September 24, 2015

'I evolved as a bloke through my career'

Graham Thorpe talks about overcoming personal problems as a player, his best innings, and his views on England's next generation

"It would have been lovely in my era to win the Ashes, but we just weren't good enough" © PA Photos

Graham Thorpe speaks brightly and breezily, with the carefree air of a man content with his lot. Cast your mind back a decade and more to Thorpe's playing career, and you'll perhaps understand All Out Cricket's surprise at this ease and openness.

"You don't want to be the same in your mid-forties as you were at 18," he says. "I evolved as a bloke through my career, with all that happened along the way. I was insular to start, no shadow of a doubt, and I certainly preferred myself as a person by the time I finished."

Thorpe, who spent much of his career as England's finest batsman in an era of underachievement, always seemed a tad cranky, a bit distant. He often looked utterly exhausted; bags under the eyes betraying the baggage of years spent on the international treadmill. Little wonder: he was the first Englishman to tour ten consecutive winters, and went through a redtop-documented divorce.

Early in the noughties, Thorpe seemed to be perennially lurching from one enforced absence to another, but between times played some of his most memorable innings, in memorable victories - particularly overseas. To think knocks in victories in Karachi, Colombo and Christchurch - not to mention Lahore - came within 18 months is staggering. The enduring memory of Thorpe's playing career is of batting brilliance: a nuggety, poker-faced southpaw, a patient accumulator, but capable of dashing attack. The numbers reflect that: a Test average of 44.66 in an era when his team-mates generally averaged thirty-something, and just a fraction less away than home (45.17). But only right at his career's end, as the wise, old head in Michael Vaughan's bright, young team that would eventually win the Ashes without him, did he seem cheerful.

"Beating the Australians isn't the be all and end all - if you'd offered me that career when I was that grumpy 18-year-old, I would have bitten your hand off"

"I was angsty when I was younger," he says. "I didn't open up much. I was grumpy, striving to make it in the game. There are a lot of unknowns when you're young: do I belong here? Am I good enough? There's a lot of proving to do along the way, to yourself and to those around you. Like most cricketers you start to become more comfortable in a team and you see them grow. Over time that happened to me." When, then, was the hair let down?

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Michael Atherton said in his autobiography that "of all the players I played with, [Thorpe] was the one whose state of mind most affected his play. A happy, contented Thorpe is a world-class player, his presence beneficial to any team. If something off the field is eating away at him, he cannot put it to the back of his mind and concentrate on his cricket."

Thorpe's transformation began in 2002 when the collapse of his marriage brought about one of those absences from the side. Previously, he'd left the Caribbean early in 1998, declined to visit South Africa in 1999-2000 due to the rigours of touring life, and flew home halfway through a tour of India in 2001. In the summer of 2002 he'd play just the first four of seven Tests, retire from ODIs, then take an indefinite break from all cricket due to off-field issues.

On his 124 at The Oval in 2003: "I've no hesitation in saying that it was the best innings I ever played" © PA Photos

"When I had my divorce I got opened up," he says. "All the skeletons in the cupboard came out, and there were a few there. As things became public it was tough and I was hurt, I was drinking lots and I was insular, bitter and lonely. So to come through that and to remarry and have another child, I feel very blessed that I can work and enjoy myself. That's part of life. We grow and change and embrace those changes. That was a process that needed to happen for me to become the relaxed guy I am today. All the circumstances around my divorce - it being so public - contributed to that. I desperately needed that break from the game."

At the end of the summer of 2002, Thorpe's strategic timeout was extended. He was named in the Ashes party, before withdrawing a fortnight later. But by February 2003 he'd rescinded his ODI retirement and, three months on, he was scoring successive Surrey centuries in a bid to restate his Test claims: he was available for England, tours and all. It was one hell of a year and a corner had been turned. A Test return would have to wait, though. Anthony McGrath and then Ed Smith were picked first, but when Nasser Hussain cracked a digit - a toe this time, not one of those infamous fingers - in the fourth Test against South Africa, Thorpe was handed his return and produced a seminal innings that helped England to a series-saving draw at The Oval.

