Ramprakash and Hick: the men who know
It's June 6, 1991, England v West Indies, Headingley. Under graphite skies, Graeme Hick plays his first Test innings and bats for 51 minutes before he is caught by Jeff Dujon off the bowling of Courtney Walsh for 6. Mark Ramprakash passes him on the outfield on the way to play his first Test innings. He bats for 142 minutes before he is caught by Carl Hooper off the bowling of Malcolm Marshall for 27.
It's November 20, 2016, India v England, Visakhapatnam. In nuclear heat, Haseeb Hameed plays his fourth Test innings. He bats for 188 minutes and faces 144 deliveries before he is dismissed lbw by R Ashwin for 25.
It's March 20, 2017, India v Australia, Ranchi. Under cloudless skies, Shaun Marsh plays his 40th Test innings. He bats for 236 minutes and 197 deliveries before he is caught by M Vijay off the bowling of Ravindra Jadeja for 53. Peter Handscomb plays his 13th Test innings. He bats for 261 minutes and 200 deliveries and is 72 not out at close of play.
The Headingley Test was supposed to be a significant moment for English batting, and in one way it was - in the second innings of the match Graham Gooch made his famous 154 not out, often rated the best Test innings ever played by an Englishman. But we already knew about Gooch. Ramprakash and Hick were new stars, players to stir the soul, ready to sit at the very highest table. Instead, in their separate ways, they were broken on the wheel of English cricket in the 1990s, made living symbols of what went wrong, misrepresented and misunderstood. Added together, their Test averages are lower than Steve Smith's. Joe Root has already made three more Test centuries than they did combined.
Even today, Ramprakash's ESPNcricinfo profile begins: "A batsman of rare talent, combining a classically English technique with an un-English intensity, Mark Ramprakash is nonetheless in danger of ending up as unfulfilled as Graeme Hick, with whom he shared a Test debut."
Somehow they are locked together by their Test careers, and not by their wider contribution to batting. They are the last two men to score a hundred hundreds, and very probably the last two ever to achieve that mark. Between them they made 76,771 first-class runs, and in doing it, they experienced every nuance of every high, every low and every quotidian moment that any batsman can experience. They lived for years in the strange psychological hinterland where batting exists.
And now Ramprakash and Hick are batting coaches to England and Australia respectively, the men trusted to get their hands in the engine and fine-tune the techniques and psyches of the cream of modern batting. It is fascinating, although not surprising, that they have risen to these heights. They were both, in their way, obsessed with the craft. And it is probably a necessary quality in a coach to understand as much about failure as they do about success. They have to know what it is like to inhabit that place of doubt and fear, and they do.
In an era of revolution in batting technique, they must stick to its constant truths, especially in the Test game. At elite level they coach only the fine edges of technique, a tweak here, a shift there, sculptors shaving off the last small pieces of marble. Gooch's great dictum, "I don't coach batting, I coach run-scoring" holds true. Root, with whom Ramprakash worked intensively before he made his 254 against Pakistan last summer, defined the coach's qualities as extreme detail on building an innings, a deep analysis of bowlers, and offering just enough information for the batsman to consider without cluttering his mind. The pair also added a small adjustment in stance and guard to compensate for Pakistan's three left-arm seamers, all of whom posed subtly different problems.
And here was Hick, newly signed to a four-season contract as Australia's batting coach (an appointment you would have got long odds on at the turn of the century) speaking about Australia's tour of India: "At times maybe the Australian way is to really dominate. In Test cricket the daily run rate has increased a lot. Maybe India is a place where you need a little bit more patience. The teams that have been successful there recently have been guys who have got big runs up front.
"If one of our top order get in, batting a couple of sessions maybe is not enough. You've got to look to post a big first-innings score and take that responsibility if you get in. That may require a little bit more patience than maybe some of the players would normally play at."
Strike one for Graeme Hick.
This week Tom Harrison has tasked Joe Root with playing "exciting cricket" - whatever that is (well, it's a little unfair to carp, you know what he meant). But the Test match game is a vast place with infinite capacity for small but vital variables that have sustained it for hundreds of years. The three recent innings I picked out at the top of this piece gained more Twitter traffic and newspaper comment than dozens of brisk workaday hundreds, because they were calibrated to the balance of the games they were played in. They were also different enough to the norm to, in their way, cause the strange kind of excitement in not much happening at which Test cricket excels.
Ramprakash and Hick know enough about batting to understand where Hameed, Marsh and Handscomb had to go to play those innings, a place of both technique and of sacrifice of the ego. It's hard to bat for hours, look up at the board and see that you've scored 20 runs. Batting is about making a deal with failure, accepting it into your life. In his book Who Wants To Be A Batsman, Simon Hughes wrote: "batting can be a head-f***". It can. So it pays to ask the men that know.
Jon Hotten blogs at The Old Batsman. @theoldbatsman