Growing up there were two batsmen who I loved to watch above and beyond any others. One was Graham Thorpe who I had the pleasure of interviewing a few years ago and who kindly wrote the foreword to my book and the second was Mark Ramprakash. For me, Ramps one of our most talented batsmen of the 90s. As a proud Middlesex supporter, I saw his brilliance week in, week out and to this day I still believe he was badly mismanaged by England.
I’ve read a lot of articles about Ramps over the years, many of which I feel wrongly focus on an unfulfilled England career; so when I got the opportunity to speak to him, I wanted to give a much more rounded account of his career, including the highs that not enough people tend to talk about: the memorable Test match wins he contributed to, that century in the West Indies, his excellent Ashes tour of 1998 (and indeed overall record against Australia) and about a career that saw him score over 100 hundreds.
And that’s where I wanted to start, the century of centuries. “For me,” said Ramps, “It was a nice reward for longevity. I managed to stay relatively fit and injury-free over a long period of time. When it did come in 2008, it was 20 years after my debut and it came against Yorkshire at Headingley, which is exactly where I scored my first century, so that was very special.”
To put this achievement into context, Ramps was only the 25th player to ever achieve that milestone. With all these hundreds to chew through, it’s fair to say the only place to really start this interview is back where his cricketing life all started, on a concrete driveway…
“Whenever my Dad came home from work and at weekends, he’d be bowling either underarm at me or with these little off breaks on our concrete driveway!”
I asked him who were some of his early cricketing heroes and who inspired him when he was batting on that driveway? “Some of my earliest memories were watching cricket on TV in 1976 when England were playing the West Indies. I remember watching Viv Richards score a load of runs and Tony Greig was captain of England. Those were the two that really stood out for me.”
By the age of 10, Ramps had moved from that driveway to playing local colts’ cricket and it was his performances for his local club, Bessborough CC, that saw him catch the eye of coaches at Middlesex. “I was very lucky that I got scouted in a club game as a 10-year old and invited to a trial for Middlesex’s under 11’s. I got nought in the trial, but somehow I still got selected for their winter squad! Throughout my colts’ cricket at Middlesex, I received some excellent coaching and I quite quickly progressed through their age groups. When I was 17, I got offered my first professional contract.”
But it wasn’t just a professional contract that Ramps received at 17, he made his 1st XI debut. “It was amazing how it all happened so quickly. When you’re that young you don’t always appreciate how amazing an experience it is. I remember I had just returned from an England under 19 tour where I’d done quite well. I played a few pre-season matches and again done well and the 1st XI had had a few injuries. I was the only player who’d had the opportunity to make a few runs in pre-season, so I got called up to make my championship debut against Yorkshire. It was incredible really because I was suddenly in a dressing room with the likes of John Emburey, Norman Cowans, Mike Gatting – although he was injured for that game, Phil Edmonds and Wayne Daniels. I’d been watching these guys compete in finals on the television and suddenly here I was in the dressing room with them at Lords, which was now my home ground.”
I asked Ramps if it was intimidating to go into such a ‘big’ dressing room. “In those days as a club we did runs in April around Hyde Park, before netting at Lord’s. So, I had had the opportunity to net with them before, but still, they were established players who’d won everything in the game. They had international caps and were a lot older than me. It was a very diverse dressing room and one that was always expected to win but they were very welcoming. It was actually good for me as a young player to go into that kind of dressing room environment which had those levels of confidence.”
Ramps scored 63 not out in the first innings of that debut against Yorkshire and top-scored with 71 in his second game, against Essex.
I asked him how important it was to get those early runs under his belt? “It was huge because you feel like you have contributed to the team and jumped a hurdle quite quickly to know you can score runs at that level. I was really happy with how it all started.”
Two years later, and weeks after finishing his studies, Ramps was named man of the match after his excellent 56 saw Middlesex beat Worcestershire to lift the NatWest Trophy at Lords.
“The NatWest finals were big occasions in those days, with sell-out crowds. I’d been at college until early July, I then played a few 2nd XI games and got myself back into the first team. I played a few championship games; but going into that final I hadn’t played a single one-day game before for Middlesex.”
