Mark Ramprakash drives

By the power of Bloodaxe: Ramps drives against Sri Lanka at The Oval in 1998

© PA Photos

The Jury's Out

 The biggest unfulfilled talent

Is there a more frustrating sight than promise unrealised? Five writers on men who could have been great

Mark Ramprakash
England, 1991-2002

2350 runs at 27.32 in 52 Tests, 376 runs at 26.85 in 18 ODIs, 35,659 runs at 53.14 in 461 first-class matches

By Jon Hotten

The career of Mark Ramprakash divides quite neatly in half. The first, from 1991 until 2002, in which he played his 52 Test matches and made 2350 runs at 27.32, and the second, from 2002 until 2012, when he retired as the 25th and last man to have scored 100 first-class centuries.

Two halves, two acts. An act of angst played out on a world stage to an audience of millions, and then an act of grace set in front of county grounds on quiet afternoons. For a long time I thought of this second act as an act of revenge from a player whose story had taken on the feel of literature: it was easy to see him as a brooding Heathcliff, banished to the deserted moors, or a latter-day Othello, whose Iago was not a man but the game itself. Ramprakash, otherwise known as "Bloodaxe" on account of his mighty temper, was a man who loved cricket not wisely but too well.

All a bit grandiose, I admit, but it raised the question of why he exerted such a grip on the imagination - and not just mine but of many who watched him. Part of it was undoubtedly aesthetic. Sometimes with people who make difficult things look easy, it's deceptive, illusory - they are trying just as hard as everyone else, perhaps even more so. Yet with them, it's not so much about what they do but how they do it. Ramprakash batted with such exquisite beauty it was easy to forget how good the bowlers actually were, how hard they were striving to defeat him, how hard he was striving to defeat them.

Instead of standing as a monument to his enduring excellence, the second act of his career somehow refocused attention on the first. It made it seem sadder, emptier. It made the loss to international cricket appear greater. As the statistics piled up, they added more weight to the feeling: the first man to make a score of 150 or higher in five consecutive matches; the only man to have averaged more than 100 runs per innings in two consecutive seasons; the first player to have scored a century against all 18 first-class counties; ten centuries in 25 innings in the 2007 season; a century every 4.3 innings throughout his entire career with Surrey, and so on, coming to a peak with poignant symmetry on August 2, 2008, when he scored his 100th first-class century at Headingley, the ground where he had made his first.

It was easy to see Ramprakash as a brooding Heathcliff, banished to the deserted moors, or a latter-day Othello

Two seasons ago I had the chance to meet him and test my theory about the second act of his career being an act of revenge. We sat at the top of the pavilion at Lord's while Middlesex, where he was batting coach, played Derbyshire. It became clear over the course of an afternoon that I was wrong, very wrong. He described what it was like to bat in the way that he had batted through all those long summers, almost a trance-like state, the fabled "zone" where the game appeared to bend to his will. As he spoke, I could see that he did what he had done out of love, pure and simple. If the second act of his career was anything, it was an act of redemption to the people looking in, who had followed him and supported him, and an act of love from the man looking out.

I have no doubt that he touched greatness during that second act. For a while it had reflected back on his Test career and made it feel unfulfilled. Yet once it was finished, it became something else. It was the purest expression of his talent, of his endurance, and of what batting could be.

Jon Hotten tweets @theoldbatsman

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Shaun Tait
Australia, 2005-2011

5 wickets at 60.40 in 3 Tests, 62 wickets at 23.56 in 35 ODIs, 28 wickets at 17.78 in 19 T20Is, 198 wickets at 28.59 in 50 first-class matches

By Geoff Lawson

Shane Warne may have been hero-worshipped through the 1990s and into the 21st century but Australians have forever adored their fast bowlers. Dennis Lillee, Merv Hughes, Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson have got the crowds' hearts pumping. So when Shaun Tait burst on to the scene just as Glenn McGrath's stellar career was winding down and Lee's body was starting to hurt, opposition batsmen reached for the body armour. This guy's bowling forced you to watch the game from behind your lounge chair rather than from in it.

He began at Adelaide Oval, not the most encouraging of pitches for a budding fast bowler. His potential as a 19-year-old was significant and he broke Clarrie Grimmett's long-established season record of 60 first-class wickets for South Australia. No easy feat.

