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There is something quite sad about Mark Ramprakash. He begs to be respected more for his undoubted and undisputed cricketing skills and achievements yet tries to sell his autobiography to fans off the back of his victory in Strictly Come Dancing, hence the title 'Strictly Me'. With the forward by his dance partner Karen Hardy and previous winner Darren Gough there is equal ambiguity here on what this books appeal is supposed to be, cricket fans unlikely to buy a book about dancing and 'Strictly' fans equally put off by the thought of buying a book about cricket, never the twain shall meet. If you want us to take you seriously as an athlete and cricket star Ramps why 100 pages on a lite TV show with your cricket career sandwiched in-between?
Mark Ramprakash is no doubt the finest English cricketer of his generation not to have not made the grade but getting involved in a ponsy dancing program only reinforces the feeling he is a bit too soft and sensitive for test cricket. Maybe Mark reached the point where he wanted fame vicariously for his impressive achievements in county cricket through another performance medium. Who knows, maybe he was trying to 'out' himself!
The brilliant middle-order bat has dominated county cricket over the last two decades, scoring a colossal 39,000 runs plus at an average of around 55, and yet unable to transfer that incredible run making ability to test cricket, dropped seven times by England and averaging just 27 at the crease and taking seven long years from test debut to his first test century, unlucky seven indeed. Why he couldn't make the leap to the very top level is examined in this rather introspective and surprisingly tame autobiography, considering Ramps is quite a fiery character and not short on telling his teammates their failings, his nickname in his younger days at Middlesex CCC being 'Bloodaxe'! But its that angst and indecisiveness that has dogged his career that comes though strongly in the writing style and a man who has yet to comes to terms with the fact he didn't have the temperament to make it at the very top, a real nail chewer type of chap. If that talent had of transferred to the test arena then there's no telling how many records he would have broken, still fighting fit at 41 years old. He has 17 double hundreds ( the 4th highest ever) and was the first player since the 1950s to average 100 in back-to-back seasons and holds numerous first-class world records, one being he was the fastest players in a season to score 2.000 first-class runs in just 20 innings at 104 and another that he scored five straight scores of 150. His greatest achievement, though, was to become one of only 18 men to score one hundred first-class hundreds in their careers. Interestingly five of those were Surrey guys, no doubt making hay on those flat Oval pitches since time and memorial. The shape Ramps is in he may well go on to get 200! Jack Hobbs got 98 of his AFTER his 40th birthday.
In Ramps defence he was unlucky enough to have faced most of the world's finest and nastiest quick bowlers at the start of his test career and that is certainly one reason why he failed, as did many others back then, England players rarely given more than three test matches to hold onto their places. He was clearly mentally beaten from an early age in the test arena, something that he doesn't really want to admit to in the book, whilst lesser guys around him scored much higher test averages with lesser abilities. I recall Nasser Hussein commenting when he stood down form the England captaincy that Ramprakash tried to be too perfect with every shot and lost out because he wouldn't hit ugly runs in the test arena. Cricket is unique as far as form goes as the better you are as a batsmen the more likely you are to nick the ball to the slip-cordon or keeper to get out early and cheap against the new ball, and so the more low scores you get and the more confidence you lose and so the worry increasingly perpetuated every visit to the crease, which empowers the bowler even more who sucks up your confidence and uses it against you. In sport it doesn't matter how much talent you have because if the guy at the other end has more confidence than you then he will win every time. In cricket you are usually judged on your run of scores and not so much your ability and skill in the game.
A young Ramps
Born to a Guyanese dad and English mom in this country he showed great promise early on, his dad a keen club cricketer in Guyana. Whereas Mark spends the first 50 pages of this book plugging his 'Strictly' feats he doesn't talk about his childhood much, quickly getting on to his cricket career. That's unusually in cricket books as the players like to grow their human side in their memories this way.
He raced up the grades in local London and schools cricket until signing for Middlesex at 17 in 1989, making his debut at that age and soon in the Under 19 England side that won the World Cup for that age group, rather romantically not wearing a helmet in those early days, a sign of his early belief in his talent and not at the bowler tearing in, the aloof cricketer he would become. Even then there would be that familiar surely quietness in the dressing room that often alienated him from his teammates, a perfectionist who didn't suffer fools. But the more you think about stuff the intense you get and the less you understand it, a touch of the Johnny Wilkinson's about Ramps.
University surprisingly didn't appeal to Mark and his three A-Levels (one in politics) took a back seat to his obvious talent, soon promoted to the first team as he was clearly too good for the seconds. He was also a promising footballer and turned down a chance to play for Watford, a seven nil thrashing by Arsenal seconds over Watford seconds the clincher. I can vouch he is a very good football player as I joined in a seven aside game between Middlesex and Northants during a rain break in the Northants outfield in the mid-nineties for a laugh and he was brilliant, no one getting the ball off him. Mike Gatting was surprisingly good too. Angus Frazer was a goal hanging hacker.
