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The Long Game, Sport’s Fallen Prodigies: Cricket

In this first instalment of The Long Game - a new mini-series for Online Sport - Michael Rudling looks at three cricket 'prodigies' whose outstanding natural ability and potential left fans expecting more.

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There is little debate among cricket fans that Donald Bradman was the finest batsman of all time, yet his most famous innings is not one of his 117 professional centuries, but a two-ball duck that came in his final game for Australia.

Needing just four runs to retire with a test average of 100, Bradman fell without scoring, leaving him with a test average of 99.94. The fact that this has become Bradman’s most talked about innings reveals cricket’s obsession with imperfections.

With Bradman, of course, one failure was overshadowed by the rest of his career, but there are scores of cricketers tipped as “the next Bradman” or “the future of cricket” who failed to live up to the tag. The 1990s, a decade defined by a dominant Australian side and a woeful England, brought three of cricket’s most enigmatic fallen prodigies.

The fact that Bradman’s two-ball duck is his most talked about innings reveals cricket’s obsession with imperfections

In 1988, two Mumbai schoolboys shared a world record partnership of 664. The younger of the two boys, 15-year-old Sachin Tendulkar, was a God in Indian cricket from then on, making his test debut a year later, and retiring in 2013 as the most prolific international batsman ever.

His partner, however, took a different route. Despite outscoring Tendulkar with 348 out of their 664, Vinod Kambli didn’t make his test debut until 1993, four years after Tendulkar. When he was picked, Kambli racked up 793 runs at 113 in his first seven tests, including two double centuries and two singles (Tendulkar didn’t score a double for another decade). Only five players in test history have started better.

Yet, though these two players were matching each other’s level, and seemed to be destined for an incredible journey together Kambli wasn’t worshipped by India fans as Tendulkar was.

Sachin Tendulkar – nicknamed the God of Cricket – in action for Mumbai Indians. Credit: Aavtar Singh.

Castes are class-like groupings that exist in Indian Society, with their basis in the Hindu religion. Though it is illegal (and always has been since India gained independence) to discriminate on these grounds, up to this point certain groups had been vastly more likely to play for India than others.

Tendulkar was born into the respectable Brahmin caste that produced most of India’s test players, whilst Kambli was a Dalit or “untouchable”, just the second from his caste to play for India. Kambli, with his gold chains, earrings and low-caste, was jeered by Indian fans, whilst baby-faced Sachin was idolised. After 17 tests, Kambli was dropped from the test side with the world-class average of 54. Despite being just 24, he was never picked again.

Kambli’s failure is often put down to the disciplinary problems that plagued his short career, and his poor work ethic compared to Tendulkar. However, it is easy to work hard when you have the full support of everyone around you, which Tendulkar had from the age of 15 until he retired in his early 40s.

Kambli never had that luxury. He was always viewed with suspicion due to the way he dressed and the caste he was born into. If Kambli had the opportunities Tendulkar did, and guidance rather then condemnation at his lifestyle, he could have been star of world cricket. Instead, he became a laughing stock in India, the ultimate warning to every promising star.

Graeme Hick should have been the star around which the 1990s England test side rotated. Born in Zimbabwe, Hick lived in England for seven years before qualifying to play for his adopted nation internationally. During that time he amassed 56 first class hundreds, twice as many as any current England player. Ian Botham described Hick as “the best white batsman I’ve ever seen”, yet he ended up with an unremarkable test record in the least successful era of English cricket.

David Gower, England’s fourth highest test run scorer, often notes how lucky he was to begin his test career with a poor ball from a medium pacer, which was gracefully struck for an easy four. Hick had no such luck. His debut came against a West Indies side that hadn’t lost to England since 1969, with three fast bowlers in the top 20 all-time test wicket takers. Hick was not greeted by innocuous, medium-paced bowling but rather a barrage of fast swing bowling at Headingley: a ground famously tough for batsmen. England won the test, but Hick made just six in each innings. Ten years later, Hick had played his last test, finishing with six test hundreds and a relatively low test average of 31.

Hick didn’t struggle because of a technical problem or a lack of dedication, he struggled because he didn’t believe he could perform against the very best in the world. He lacked the selfishness and arrogance which, though seen as a hindrance in many sportsmen, is vital for a batsmen in being ruthlessly committed to their own total and nothing else. Hick once said he would watch opposing batsmen from slip, batsmen who likely achieved far less in professional sport than he had done, and he would feel he could not emulate them. No matter how many runs Hick scored, he never believed he was good enough to succeed in international cricket, and that is why he didn’t.

Hick didn’t struggle because of a technical problem or a lack of dedication, but because he didn’t believe he could perform against the very best in the world

There was another England debutant in that 1991 Headingley test; 22-year-old Mark Ramprakash. Hick had a more illustrious first-class record coming into the game, but Ramprakash had captured the imagination of the average England fan. He was a stylish batsman, who batted with a youthful arrogance made famous in a man-of-the-match performance in the 1988 Benson and Hedges cup final. He had been tipped as a future England star from early on, having broken into the Middlesex side aged just 17, and captaining England at u19 level. Like his England teammate Hick, Ramprakash scored over 100 first class hundreds in his career and finished with a career average comfortably over 50. And yet Ramprakash’s international career was a bigger failure even that Hick’s. He made 27 in each innings on debut; a reasonable start, but 27 would end up being his test average, just over half of his first-class stat.

Mark Ramprakash pictured in 2011. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Ramprakash recalled facing the West Indian fast bowlers on his debut, and feeling there were no runs to be had, that it took all of his skill just to avoid getting out. In a 52-test career, Ramprakash scored just two hundreds, though a careful analysis of his career reveals why he struggled so much. Of his 52 tests, 16 came against the brutal pace attack of the West Indies, and a further 12 came against an Australian team featuring Shane Warne (708 test wickets) and Glenn McGrath (563 test wickets). These were two of the best bowling attacks of all time, and even successful players such as former England captain Michael Atherton struggled against them, averaging just 29 against the West Indies, and 31 against Australia. Aside from the high-quality opposition Ramprakash faced, he also struggled with deep insecurities. As a young player, he reported feeling immensely confident when batting, but this confidence waned as he went longer without a test score, and the media began to criticise him. Ramprakash failed to cope with the pressure of top-level cricket in a paranoid way. He never had to worry about his place in a county side, but was dropped repeatedly by England, and he struggled to cope with the increased media scrutiny.

That Headingley test is not famous for the careers it started, but for an innings scored by Graham Gooch, widely regarded as the best test hundred of all time. England had taken a narrow first innings lead, but the West Indies were well on top when England fell to 124-6 in their second innings. Gooch withstood an onslaught from the West Indies quicks to construct a gritty, unbeaten 154, guiding England to 252 all out, and setting up England’s first victory over the West Indies in England for 20 years. Hick, Ramprakash and Kambli were arguably more talented batsmen than Gooch, and yet they could not have won England that test.

The two factors all these prodigies have in common are confidence and opportunity. Ramprakash faced the intense external pressure of international cricket and played much of his test career against the best bowling of all time. Hick never felt he deserved his place among the pantheon of greats who scored 100 hundreds, and was denied opportunities by hasty declarations and management that disliked him. As an “untouchable” and a man who suffered from indiscipline, Kambli was never given as much support as the players around him, and he was dropped harshly when still a young man.

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