This final for me summarised cricket during this period. The NatWest final was the big showpiece final – the FA Cup final of cricket; yet the day before the game, Middlesex were completing the final day of a championship game down in Hove. That’d be unheard of today, despite the crazy fixture schedules we always see.
“That’s how it was. I remember driving back from that game around the M25 about 6pm on the Friday night with Norman Cowans, wondering if I would get an opportunity the following morning. Thankfully just before 10am, Mike Gatting came up to me and said, ‘good luck youngster, you’re in, go and enjoy it,’ and off he went to toss the coin. So, I didn’t have long to think about it. Luckily, we fielded first, which was good as it meant I could run around the field and get used to the atmosphere and get into the game. For Middlesex to pick a player of my age who hadn’t played in the tournament before was a pretty brave decision. I think a lot of people wouldn’t have gone that way even though I’d had a few scores in Championship cricket.”
It was certainly a decision that paid off!
One thing that Ramps mentioned in this part of the conversation was the combining of cricket with his A-Level studies. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been. “Let’s just say cricket won out! I wasn’t as committed to my studies as I probably should have been. I went to college to do a couple of A-Levels, but one term for example I had to miss four weeks to go on an England under 19 tour. When I was offered my first professional contract, it was at a time when Middlesex were in transition, quite a few players were coming towards the end of their careers, so I was fortunate it all came along at the right time. On reflection though I do wish I had studied a bit harder, but I had too big a passion for cricket.”
Ramps’ early success for Middlesex saw him asked to captain England’s under 19s for a home series against New Zealand. “That was a very proud moment. In the team we had the likes of Dominic Cork and Chris Adams – good guys who went on to have excellent careers, while the New Zealanders had Chris Cairns, Adam Parore and Chris Harris. I’ve always been a big fan of under 19s cricket, it provides really good experiences for young players.”
In 1991, Ramps was selected for his full Test debut, at just 21 years of age against the all-conquering West Indies. I remember this series vividly as a kid growing up. And it was this series where Ramps caught my eye as a player with serious potential. Yes, he didn’t get a score past the 20s, but he always got a start and did the difficult work against a quartet of fast bowlers who were arguably four of the finest of all time. Scores of 27, 27, 24, 13, 21, 29, 25, 25 and 19 against Ambrose, Patterson, Walsh and Marshall in helpful bowling conditions at the age of 21, isn’t the poorest of returns, I don’t care what anyone says. Remember, England’s two previous home series against this opposition ended 5-0 and 4-0.
I asked Ramps if he was surprised to get the call up when he did and how he felt the series went? “It did come as a bit of a surprise, mainly because apart from a hundred against Sussex at Hove, I’d had a relatively quiet start to the season. But a few of the media, who had had off the record chats were saying that I was on the selectors’ radar. Even then it was still a surprise, I mean I was 21 and the series was against the number one side in the world. It’s a big decision to include a 21-year-old in a series of that magnitude. But my recollections are that I batted long periods of time and tried to build partnerships. I remember at Headingley I built good partnerships with Graham Gooch and Derek Pringle for a few hours against that quality attack. But, if I’m honest, throughout that series I never really managed to truly impose myself. By that I mean could have been a little more proactive and perhaps play a little bit more of my attacking game that I did every week for Middlesex. I don’t mean this the wrong way, but I probably gave that West Indies attack a bit too much respect. When you get a ball you can hit, no matter whose bowling, then you have to put it away. In that series, I was maybe a bit overawed by the quality of the opposition and playing international cricket for England.”
And for me that’s a fair argument. Everyone can make their judgements, but that West Indies attack of Ambrose, Walsh (at their peak), Patterson and the great Malcolm Marshall, was formidable. For me, Ramps’ return was respectable for a 21-year-old in a debut series and surely a foundation to build upon.