He came up on the radar with his match winning 56 in the Nat West Final in 1991, doing battle with the brilliant and swashbuckling Wasim Akram's revered and feared extremely quick reverse swing. After scoring 1000 runs at a modest 36 in the championship that season the talent was there and England came calling, the selectors impressed with the way he dealt with what was very impressive quick bowling attacks in those days in the county game, 'noes and toes guys', as Graeme Gouch once called them. In those days there was little or no match-fixing and the best bowlers in the world were very fast and accurate, how they made their money, many West Indies lads just wanting to physically hurt the old Empire with those perfume balls (sniff that), guys like Ramprakash coming out to bat with targets on their forehead.
His test debut was at Headingley in 1991 against that fearsome West Indies side, Graeme Hick also debuting in that match. Although England achieved their first home test win against the Windies since 1969, Hick and Ramps couldn't deal with the pure velocity of the attack and were dropped a year later, as were many in those days. It would take him ten test matches just to get a 50. One problem he had was England messed him around and he bungeed up and down the order during his career, taking the blame for lots of collapses, something that angers him in the book. In the 1990s England had messed the order around so much that the number three had scored just six centuries in ten years! To put that in context the modern England side has scored 24 centuries there in just five years.
Hick and Ramps continued to destroy county attacks and were in and out of the England side, Hick passing 50 first-class hundreds on his 23rd birthday! There was a rebirth of sorts for Ramps in the 1997 Ashes when he averaged 47.24 in the series but that would be the highlight of his career. But by then he was nearly thirty and to this day his highest score at Lords in a test is just 40. All the top English guys score hundreds at Lords, Vaughan getting six no less. Hicks test average would finish at 31, another great talent not having the chutzpah to make it at the top.
There was some racism around in the game at that time but mild stuff compared to football, but earning a mention here. Ramprakash says the worst case he suffered on the field was in a test match against Australia. Merv Hughes - after being deliciously cut by Ramps - gave the England number four an ear full of the yobbish Aussie cliché that he is: "You don't fu**ing know whether you a 'curry muncher' or a 'coconut picker' mate". Mark giggled and then smacked him for four more. But for any sportsman they know the opposition will always use any tactic they can to get under your skin and get the better of you. But what there isn't a mention of when it comes to personal feelings is his two year affair with Sadia Saleem, a single mom from Cardiff, a chance to tidy that one up missed Mark. How many more women were there we wonder? He is not a bad looking lad.
After falling out with brash Aussie coach John Buchannan at Middlesex (fully detailed in the book) after being made captain, Ramps was forced to make the move to Surrey in 2001, not quite Sol Campbell going from Arsenal to Spurs but certainly enough to rile the members. He still hadn't given up on England would score his first test century that year against Australia but the move was more about the realisation that he just wasn't a test cricketer, very tough to take for someone so talented, taking that failure out on county cricket for Surreys benefit as the domestic county records tumbled. Mark currently averages 80 at The Oval and scored between 25-30% of Surreys runs in three of their last six seasons. The book ends with another 50 pages on 'Strictly'.
As I said you can feel the regret, self doubt and worry in this book that has blighted his international career, which makes it feel rather perfunctory. He refuses to attack fellow professionals like Nasser Hussein did in his book and there is no real mention of cricket's biggest controversies over the years, like match-fixing and ball tampering, which I would like his angle on. No, this book is his redemption, a chance to explain away why he didn't make it and put the blame elsewhere, rather than celebrate his domestic achievements. It's just a very whiney read. I would imagine if I was in the Middlesex dressing room I would spend all day winding him up, which the players apparently did and he didn't take to that. Banter is everything in the dressing room and Ramps doesn't want to do it, especially in his autobiography.
There is a lot of stats and stuff and it reads like a book for Strictly fans to try and get into cricket, rather than anything new for hardcore cricket fans. I'm sure part of the reason is Mark wants to follow the likes of Tuffnell, Gough and Flintoff into the media career and so appeal to a wider audience as well as his fans by keeping git simple here. But for me a book like this from such an important player to the game should have some revelation and comment on those around him in the time he played and its time to stop being nice. In fact I hate it when sports people write books when they are still playing, why I'm looking forward to Gary Neville's book.
On the whole it will do just enough to please cricket fans and nothing for ballroom dancing aficionados. Ramprakash is clearly quite an intrinsic chap and not one to give away too much but at least give us enough to care Mark.