'Strictly Come Dancing' success may make it hard for the Surrey batsman to reach the Oval by tube, but he could still keep the Test side on their toesWhen I last met up with Mark Ramprakash, in May last year, he was on the threshold, at the grand old age of 36, of his best season in an already distinguished county cricket career. In helping Surrey to promotion he scored over 2,000 runs, the first Englishman to do so since, erm, M R Ramprakash in 1995. Moreover, he struck his 2,000th run in only his 20th innings, a record. He hit a career-best 292 against Gloucestershire, topped it with 301 not out against Northamptonshire, and ended the season averaging over 100, only the sixth man ever to do so in an English summer. He won the Professional Cricketers' Association Player of the Year award by a street. And yet by the close of the year he was better known to the British public for his salsa and quickstep than his cover-drive and square cut. How odd is that?
"Very odd, very ironic," Ramprakash concedes, in the improbably prosaic surroundings, for a Strictly Come Dancing champion, of a Toby pub carvery in an outer suburb of Birmingham. He chose it for our rendezvous because he, his wife and their two daughters are staying with his parents-in-law, and it is conveniently close to their house. But the barmaid does a double take, as well she might, when she sees who it is asking her for a Diet Coke. We install ourselves at a quiet corner table.
"Last summer I could travel by Tube down to the Oval without being disturbed," Ramprakash says, "but now my life has changed big time. It will die down, but at the moment, wherever I go, I'm getting attention I've never had to deal with before. I never realised how popular that show was.
"It all came about when a guy I know rang me in late August and said did I fancy going on Strictly Come Dancing? I said, 'Look, mate, I'm really sorry but it's not my thing. If you can get me on the football show on Sky I'll happily do that'. He said, 'Well, why don't you think about it for 24 hours?' I knew my wife and nine-year-old watched it, but I somehow always had something else to do at the time it was on. I'd only ever danced at the odd nightclub before.
"So when I said I'd been asked, my nine-year-old, who's a keen dancer herself, fell about the floor laughing. But my wife said, 'Why not? Darren [Gough] had a lot of fun with it'.
"And the more I thought about it, the more it appealed. My life had been cricket for 20 years, why not try something else? I'd done the level four pro-licence coaching course, which is a lot about knowing yourself, and it emerged that I was quite an introverted, quiet character. So this would be a challenge, take me outside my comfort zone. And it was a massive, massive challenge."
How comparable were the nerves, I ask, between waiting to bat in a Test match at Lord's, and waiting for the ballroom band to strike up? "Very comparable: the butterflies, the long wait to bat, never able to relax; the big roar as a wicket falls; putting your helmet and your gloves on; this was very similar. But the difference is that I've trained for so long to play cricket. As I walk out I have certain things to remember: look to be aggressive, watch the ball closely, play straight, let a few go outside off stump.
"Dancing was such unknown territory, and with the show being live, you fear that you'll freeze or forget the routine. Also, the audience was so close, you could see their faces. In cricket they're 70 yards away."
For the benefit of those who didn't watch Ramprakash and his partner, Karen Hardy, beat Matt Dawson and his partner in the Strictly Come Dancing final shortly before Christmas, I can report that he was astoundingly good, and positively oozed sex appeal and charm.
In a way, the charm was the most surprising thing. Over 15 weeks Ramprakash worked at his dance routines with the intensity he has applied to refining his batting technique down the years, so he was always likely to get good at it. But he can be a moody, introspective fellow, so it was pleasing to see him practically enslaving choreographer Arlene Phillips, the strictest of the judges, with his dazzling smile.
It was pleasing, too, to see another cricketer win, and while Gough is not known for his twinkle-toed footwork at the crease, clearly it helped Ramprakash. "Yeah, in most dances there are times when you're up on your toes, on the balls of your feet, and it's the same when you're batting, particularly playing in England. When I started the ball moved around a lot, more than it does now, so I had to learn to be fully committed, as early as possible, to playing forward or back. That involves the balls of your feet, and good balance."
There is a further parallel, I venture, in the relationship with a partner. "Yes, when you have long batting partnerships you do get on a similar wavelength. Mike Gatting was one I felt very comfortable with at the other end, Graham Thorpe another. But you can multiply that by a thousand for dancing. I would never have won if Karen had not been my partner, and as well as being a great dancer, she's a great coach. If I go into coaching at the end of my career, I'll have learnt a lot from her, because she made it such fun."
The end of Ramprakash's career is not imminent: he has verbally agreed a new three-year contract with Surrey, which will take him beyond his 40th birthday. An England recall remains highly unlikely, although at least one respected pundit was calling for him to replace Marcus Trescothick at the start of this ill-fated Ashes campaign, describing him as "the best technician of his generation". Besides, despite an indifferent Test average of 27.32, he averages over 42 against the Aussies.
