The little genius in the corner
In recent times parting has been a sweet sorrow for England. Mike Atherton's retirement as player and Nasser Hussain's resignation as captain led to a thrilling raising of the bar first as opener, then as leader by Michael Vaughan. Darren Gough stepped down as spearhead around the time Steve Harmison realised how to use the sort of raw materials Gough only dreamed of. Alec Stewart¹s farewell precipitated the full flowering of Andrew Flintoff¹s unique talent. And last summer Andrew Strauss' remarkable emergence intertwined with Hussain's retirement.
But, when Graham Thorpe nurdles his last Test run, almost certainly at the end of this season, there will be little comfort to be drawn. Kevin Pietersen may be ready to fill Thorpe's shoes at No. 5 but who will fill his role as the chameleon of the side, able to attack and defend as the situation demands? Who will be the tortoise among England's hares? Thorpe has been England's best batsman since Graham Gooch and David Gower, fusing the down-and-dirty mentality of Atherton and Hussain with the whiter-than-white strokeplay of Stewart and Vaughan.
Not that he has ever really got the credit. Fitness permitting, Thorpe will play his 100th Test against Bangladesh at Chester-le-Street in June but there has never been much danger of a telegram from the top. If he lined up in an identity parade to find the finest English batsman of his generation, few people would notice Thorpe. Like Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, he would be the little genius in the corner barely recognised, occasionally patronised. Like Soze, you underestimate him at your peril.
Thorpe can do it all: bravery (114 despite a broken finger at Old Trafford in 2004); abstinence (his Lahore century in 2000-01 was believed to be the first with only one boundary) or merry indulgence (a double-hundred in 231 balls at Christchurch 2001-02); selflessness in setting a target or nervelessness in reaching one; monotonous accumulation or bewildering brilliance; crisis management to turn a match or risk management to turn a series. Whatever the circumstances, Thorpe is your man.
Surely the lack of recognition must grate? "To be honest, it doesn't bother me. I always say there's a Goughie type and my type in a team. Goughie is so natural at doing it [being a showman]. Have I got the credit I deserve? I've been bloody lucky to have played international cricket, to have had two or three bites at the cherry."
His last taste could yet be the sweetest. Australia's gunslingers loom on the horizon but with that menace comes the tantalising prospect of what might be. Whatever happens, Thorpe will not be beating himself up over it. While his face looks wary, weary, and his piercing eyes could still freeze hell over, he is more relaxed these days: warm and engaging, a walking epiphany minus the preachy piety that can make sportsmen like the footballer Tony Adams irritating. "Off the field I've had so much stuff," he says, "that the cricket becomes quite laughable."
Off the field I've had so much stuff, that the cricket becomes quite laughable
Having missed 13 of the last 14 Ashes Tests, Thorpe will just be glad to be involved. "Last chance, basically," he says. "Last chance. Fingers crossed I can stay fit and my form's good. It takes on enormous significance. Whoever is involved in that England team that regains the Ashes whether it's this summer or the one in four years they'll be legends."
But Thorpe already has his place in Ashes legend. At Trent Bridge in 1993 he came to the crease in the second innings with England 2-0 down and effectively 107 for 5. The Australians must have looked at this busy little man, heard his slight lisp, remembered his limp first-innings surrender and thought he was a pushover. He was not and he never would be.
While his fellow debutants Mark Lathwell, Martin McCague and Mark Ilott shimmered with ultimately unfulfilled promise, Thorpe paid off immediately. His unbeaten 114 set the tone for a career in which he would yield to no one. In oozing such a defiantly Australian toughness Thorpe almost made you proud to be English.
"I would say a lot of the mental strength in cricket is to make the right decisions as many times as possible and not to be intimidated," he says. "The only time I can remember falling down was in my third Test when I was facing Shane Warne and Ian Healy said I was going to play for a red-inker [a not out]. My pride took over and I thought, `Sod you, I'll show you I'm not playing for a red-inker.' I bolted down the wicket and got stumped. [He had made 60]. That's the one time I've really been done by sledging. So you learn from that. You start with something, a basic kind of inner strength, and then you grow. You grow as a person and as a player."