What are your memories of that innings?
That innings was a gift. My old mate Nass created an opportunity for me by breaking that toe. By then I was in a good place, everything that had gone on and off the field with my marriage, I was over it. I was enjoying cricket for the first time in ages and I was in a new relationship.

"You have to have other things in your life, especially on tour, whether that's playing the guitar or reading or visiting the Taj Mahal or a safari"

I've no hesitation in saying that it was the best innings I ever played. I knew the amount of pressure I was under and had plenty of doubts. Am I good enough still? Would it be one game and out forever? I had to try to enjoy it but the first two days we spent in the field with South Africa racking up 500-odd as they had all summer. When it came to batting, I got in for 40 minutes on the second evening and didn't play that well but scraped through to 20-odd. I went home, had a nice dinner, a big glass of wine, came back in the morning and it felt like everything I hit would go for runs. It was really special. Having not played for a long time and to have all those issues off the field, to score a hundred was the most wonderful thing. It really was. My life had been such a mess but was back on the right lines and that showed in my cricket.

You enjoyed a superb run in the side after that knock, and the team wasn't going badly either…
An amazing 18 months followed, where I averaged 65. Vaughan was calling me the granddad of the team and it was great fun. We had an enormous amount of success. But I was having quite a few jabs in my back and playing with less instinct. I knew the end was never far away - I was almost trying to bluff myself and everyone else that my body was okay. The end can come incredibly quickly and it crept up on me on that tour to South Africa in 2004-05. I got a dogged hundred at Durban, 80-odd in the last Test we saved and then we won the series, but I knew within myself that my career was coming to the end. Physically it was so much harder. After the comeback I played every single game as if it was my last. I tried to keep the same instincts I'd had - to play to win, to contribute. But with more pain that gets harder.

"When I had my divorce I got opened up. All the skeletons in the cupboard came out. I desperately needed that break from the game" © Getty Images

The end was quite sudden, in the lead-up to the 2005 Ashes. Did you have that series marked out as your time to bow out?
After that South Africa tour, I was thinking about what I'd do in the next part of my life. I had contact with David Gilbert, the CEO at New South Wales. He put it to me: "Do you want to come over here and do some coaching at the end of the season?" So that started to go round in my head and I agreed to it. I told the people who needed to know, like Duncan Fletcher. I said I wouldn't make any fuss but it would be my last summer of cricket. That may have brought on their decision.

How was it broken to you that you'd been dropped for Kevin Pietersen?
I was out having dinner with my old mate Ray Harnelli-Khan when Grav [David Graveney, then chairman of selectors] phoned up at about 10 at night and said I hadn't been selected for the first Test. We got into the retirement thing and it got a bit messy. But I was adamant I wouldn't fall out with anyone. Vaughan wrote me a nice letter to say thanks, and so did Andrew Strauss. I had contact with Fletcher, Geoff Miller, Grav, and kept good relationships with all those people because they'd been good relationships throughout my career and I didn't want them soured.

I said, "I want to sit down with you all and have a glass of wine when we're done." That was important to me. My dad had always told me that, because it will end and you will have to do something else with your life. I played out the summer with Surrey, went to Sydney and that was that.

"To succeed in Tests, they need to be able to play fast, short-pitched bowling, because if you can't do that your head then your feet are messed with by the full ball"

None of your generation - Nasser, Stewart, Athers, Butcher - won the Ashes. You were the last to go, and then England won it straight away. Does that rankle?
Honestly it doesn't. It would have been lovely in my era to win them but we just weren't good enough. The rivalry and everything that comes with it is fantastic but beating the Australians isn't the be all and end all - if you'd offered me that career when I was that nervous, grumpy 18-year-old, I would have bitten your hand off. I don't look back sadly about the end, although I think others do for me! After all, the two young guys who I missed out to that summer [Ian Bell and Pietersen] haven't had bad careers, have they? I look back to 2002 and I was so low, feeling utterly hopeless and alone - that ending seemed very smooth indeed!