The mechanics of Tait's bowling looked stressful, unnatural, painful even. His longish approach was strong and bustling, built on drumstick thighs and bursting calves. The broad shoulders were the basis of his pace, as they were for Shoaib Akhtar, but the right-angled front knee spelled "instability" and screamed "injury!"

Shoaib via Spofforth: Tait lets one rip

Shoaib via Spofforth: Tait lets one rip © Getty Images

Like Jimmy Anderson, Tait preferred to look at extra cover rather than in the general direction of where he wanted the ball to pitch. He could send down a succession of wides - petrifying the second-slip fielder and getting the wicketkeeper diving left and right - but his inswinging yorker with new and old ball were irresistible. He could send down unplayable, untouchable deliveries, even though his technique looked about as efficient as a pelican in a clothes dryer. His follow-through was reminiscent of Fred Spofforth in George Beldam's famous 1904 photograph, although Spofforth was of a very different build, tall and sinewy with an angular release.

Tait, Lee and Shoaib commenced cricket's version of the arms race. Who could bowl the quickest, who could send one or more down at 100mph, and who could break the most bones. Lee has sustained his bursts through to the current day, if only in the 20-over format, with a few breaks for injury; Shoaib burst on to the international scene like a supernova and got through 46 Tests, quite a few for a subcontinental fast bowler, and he too had his moments of pain and confusion.

Tait could send down unplayable deliveries even though his technique looked about as efficient as a pelican in a clothes dryer

Tait was to play only three Test matches and take five wickets. His 35 ODIs were more fruitful, with 62 wickets at 23.56, and he found something of a niche in the IPL under Warne's direction at Rajasthan Royals. He took a sabbatical in 2008 due to "physical and mental exhaustion". He always looked like an injury waiting to happen and that was how his career was to unfold, with knee, shoulder, elbow and back issues.

Tait played for his beloved South Australian Redbacks in October 2014 in the 50-over format but couldn't summon the pace of his youth. By then he had sent down more than 16,000 deliveries, full of contortion and pain, in first-class matches, List A games and domestic T20s, almost every delivery flying at extreme pace. If only he had stayed fit and firing for a few more years. The cricket world could have been in for a treat.

Former Australia fast bowler Geoff Lawson coached Pakistan in 2007 and 2008. He is now New South Wales' assistant coach

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Wasim Raja
Pakistan, 1973-1985

2821 runs at 36.16 in 57 Tests, 782 runs at 22.34 in 54 ODIs, 11,434 runs at 35.18 in 250 first-class matches

By Nadeem F Paracha

My earliest memories of Wasim Hasan Raja are from 1975, during the second Test between Pakistan and West Indies in Karachi's National Stadium. I was eight years old and sitting with a couple of older cousins in the "students' stand". On the third day of the Test, Raja was fielding near the boundary line in front of the packed stand and I vividly remember him turning around and joking with some college students in between deliveries. During one such exchange, he turned around and began pretend-unzipping his fly to mock a somewhat rowdy section of the crowd. I had no clue what he was trying to express, but he seemed to be having a lot of fun.

Two days earlier, one of my dad's cousins had taken us to meet the West Indian and Pakistani squads at a cocktail party in Karachi's Clifton area. My cousins and I were most interested in meeting Mr Raja, but he was nowhere to be found. Then I bumped into a school friend, who led us into a room where Raja was sitting alone, downing beer. At the time he had been accused by a section of the Urdu press of taking the field while being "under the influence". But the very next day he smashed a century against a pretty hostile pace attack led by a young Andy Roberts.

Wasim Raja: proto-Afridi

Wasim Raja: proto-Afridi © PA Photos

Soon I was a huge fan. He was an Afridi before Afridi was born. Imran Khan once described Raja as perhaps the most naturally gifted batsman he ever had the chance to play with, but someone who did not take his talents very seriously. He would come in and immediately try to dominate the bowlers. When on song, he was perhaps the most attractive and flashy left-hand batsman of his era, with a high backlift that gave him the momentum to crack some ferocious square cuts, cover drives, pulls and hooks - an awe-inspiring display of power-batting that betrayed his otherwise lean and fragile build.

He was the X-factor in a batting line-up packed with immensely talented stroke-makers such as Sadiq Mohammad, Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Asif Iqbal and Mushtaq Mohammad. Usually coming in at No. 6 or 7, Raja was expected to dismantle the opposition bowling attack. But to the frustration of his captains, there was no method behind his flamboyant madness.

