Thorpe gears up for final challenge
Against Bangladesh at Chester-le-Street on Friday, Graham Thorpe is set to join one of cricket's most exclusive clubs, when he becomes the eighth England cricketer to play in 100 Tests. The occasion will be marked by a presentation before the start of play, which will be attended by five of his fellow centurions - Alec Stewart, David Gower, Michael Atherton, Geoff Boycott and Ian Botham - and which may well help to confer some sense of grandeur on an event that promises to be another damp squib, if Bangladesh's efforts in the Lord's Test are anything to go by.
Thorpe, however, has already been in the news this week, and not because of the excitement surrounding this landmark. His announcement, on the eve of the Lord's Test, that he had signed a contract to play and coach in New South Wales this winter, effectively served notice of his impending international retirement, and called into question his commitment to the cause ahead of this summer's Ashes.
But Thorpe is nothing if not resilient, and after enduring countless ups and downs in the course of his 12-year international career, is all set for one final push for glory this summer. "I want to play in as many matches as I can," he told reporters in Durham, "and to do that I have to stay fit and I have to keep playing well. But I think I've known that ever since I came back from South Africa last winter - if I don't play well or I fall over in a heap I won't get picked."
In the first Test at Lord's, Thorpe made a chanceless 42 not out to keep the vultures at bay for another game, but he is well aware of the scrutiny that his New South Wales appointment has created, not least in the corridors of the England & Wales Cricket Board, where David Graveney, the chief of selectors, expressed his "disappointment" at Thorpe's news. But, Thorpe added, he had no regrets about his decision.
"I heard Grav's comments and I understand what he means by the timing, but there was nothing untoward about that and I wasn't holding anything back," he insisted. "I can go back to my hotel room, look myself in the mirror and know I've done nothing wrong.
"I don't think I could have handled things any differently," he added, having gone public on the news the very day that NSW confirmed the offer. "I don't think it's a huge surprise to anyone that I have been trying to plan something for the winter, because they may not have even taken me away this winter anyway."
Although the pressure is undoubtedly on, Thorpe has proved on countless occasions that he is equal to it. He demonstrated that with a century on debut against the Australians in 1993, and every one of his 16 Test centuries has been a nuggetty tribute to one of the greatest English batsmen of the post-war era. It is only in the latter part of his career, however, that his true ability has shone through, and much of that success has been fostered under the watchful guidance of Duncan Fletcher.
"My first 40 to 45 Tests were quite tough," Thorpe explained. "We were in a different set-up with a lot of player insecurities and before central contracts when the team was very inconsistent. But during the last four or five years under Duncan there has been a curve which has gone steadily upwards. Hopefully that will continue rising over the next two or three years."
Thorpe has played in just one Ashes Test in the past three series, due to a combination of injury and a much-publicised marital breakdown, but victory this summer would be Thorpe's crowning achievement. Failing that, however, he has some fond memories to take Down Under with him, not least his achievements on the subcontinent in 2000-01, when his batting was central to back-to-back series wins against Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
"The achievement in winning in Asia a few years ago was probably the best I have been involved in with a team," said Thorpe, who scored a century at Lahore that included a solitary boundary, hit the winning runs in the thrilling twilight run-chase in Karachi, and went on to produce a pair of unbeaten gems to steal an amazing series at Colombo's Sinhalese Sports Club later that winter. "The conditions were not natural to us so to win those series in Pakistan and Sri Lanka was something special."
The conditions on those tours were as unfamiliar to England as a damp Chester-le-Street will be to the Bangladeshis and so, for the time being, the focus returns to the task at hand, and the need for England to despatch their current opponents as clinically as possible. It is impossible, however, not to have one eye on the bigger picture this summer.