Yet Thorpe's growth was stunted by Ray Illingworth's bizarre decision to drop him for the first four Tests of the 1994 season. When Thorpe came back against South Africa, he was a different player, less constrained by the received norms of Test cricket: wait for the bad ball, see off the best bowlers, play yourself in. "I didn't fear failure," he says. "I was determined to play more shots. On that trip to the West Indies [in 1993-94] I had the benefit of watching Brian Lara bat. I watched him and I realised that he had such a range of being able to score off even a good delivery. And he was able to do it because of his technique, the way he picked his bat up, the quickness of his feet."
Thorpe quickly grew into England's finest counter-attacker since Ted Dexter, the man who would march to the crease at 20 for 2 and scatter the field by slamming straight on the accelerator. It was the old Steve Waugh trick: spread the field, reverse the momentum, then settle down for the long haul. Flay yourself in, then play yourself in. "I used to see some batsmen who would occupy the crease and then get a good ball," Thorpe says. "I thought if I could get to 20 quickly, then I could really dig in. You also get runs under your belt. It helps you, builds your confidence."
Risk management quickly became his area of expertise. "There was always that balancing act between the determination to have a technique which will keep you at the crease and trying to dominate some of the good bowlers and take my game up to another level. Risk-taking is a big part of playing international cricket."
As Thorpe flowered, other more feted peers like Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash began to wither. Some blamed management or rather mismanagement. The pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey selection culture of the time meant it was every man for himself. "You knew that if you didn't perform in two Test matches you were looking over your shoulder. The media would write up somebody who got a hundred in a county game and bang! You had to have a certain kind of mentality to survive a selfish mentality."
Even Thorpe, England's banker, could not get comfortable. "No, no, no, not in the first half of my career, no." The real problem was his fifty-to-hundred conversion rate. Only one of the next 19 fifties after his debut was taken on to a century (also against Australia, at Perth), a peculiar weakness for so flinty a character. "There were bloody good bowlers around at the time," he says. "But I was a bit edgy as well. And also hundreds weren't that important in three-day cricket. Sometimes a quick 70 or 80 did the job. In Test cricket that's not the case: 150 and bigger. That¹s the mentality we have now."
Before Duncan Fletcher's arrival as England coach in 1999, Thorpe's conversion rate was 20%; in Fletcher's time it is a ruthless 42%. Thorpe needed a figure like Fletcher. His career had begun to plateau as the demands of a poor side, muddled rhetoric (Thorpe gathered a reputation as an anti-establishment figure) and 10 successive English summers and winter tours with A team or senior side (a national record) took their toll.
After a winter off Thorpe came back recharged for the seismic trip to Asia in 2000-01. "It was then that I became a complete player of spin where I really understood myself," he says. "I was brought up on crappy old club wickets where you had to play with soft hands, so I had a technique but not one where I really understood what I was doing. Duncan talked about the forward press and that was something new to me. He said I naturally did it but I didn't know about it. In 2000 I really understood."
So did the public. Thorpe was in the form of his life, the Ashes were looming; for the first time he was the darling of English cricket. Yet, having emerged from the shadows, he went straight into darkness. First a mystery calf injury and broken hand wrecked another Ashes campaign, then his life fell apart as his marriage went to pieces. It was the one challenge that Thorpe was singularly unequipped to handle.
After years of looking like the strong, silent type, the straight man of English cricket, it was a shock to see Thorpe struggle with such emotions. He sleepwalked through the following tour of New Zealand, where he scored a barely remembered Test-best 200, under the clouds of domestic troubles and Ben Hollioake¹s death: "I had bees in my head," he says. Yet the sharpest sting was to come: India at Lord's. It was the sickest kind of reality TV: watching a man endure five days of cold turkey. He scored 4 and 1 as England won. "If that had been my last game for England, yeah, Christ, I could have been a bit bitter," he says.