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Talking to Thorpe, there's a sense that all this was building up to what he does now: training England's youngsters to succeed at the highest level.

"I feel pretty well-qualified," he says. "I saw a bit and generally was successful. I have a bit of perspective and can offer advice on different aspects of the game. Touring ground me down at times. You have to have other things in your life, especially on tour, whether that's playing the guitar or reading or visiting the Taj Mahal or a safari or whatever.

"I didn't always do that particularly well to start with so the cricket became all consuming. If you don't do well at the cricket then crikey, it's going to be one hell of a tough time. It's getting that balance and I feel in a good position to help them. If they become too consumed in cricket, the game will lose them earlier, like we have with guys in the past."

Thorpe on Sam Billings: "In his role as a finisher in short-form cricket, he's hungry to walk off the field, not out, having won it or done everything he can" © PA Photos

What does he look for in a batsman cut out to play at the top level? "The key is temperament - whether opening the innings in Tests or finishing in T20. The next is judgment of length, which is also necessary across all formats. Then you can compartmentalise a bit - to succeed in Tests, they need to be able to play fast, short-pitched bowling, because if you can't do that your head then your feet are messed with by the full ball. In the short forms it now goes without saying that they need power."

Thorpe knows England's youngsters' games like no other and talks of each like sons. These boys are in safe hands.

The new crop

Thorpe, ECB lead batting coach, gives the inside track on five of England's most special batting talents.

Jos Buttler
Jos is the first of the English guys to break into the Test side having really grown up on T20 cricket. It's important that he just plays his natural game - he has an outrageous array of strokes, scoring areas and sheer strength. One of the things that strikes me is the number of different strokes he can hit for six, and not even look like he's hitting the ball that hard. He's fully 360 degrees. The pick-up isn't huge, but the hand speed that he drives through his strokes with is extraordinary, and that makes him our most adaptable player in the short forms, and I believe that with time we will see the best of him in Test cricket.

Ben Stokes
When I first saw Ben, when he was 19 or 20, his hand speed and his eye for a ball were off the scale. The sheer talent is ridiculous. With him, it's been more about polishing him, helping him understand the tactics of batting, and keeping his head. The more Ben plays, the more he learns and the better he gets, which means that potential is pretty limitless. He's a product of the game's development over the last ten years, and who knows what he can achieve in all formats over the next few years.

Sam Billings
Sam has the potential to follow Jos and play all forms of cricket for England, no doubt. When guys are as talented as this lot are, it's important to keep an open mind about what they can achieve and in what formats. He plays the sweep and reverse sweep cleverly and at the right time, but has the power too. The way a guy like Sam practices - parking the ball into Row Z, flicking it over extra, scooping over fine leg, reverse scooping - they're so adept at playing these strokes, that it's about firming their foundations so they can get in and play them as quickly as possible. Another thing I like about Sam is how, in his role as a finisher in short-form cricket, he's hungry to walk off the field, not out, having won it or done everything he can to set a big total.

James Vince
With Vince it's the grace that stands out. When he's playing well, he's just the sweetest timer of a cricket ball. He's still young and learning about his game but is also certainly very mature. The fact he's Hampshire captain now is evidence of that. That responsibility will be really good for him. Because his classical strokes are so elegant and how easy on the eye he is, it's easy to forget the range of modern strokes that he has. He makes it look like he's not hitting the ball hard, but he's more than capable of that too.

Jason Roy
Jason's another who has the ability to go on and not just contribute in the white-ball game, even if that is his strength right now. Guys with this much talent, it's very much up to them: how much talent and desire do they have to play Test cricket? That's one of the most exciting things about these guys, and I've no doubt that they are evidence that we are producing more talent now than we were before. Jason hits the ball so hard, but there's much more to him than just that. He's another with deft ramps and sweeps, and is brilliant at making life hard for the bowler with his flexibility.

This article first appeared in All Out Cricket magazine. Get hold of the latest issue here

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