Over the next few years, it’s well documented that Ramps was in and out of the side. And while of course a player of his ability probably should have made the breakthrough sooner, I will argue all day long he was mismanaged during this period. Following that debut series against the West Indies, Ramps didn’t play in any of the Tests on the winter tour of New Zealand. A harsh decision and that became the regular script. There was no run of games, an axe would just fall. People back then didn’t accept the mental challenges players went through, as they do today. I also think luck plays a part. Ramps’ early career was dominated with series against those great West Indies sides, or that great Pakistan side of the early 90s with Wasim and Waqar. Had Ramps made his debut 12 months earlier in that India series when runs were flowing off of everyone’s bat would that have made a difference in those early years? Would the opportunity of having some proper series against the likes of Sri Lanka, New Zealand etc, with no disrespect to those nations, but sides who didn’t have arguably some of the best bowling attacks to have ever played the game, have made a difference? We’ll never know.
“The most difficult thing for me and my personality was that I never really settled down in the dressing room, and by that I man I never quite felt established and part of the squad. When I made my debut for Middlesex, I didn’t feel nervous. I settled down quite quickly and scored runs. With England, I didn’t get a 50 early on. I was in and out of the side and each time I then got selected I felt the pressure to get a score increased and I didn’t handle that very well. It inhibited me and didn’t get the best out of me. I just wasn’t able to settle down and enjoy the environment. Test cricket became hard. I definitely view my England career in two halves. The first half is well documented, but I’m very proud of the fact that I managed to hang in there for so long. The second half of my England career, when I did feel more comfortable in the environment was far more successful.”
Indeed it was. The start of that ‘second half’ came against Australia, when he was recalled for the final Test of the Ashes at the Oval in 1997. A second innings 48 when England were bowled out for 163, helped England set a total of 123, a total England defended as they recorded a 19-run win. It was the important contribution Ramps needed. His series in the West Indies that winter began with an excellent 64* in Georgetown, and was followed up with that maiden Test century, 154, in Barbados. It was the innings we knew would come.
“That was a very, very proud moment. Without doubt the best moment in my England career.”
I asked Ramps what he thought was the catalyst for the changing of fortunes?
“When I first played for England we just had Micky Stewart as head coach – there was no batting coach. In 1998 we had a sports psychologist called Steve Bull. He was brilliant for me and there was a definite shift in my career from that point on. He gave me a way to structure my thoughts and handle my emotions. Prior to that I worried about too many things in Test match cricket.”
The following summer saw Ramps’ form continue with runs against the touring South Africans and Sri Lankans. But it was the winter tour to Australia which brought some notable career highlights. The tour began with Ramps and Graham Thorpe sharing a record fifth wicket stand of 377 in a warm-up game against South Australia. But it was the Boxing Day Test that lives long in the memories of all England supporters. Everyone remembers Dean Headley’s match-winning spell, but the catalyst was ‘that’ catch.
“I really enjoyed the tour of Australia. Australia is a magnificent place to play. The grounds are great, the practice facilities are amazing, you have the history of the Ashes, the brilliant weather and the fact you’re testing yourself against a very, very good side.”
England went into that Boxing Day Test 2-0 down. Having scored 270 in the 1st innings (Ramps scoring 63), the Aussies headed into their second innings needing 174 to win. A chase that didn’t look in doubt as they raced to 103/2. England needed a spark, and that spark came when Justin Langer pulled Alan Mullally to square leg, where Ramps took one of the all-time great Ashes catches…
“It was tough cricket in that Test at Melbourne. We were in the field for a long time. Australia were chasing a total that nine times out of ten they would chase. The pitch was good, we were up against it, despite playing some decent cricket. We were staring down the barrel, which was very unfair having been made to field for a session that lasted over four hours. Our bowlers got no rest. I managed to cling on to a catch off of Justin Langer and it’s fair to say the emotion got the better of me! But, the reason I reacted like that was because I could see the sense of frustration we all had in not getting the rewards our efforts deserved. I felt we needed a spark and that catch gave us that. Dean Headley was then unbelievable. The ball wasn’t really moving around but he charged in, hit the pitch hard, and put in a tremendous bowling performance. I think Goughy cleaned up a couple at the other end, and we won the game (by 12 runs). That was one of the highlights of my career. It took us to Sydney at 2-1 knowing if we won we’d return home having drawn the series, which would have been very commendable.”
It would indeed. Sadly, we lost that last Test, but only because of poor umpiring with ‘that’ run out. But we won’t go there.
I did enjoy Ramps’ line of ‘I managed to cling on to’… trust me it was a world-class catch.