He made his debut in 1973 under the captaincy of Intikhab Alam and had cemented his place in the side when Mushtaq Mohammad took over the captaincy in 1976. But Mushtaq did not exhibit much patience for Raja's unpredictable batting antics. Once, on the 1976-77 tour of Australia, Raja was not selected in the Tests and he vented his frustration by smashing a mirror in his hotel room in Sydney. When he did manage to make his way back into the playing XI for the five Tests against the mighty West Indies in 1977, he clobbered over 500 runs in the series, including 14 sixes.

Raja was painfully introverted and moody but would suddenly become an adventurous exhibitionist at the batting crease

Even this didn't consolidate his position in the side. Breathtaking displays of batting would often be followed by inexplicable spectacles of sheer recklessness, which infuriated those who were aware of his obvious talent and skill. Still, they thought him a fascinating character. When he married his Australian sweetheart in 1981, he forgot to invite another eccentric character, Sarfraz Nawaz, who decided to gatecrash, telling Pakistan's Herald magazine, "This is one wedding I could never miss."

His team-mates would describe Raja as a loner and an "extreme individualist". Unlike Afridi, Raja was painfully introverted and moody, but would suddenly become an adventurous exhibitionist at the batting crease. He could have been as big a star as Imran and Javed Miandad, but he remained an intriguing cult figure for my generation of cricket fans. Truth is, every time I replay in my mind that massive first-ball six he struck over long-on off Joel Garner in Port-of-Spain in 1977, I believe we, the diehard Raja fans, would have him no other way. His madness was a huge part of his charisma.

Sadly he died relatively young in 2005 - the man once destined to become the left-handed Vivian Richards.

Nadeem F Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist at the Dawn and dawn.com

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Ajay Sharma
India, 1988-1993

53 runs at 26.50 in one Test, 424 runs at 20.19 in 31 ODIs, 10,120 runs at 67.46 in 129 first-class matches

By Aakash Chopra

I vividly remember this tall, lanky fellow with a flamboyant air and inimitable style. He looked like a man who had stepped out of a Bollywood potboiler. Wide-eyed rookies like me secretly dreamt of being like him, of being a batsman like him.

On the eve of a Ranji Trophy match he took a look at a brand-new bat and declared in his extravagant style, "Should be a ton tomorrow." And so it came to be. Here was a man who believed in writing his own scripts. Ajay Sharma was a true powerhouse of Indian domestic cricket in the 1980s and 1990s - "The Don", as we called him.

Sharma quashed decade-old prescriptions. Unlike most batsmen, he would use a brand-new bat in an important match, after merely knocking it a few times in the nets. One had grown up believing that the bat must become an extension of one's body, and that the process takes time. Not so for Sharma, who would take the field flashing his latest acquisition.

Sharma was a phenomenon for several reasons. Of course, it started with his penchant for scoring runs by the ton. But it was the manner in which he got them that left an indelible impression.

Ajay Sharma: talent that extracted a toll

Ajay Sharma: talent that extracted a toll © MiD DAY Infomedia Ltd

His initial movement would take him deep inside the crease, which demanded a fuller ball from the faster bowlers. But the moment they pitched it up, they knew they had dialled the wrong number. For someone who went so deep inside the crease before the ball left the bowler's hand, Sharma was a prolific driver.

Sharma rarely ever wore a helmet. There were some reasonably quick bowlers around, like Delhi's Robin Singh Jr (whom he would face in the nets), Punjab's Harvinder Singh and Sandeep Sharma, and Jammu & Kashmir's Abdul Qayoom, but none of them could perturb Sharma with pace and bounce. He wasn't one to duck or sway away against bouncers; he would happily take them on, his square cuts, pulls and hooks bringing him the majority of his runs.

One of his best innings - a sheer delight to watch - came against Railways on a dustbowl at the Karnail Singh Stadium in 1997. One look at the surface suggested a two-day finish - it seemed the curator had forgotten to water and roll the pitch for the game. While the spinners licked their fingers and wove their magic, Sharma went about his business as if batting on concrete and scored a double-century. He played everything with the middle of the bat. His defence was so impeccable that even balls that bounced and turned a foot more than expected didn't find the edge. His precise feet, assured weight transference and soft hands produced one of the best innings seen on a turning pitch.