Ramprakash has not watched much of the Ashes; the demands of Strictly Come Dancing dictated early nights. "But I've seen enough, and I've been surprised. I expected a 1-1 result, but that was obviously wishful thinking. When I look at the side on the morning of the Brisbane Test I can see a lot of question marks, which is all very well with Harry hindsight, but it was clear enough that Duncan Fletcher wanted to bring the 2005 side together, and that was always going to be a dangerous game, because form is so important in cricket and several of them had hardly played any cricket for a year, while Geraint Jones' form, for one, was nowhere near where it should have been.
"I was really surprised that Fletcher publicly undermined Chris Read by saying that Jones handled pressure better. It was very unlike Fletcher to do that, I thought.
"And I'm not picking on Jones, but in his previous 11 Tests he had averaged 19 with the bat, he'd been left out against Pakistan and after that I watched quite closely and saw that he didn't score any runs for Kent. If you perform then you've got a case for going on tour, but he didn't perform, yet he was still selected for the Ashes tour and put in as No 1 keeper. Whoever's responsible for that, it's not an acceptable situation.
"There was so much confusion around the selection. With Monty Panesar all I kept hearing was what he couldn't do - he couldn't bat, he couldn't field. But what about [Stephen] Harmison, [Matthew] Hoggard, [James] Anderson? Are they better batsmen than Panesar? I don't think they are, particularly, so why were they not left out because they couldn't bat? It made no sense, because if one bowler made an impact in the summer it was him, getting out top players of spin.
"I'm not saying that we would have won if things had been different. The Aussies have done brilliantly, and they have no weak links. But an old school of thought, and not a bad one, is that match practice puts you in good shape. Anderson, [Ashley] Giles and [Sajid] Mahmood needed cricket. [Andrew] Flintoff needed cricket. And they were up against the world champions, who wanted blood. Harmison has bowled quite well in Sydney because he's match-fit at last.
"I know I suffered on the New Zealand tour in 2002, because there'd been an eight-week break after the tour of India, and seven of us went out for the Test leg of the tour, then played only two three-day warm-up games, one of which was played on a green wicket, while the other was rain-affected. I think England have come very close to coming a cropper before."
As for Flintoff's captaincy, Ramprakash thinks it has been a burden too far. "He really wanted it, and he's so inspirational, so I could see why they gave it to him. And I wouldn't want to judge his captaincy too harshly because he's been up against a fantastic side, and he's had so much to deal with, not least his own injury. But the bottom line is that the influence of Freddie in 2005 was massive, absolutely massive, and by giving him the captaincy I don't see how England could gain any more from him, but they stood to lose quite a lot."
Flintoff's opposite number, meanwhile, has done nothing but build on his illustrious reputation. I ask Ramprakash where he thinks Ricky Ponting belongs in the annals of the game?
"He's a magnificent player, he bats No 3 so he doesn't hide, he does the hard yards, and he stands out in the modern era, with [Brian] Lara and [Sachin] Tendulkar. Those three stand out. But I'm always hesitant to compare eras. When I started, Viv Richards and Greg Chappell were still playing, and there were no helmets. Also, because of the volume of cricket now, it's hard to keep your best attack fit all the time. There's always someone missing, so perhaps runs are easier to get."
That said, Ramprakash does not underestimate how hard it will be to score the 13 more first-class centuries he himself needs to accumulate a hundred hundreds, putting him on a par, whether he likes to compare eras or not, with some of history's greatest batsmen. It is true that only two of those centuries were scored in Test matches, but one was in Barbados against Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh at their most hostile, the other against Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath at the Oval in 2001. It's not beyond all credibility that, if he carries his 2006 form into 2007, he might yet get another shout, although it won't happen with Fletcher at the helm.
"People say it's up to him whether he stays or goes," says Ramprakash of Fletcher. "Well, hold on a minute, surely it's up to his employers? I don't think he's earned the right to decide for himself, I don't think that happens in the big wide world. And we've been building for four years for this year's World Cup, but where are we? I don't know the line-up, and I don't think the players do either. And before all that we've got to play one-day cricket in Australia against New Zealand as well, which isn't going to be very easy. I fear for [England in] the World Cup."
So if Fletcher goes, who would Ramprakash like to see in his place? "I'm very impressed with [national cricket academy director] Peter Moores. He's very, very thorough. They wouldn't go far wrong with him."
And does he ever entertain even the faintest dream that his own England career might not yet be over? He just smiles, although it is not the smile that dazzled Arlene Phillips, but an altogether more enigmatic one.