If that had been my last game for England, yeah, Christ, I could have been a bit bitter
After a spell of brutal solitude, doing "jack shit" and drinking at home alone every night, Thorpe realised that "the world was still turning". So was his wheel of fortune. An injury to Hussain gave him his chance for the last Test against South Africa in 2003 on his home ground at The Oval and he grasped it unforgettably. "It was a second debut, totally," he says.
Like his first debut he marked it in style. Fourteen months after his public burial against India came the resurrection. Thorpe scored a match-turning 124, a moment he knows he will never top. "I felt there was a bigger thing going on. To be able to stand back up, go out there and achieve again was just something I can't really put into words. It was like my whole life had been given back to me."
That kick-started one long Indian summer. The new Thorpe has quietly integrated himself as part of "the best England team I¹ve been involved with by miles", the last relic of the past among a PlayStation generation that knows only success. He is their safety valve the giddy counter-attacker has become the sober counterweight to England¹s phalanx of aggressors. "I'm now the nurdler," he interjects, his cartoon voice betraying amusement but also a hint of contempt for such faint praise.
But why has Thorpe, like Steve Waugh and Hussain before him, sacrificed so much flair in the twilight of his career? "I had more strengths when I was younger but I also had more weaknesses," he says. "Now I might have to limit myself in certain areas. Also, the second half of my career has been much more of a team understanding. The Test in Joburg last winter where I got nought and one, for example. If that had happened in the 10th match of my career, I would have been pissed off. But in Joburg I thought, I've done jack shit in the game but it still meant so much."
Thorpe was nowhere near his best last winter, when he was up against his toughest adversary. "My nemesis?" he says. "Shaun Pollock. I can say it now as I'm probably not going to play him again. It's because he got so close to the stumps and had the ability to swing the ball back in. It made him an absolute nightmare for me sometimes."
Just as Thorpe struggled, so did England. "If we play like that, we won¹t beat Australia. You can¹t make the slip-ups we made in SA. But it was a huge result precisely because we didn't play consistently good cricket but we had good performances at the right time."
Crucially, England's selectors are more inclined to keep the faith these days. "That happened when Duncan and Nasser came in," he says. "They realised you can't play on fear all the time, thinking you're going to be dropped which certainly happened in the first half of my career." Fletcher has empowered England. "He's less worried about how you get out. I always felt in the first part of my career there was a way to get out playing international cricket. If you got a rough decision or a good ball when you were playing defensively, negatively, that would be deemed all right. I didn¹t get out having a swing, or caught on the hook. He's encouraged players: "If it's a shot you play, then go and play it." Vaughany is very good like that, as well. Don't be afraid of getting out. Look at someone like Freddie. He comes down and takes the spinners on and misses one and gets stumped, well, shit happens."
Fletcher has taken England to heights inconceivable when he took over the worst Test team in the world nearly six years ago. Now they have one more hurdle. "Our cricket has improved enormously but Australia have also improved. The systems they've had in place for 20 years we've had for only six or seven," Thorpe says. "They've had such a winning mentality that, if they slip or get complacent, they could slip a long way. You've got to look at their squad; they are getting older."
Thorpe will not be around to cash in on any decline. The loose ends of his career are tying up conveniently. "I've got a contract with England till the end of the summer," he says. "Same with Surrey. So I will see body, form, all that," And then what? "I'll take a big deep breath and take in what has just passed in my life. There are so many things you can do; you have to get out there and get among it. I'm far less afraid of things and far less afraid of the end of my career. I've been bloody lucky to have as much as I have. I couldn¹t really ask for much more." Well, there is one thing. If England win the Ashes in Thorpe's last Test, not even he will be able to avoid the limelight.
This article was first published in the June issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Click here for further details.