Ramps scored just shy of 400 runs in that series, and when you look back at his career, you’ll see that his record against the Aussies was always strong. Lots of 50s/60s, with the icing on the cake being an excellent 133 at the Oval in 2001. I asked him what he enjoyed about facing the Australians?
“Several things really. They were never short of a word or two, which probably took my mind off of worrying if I would be playing in the next Test match. Their talking got me involved in the game a bit more. They’d also always set attacking fields, which meant if you played a few shots you’d get full value for them. To score runs against Australia you had to deal with Warne and McGrath. For me, coming in, in the middle order, I would often be up against Warne first thing. Shane was a great, great bowler. He had that drift, big turn, could bowl his flipper and bowl the straight one. But, early on I managed to stay in against him, and felt over time I developed a good game plan against him, which really helped. McGrath was of course very accurate, would bowl long spells and he was very difficult to score off, but again I managed to see him off on a few occasions, hang around and my confidence grew and I got the results. That’s probably why I did ok against them.”
Back in county cricket the runs flowed consistently for Ramps throughout the 1990s and 2000s. As a Middlesex supporter I can recount tons (excuse the pun) of memories, but what were his?
“Listen, anytime you score runs and the team win the game are always the ones you remember. I was very lucky to join Middlesex in the late 80s when we had this great group of senior players, led by Mike Gatting and John Emburey. Those two policed the dressing room and set the standards. For a young player going into that environment, you got embedded in that culture. It was boisterous at times, there were differences in opinion, but you knew you had to always be on top of your game because you were expected to go out and perform and if you didn’t you’d be dropped. 1988 obviously stands out as a great year, but in 1990 there was one week where I scored a hundred against Worcestershire at Lord’s in a 40-over game, I then scored a hundred against Surrey in the NatWest Trophy and finished the week with a hundred against Somerset in the championship. I’ll always remember that week very fondly. I also got capped in 1990 and that was very special as you had to work very hard to earn that cap.”
I remember that Surrey hundred with great fondness!
In total Ramps spent 14 years at Middlesex as a professional. He won two county championships, a NatWest Trophy and a Sunday League title. But, in 2001, he made the difficult decision to move to Surrey. I asked him, how difficult a decision that was.
“Very. The long and short of it was I’d been captain for three years. I’d been involved in a lot of internal discussions and was privy to discussions around the strategy and direction the club wanted to take and I wasn’t overly impressed with what I was hearing. We’d had a lot of retirements, we were stuck down towards the bottom of the division, and I knew it would take three or four years for the young players the club wanted to introduce to fully develop. I just couldn’t see how we were going to turn around performances. Other teams were being very proactive and my personal situation was that I was 30/31, I was in the last chance saloon with England and I felt that if I wasn’t going to be playing for England, I wanted to be playing the very best domestic cricket that I could. We’d also gone to two divisions for the first time. It was a real wretch as I’d come through from the under 11s, I made my debut at 17, I’d played 14 years of professional cricket and Middlesex was my club. I’d always lived in Harrow so it was a very, very big decision and one that I thought I’d never have to make, but it dawned on me I’d have to consider my situation very seriously.”
“Surrey actually came about quite late in the piece. They had just won the championship so I didn’t think they’d be interested in signing at me. I was actually looking at Essex and Kent, and it was very late when Surrey expressed an interest. The thing about Surrey is I knew so many of the guys from going on tour with England. I’d also played against the likes of Graham Thorpe, Alistair Brown and Martin Bicknell since we were all 12 years old. So, in terms of settling in I knew from day one, it’d be fine. And so it proved. I got a hundred on debut, and when you start at any new organisation you want to contribute early, so I felt very relaxed from the beginning. I also got rid of the Lord’s slope!!! The Oval was always normally a very fair wicket. If you got in, it had even bounce, and if you concentrated you always had the opportunity to go on and get big scores.”
And what were some of the early highlights?
“In my first year we won the Benson and Hedges Cup which was very special. We then won the championship in 2002 and the first evert T20, in 2003. We were getting to finals and winning.”
