and a 301 not-out against Northamptonshire, he scored 2278 runs with a Bradmanesque average of 103.53. In the season that followed, he once again crossed that 2000-run landmark.
For a career spanning across two decades and over 450 matches, he accumulated 35,659 runs at a remarkable average of 53 with a total of 114 centuries. Unlike his international career, his performance in county cricket is a pure testament to his innate ability, insatiable appetite for runs and unmatched longevity. Why he couldn’t replicate the same for England remains a mystery. Perhaps he was let down by his own obsession to succeed. Perhaps the string of early failures got the better of him.
“So, on a good day, I would be hardworking, professional, ambitious. And on a bad day, I was intense, not able to express my true feelings, not able to see the big picture. And there are lots of bad days in cricket, that’s inevitable,”
Ramprakash candidly opened up about his personal struggles in an interview given to Emma John for one of her books on the English cricket.
Every once in a while, we come across an organization, individual or state deemed too big to fail, and yet they do. This is a reality as old as humanity itself. Mark Ramprakash, who failed to stand up to the collective expectations set high by his virtuosity in domestic cricket, too, falls in this category. He was never meant to fail, and yet he did – he failed to reproduce the promise shown early in his career on the international stage.
The demons of unfulfilled potential of Mark Ramprakash are perhaps one of the standout stories that both haunt and serve as a dark reminder of the horrible decade when nothing went right for English cricket.