Sharma would sometimes use a brand-new bat in an important match after merely knocking it a few times in the nets

A nervous starter, Sharma failed to fulfil his potential at the highest level. He could be unusually fidgety in the first ten or 15 balls - a weakness that caught up with him in his 31 ODIs. The big trigger movement also played a part in his downfall, especially when he faced bowlers who were nearly 20kph faster than those at the domestic level early on in his innings.

Towards the end of his career, Sharma's alleged involvement in match-fixing tarnished his image forever. The runs he scored and the attacks he dominated meant nothing anymore. His dalliance with crooks might have prompted his poor run at the international level. But the truth is probably sadder still - his inability to fulfil his enormous talent may well have led him to the dark side.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. @cricketaakash

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Garth Le Roux
South Africa

838 wickets at 21.24 in 239 first-class matches

By Daryll Cullinan

South Africa's isolation robbed the world of some of the finest cricketers, none more so than Garth Le Roux. When he played in World Series Cricket, Le Roux was an instant hit on and off the field. He was arguably the world's quickest bowler at the time, with an angled run-up and round-arm slinging action, and he possessed one of the most lethal bouncers.

Some bowlers pretend to be mean, some try their best to look mean, and some, without even trying, are mean. Le Roux was the third type, and I got to experience it first-hand in 1984 when I played for South African Schools against Western Province at Newlands.

The first ball was a gentle half-volley, which I drove. Le Roux assured me I was not going to play the drive again. Sure enough, the next one was a quick bouncer that left me fending with my bat in front of my face, resulting in a broken wrist. A year or so later, when we were team-mates at Western Province, Le Roux took great delight in terrorising me in the nets. I am grateful for that experience. Coping with him was a huge confidence booster. Though he let you have it, he was just as quick to pass on advice. And he quickly became one of my favourite cricketers.

Mean machine: Le Roux bowls in county cricket in 1987

Mean machine: Le Roux bowls in county cricket in 1987 © Getty Images

Like so many South Africans during the isolation years, Le Roux had no choice but to pursue his career in county cricket. He joined Sussex, where for many seasons he shared the new ball with the great Imran Khan. At Western Province he was partnered by the finest swing bowler I have seen, Stephen Jefferies.

Newlands is famous for its Cape Doctor, the south-eastern wind, and Le Roux ran in with the wind blowing over his right shoulder towards third man, which naturally aided swing away from the right-hander. Jefferies ran into the wind, which suited his inswing. This made them an exceptionally difficult pair to deal with.

For a young cricketer like me, watching Le Roux from second slip was an education. Quick enough to push batsmen back, he would bowl a fuller length and slowly drag them across, looking for the nick or setting them up for the straighter one that was pitched up. He had learnt to bowl this length in county cricket, but we called it the "Newlands length" after the ground where he mastered it.

Le Roux was known for legendary duels with another great South African cricketer who could easily have been my subject for this piece, Clive Rice. Rice played for Transvaal, Western Province's biggest rivals. The highlight of the cricketing calendar was the New Year's match between the two sides. In 1977, spurred on by the crowd, Le Roux attacked Rice with a barrage of bouncers. After a while Rice looked at him and said, "Remember, I don't miss." Le Roux found himself at the batting crease late next afternoon. True to his word, Rice hit him first up. The big man went down. What followed was an unforgettable passage of play as Rice gave it to him over and over. Le Roux retired hurt in the end and Rice took great delight in letting the crowd know what he thought of them.

Le Roux was a thinking fast bowler, particularly later in his career. And he showed no emotion when he beat the bat

Had Le Roux been playing today I have absolutely no doubt he would have excelled in all formats of the game. On quicker, bouncier tracks his first-class record speaks for itself. In the subcontinent, his pace and action would have been ideal for reverse swing and he would have been as good as anyone. He took great care when it came to his diet and fitness, which would have ensured a long international career. He was also a thinking fast bowler, particular later in his career. He is the only bowler I have seen who showed no emotion when he beat the bat. He felt showing despair and desperation would only boost the batsmen's confidence.

For me Garth Le Roux was the complete fast bowler and it is sad that Test cricket missed out on his bowling and charisma. He would have had a huge following both on and off the field. And he would have finished as one of the best. That he won a Man-of-the-Series award in World Series Cricket, where the greatest cricketers were on show, is testimony enough.

Daryll Cullinan played 70 Tests for South Africa between 1993 and 2001

 

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