And what was the new world of T20 cricket like? “We had no tactics in that first year, we literally just went out and whacked it! I remember we played a couple of games at the Metropolitan Police ground in Surrey and attracted 5,000 people, so we knew it was getting popular. But, I remember we played Middlesex at the Oval in front of a full house and that was unheard of. County cricketers didn’t play in full houses. It was huge and that was great to be part of back in 2003.”
Between 2006 and 2008 it’s fair to say Ramps was in the form of his life. To put those seasons into context. In 2006, his 2,278 first-class runs came at an average of 103.54, in 2007, his average ‘dipped’ to 101.30 from 2,026 runs, and 2008 started with another ton and was the year he achieved that 100th hundred. Phenomenal stuff. I was keen to know from Ramps, when you’re in that kind of form for such a sustained period of time, does batting become easy? Is it difficult to fend off complacency?
“First and foremost, I played my last Test match in 2002 and I always realised how lucky I was to be a professional cricketer and not working in an office 9-5 like a lot of my mates. I always wanted to get the most out of my career and I knew that if I wasn’t going to play for England then I wanted to be the best that I could at domestic level. I rediscovered my love for cricket at Surrey. I was enjoying what I was doing, batting in the middle and getting big scores gave me a huge amount of satisfaction. During that period between 2006 to 2008 a lot of things came together. I was highly motivated, I had a lot of experience to draw upon and I had a good balance of being focused but relaxed at the wicket. I was very, very hungry to score hundreds and win games of cricket for Surrey.”
And a few more words on the hundred 100’s? “A lot of the other players who achieved it had successful international careers, which I didn’t, but I enjoyed playing for Middlesex and Surrey. I would say I had my eye on achieving it since 2005. I thought if I stayed fit, I’d have a chance and it was a very proud moment to do it.”
After that golden period, there was even a chance of an England recall, when in 2009 for the final decisive Ashes Test of the series, there was huge clamour in the media for Ramps to be included at the Oval. The selectors eventually plumped for Jonathan Trott, but was a selection close?
“The match was going to be at the Oval, which I obviously knew well. I was batting well and of course, if I’d have been asked to play, I happily would have. They went a different route, but I was a bit surprised when Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, came down to Colchester where we were playing, after the selection meeting, to tell me why he didn’t think it would be a good idea to pick me. That was a bit of a surprise for that to happen after the meeting. I obviously refuted some of the reasons he gave, but it wasn’t a huge disappointment, I’d let England go a long time before. It would have been nice, but it wasn’t to be.”
Ramps retired from cricket in 2012 and I asked if that was a difficult decision? “I spoke to a lot of ex-players about this and I was always told, you know when it’s the right time. You just know. But I didn’t. In November 2010 I injured my knee playing football and that injury severely restricted my movement in 2011. So much so, I wasn’t able to play any limited over cricket. I played some championship cricket that year, but I never really got the flexibility back in my knee and couldn’t quite got going. In hindsight, I probably should have said that’s it. But the thing is, when you play competitive sport, you’re always in the mindset of telling yourself to keep on going. I didn’t start the 2012 season particularly well and I got left out of the side. This came as a bit of a surprise as Surrey had just had the very tragic death of Tom Maynard. Rory Hamilton-Brown wasn’t going to be playing, but I was given the option of going out on loan or playing second XI cricket. They weren’t going to be picking me for the 1st XI, despite everything that had happened. By chance, that day I was seeing Justin Langer, who is a very good friend of mine, we chatted and to his absolute credit, the first thing he told me was ‘well that’s it, you’ve got to retire’. And I needed that. I needed a friend to give me that jolt into making that decision.”
And what a career, to throw some numbers about:
- 35,659 – First-class runs scored
- 13,272 – List-A runs scored
- 2,350 – Test runs
- 301* – highest first-class score
- 154 – highest Test score
- 114 – first class centuries
- 53.14 – first-class average
- 52 – Tests matches for England
Not too shabby! Yes, the Test batting average should have been so much more. But three chairman’s of selectors, five head coaches and four England captains, you just feel with consistency, better man management and the right support structure in place, especially at the beginning England would have had what both Middlesex and Surrey enjoyed.
Post playing, Ramps made the move into coaching. “I was never really too sure about going into coaching. I didn’t want to go into it for the wrong reasons. But I received a call from Graham Thorpe, whose a good friend, and he asked me if I wanted to go and help with England’s under 19s. I went along for a week and I really enjoyed it. He then asked me if I wanted to go and help with the England Lions in India, so I went and did that and everything grew from there.”
Ramps’ first full time role saw him return to Middlesex, when he was named their 1st XI batting coach. It was a welcome return. “I was so pleased Angus gave me that opportunity. When I decided to move to Surrey back in 2001, there wasn’t really much movement between counties for established players. For me, I’d been there for 14 years and I hoped people would have been understanding of my desire for a new challenge. Some people weren’t happy so to get the chance to go back and work with Richard Scott and Richard Johnson was really nice and I really enjoyed it. The role got cut short when England asked me to get more involved, but it was so nice to go back.”
After the 2013/14 Ashes debacle, Ramps was named as England’s new batting coach, a role he held for four years and one that he thoroughly enjoyed. “A real privilege would be the best way to describe it. I got to work with the best players in the country. Before taking that role, I did a couple of Lions tours where I got to work with Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Sam Robson etc. To work with them all as youngsters and see them develop and progress through was great. Getting to know them as young players, also made it so much easier when I went on to work for the full England side. When I took the role, after that difficult tour of Australia, we had a young side and it was fantastic to get the chance to work with those guys. It was a front row seat in international cricket.”
I was keen to hear what he thinks are the main attributes of a batting coach at international level?
“For me as a batting coach, I felt I had great empathy with the players because I knew just how difficult it is and the pressures they were under to go out and play. A lot of people think coaching is about telling players what to do but at that level it’s much more about building a rapport with the players, listening well to what they are thinking and what’s on their mind, supporting and encouraging them while also at the right time challenging them, asking them where they feel they need to improve at the moment, helping them overcome the challenges they face against certain bowlers, dealing with the inevitable media criticisms etc. Players are picked because they are very good players. The role of a batting coach is to help them play well in an England shirt.”
I asked Ramps if he thought having a batting coach when he debuted for England would have helped him? “It was a very different time. I remember we had John Edrich as a batting coach for a tour to South Africa and Graham Gooch for a tour in the West Indies. But there are a lot of simple things that are different from when I was first picked. If a player gets picked now they know they will get given a run of games. There is consistency in selection. We also have the Lions programme. Players get educated in that environment so the transition of being a young player coming into the full side is much smoother. It’s no coincidence that England now have quite a good record of players coming in and doing well.”
And what is Ramps up to now? “At the moment I’m enjoying working at Harrow school. It’s very rewarding working with players aged 13-18, with all levels of abilities. We have players that are good enough for elite cricket, in fact we have a few on the books of Middlesex and Surrey. I’m really enjoying that. But that said, if a head coach opportunity came along that really interested me, I would absolutely look at it very seriously.”
As with all of our interviews I could not, not ask him who he ranks as the best player he played with during his long career? “A very difficult question. In terms of England players, I would have to say Alec Stewart and Graham Gooch. Overall, Desmond Haynes. He was the embodiment of the perfect overseas player. It was a genius stroke by Middlesex to get him over. He gave so much to our dressing room environment. He loved talking about the game, especially with the young players. Also, when I went to Surrey we were very fortunate to have spinners of the calibre of Saqlain Mushtaq, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.”
And what about the toughest bowler you faced? “This one is an easier one to answer. Courtney Walsh. A very awkward action. He bowled quick, very accurate, had a cleverly disguised slower ball and could find any uneven bounce out of a pitch.”
Finally, I had to ask him about one non-cricketing event he’s famous for. His winning of Strictly Come Dancing! “That was a great experience. I was 36 at the time and I got a call out of the blue asking if I fancied doing the show. My immediate reaction was ‘this is not my cup of tea’. But I knew I was close to retirement so I went back and spoke my family and they all thought I should do it. I’d never seen it previously apart from a few episodes when Goughy did it and I thought what an idiot – but he went on to win it. So, I gave it a go and what a different life experience. I was totally out of my comfort zone, but that’s where you find out about yourself. I stayed in it for 14 weeks and it was pretty amazing to be part of.”
Ramps – thank you! Let’s hope he gets that head coach role soon. He deserves it.