Graham Thorpe: Coolness Under Fire

For a long time in the nineties, and occasionally after that, being a specialist batsman in the England team was a difficult and thankless task.  Few players did more to bear that burden than Graham Thorpe.

By the time I wrote this, in 2001, he was reaching his peak as a player and starting to receive due recognition for his singular combination of unpretentious, highly polished skill and immense mental strength.

Between then and the time he left the England side to make way for the flourishing genius of Kevin Pietersen in 2005, his life and career endured many peaks and troughs, but nothing should be allowed to detract from the contribution he made in what was often a very dark time.

I’ve always liked Graham Thorpe.  Surrey boy. Like me (almost).  Comprehensive school. Like me.  Unlike me though, Thorpe could always play cricket well.  Very well.

But just where does he fit into the lexicon of contemporary English batsmanship?  Not as dour as Atherton, but every bit as tough.  Not as enigmatic as Hick, but often just as introspective. Not as relentlessly aggressive as Alec Stewart, but equally entertaining.  Thorpe has always been a singular and captivating player.

Thorpe first appeared for Surrey as an eighteen year-old in 1988.  He made few runs at first but picked up the odd wicket with his medium-pacers, including those of Peter Willey and David Gower on his debut.  Very soon, though, the trademark emblems of his batting – courage, intelligence and high skill – were obvious.  In the hot summer of 1989 he established an impregnable place in his county’s middle-order with more than a thousand runs at over forty and was chosen for the first of several England A tours.  And, in Kenya and Zimbabwe the following winter, he began to underline the qualities for which he has since become most familiar to followers of the fluctuating fortunes of the England Test team.  During that tour something of his intensity and mental strength became apparent, together with an unmistakeable touch of attitude expressed in the ability to make important runs when the chips are really down.  Thorpe’s highest score on the tour was 98, but his potential was succinctly summarized by Richard Streeton, who, in Wisden, pointed to the way in which Thorpe appeared ‘an emerging talent of the highest quality…(whose)…mental flexibility to adjust his strokeplay to the needs of the moment was remarkable in one so inexperienced’.  Little has changed.  As his many excellent innings in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the winter of 2000-1 showed, mental and physical flexibility, together with unshakeable self-belief, remain Thorpe’s greatest assets.

The following English season proved difficult.  Thorpe failed to progress as rapidly as had been hoped, but the England selectors – for once getting something entirely right – remained faithful, picking him for a further reserve tour of Sri Lanka.  He again did well, and followed it with a season of strong achievement with Surrey.  Solid runs in the West Indies for England A in early 1992, for Surrey the following summer (including his first double century) and once again for England A, this time in Australia, gave him a higher public profile and took him to the fringe of an England side which remained stubbornly resistant to the possibility of consistent success.

I hardly saw Thorpe play before he was finally given his chance with the full England side in 1993.  However, I’d known his name since he was an England Under-15 player in the mid-eighties, and, from reading the reports in both the general and specialist press, it was possible to tell that this might be a player of unusual merit.  At Trent Bridge in July 1993, England were already two down in the series against Australia and selected four new players – Thorpe, Mark Ilott, Mark Lathwell and Martin McCague.  Thorpe helped to secure England’s draw with a patient second innings century which indicated that he had the temperament, as well as the innate ability, to meet the potent demands of Test cricket.  Though he failed twice in the huge defeat which followed at Headingley, a compact and stylish half-century in England’s second innings at Birmingham assured him of a place on the West Indies tour scheduled for early 1994.

By now I had seen Thorpe play, and the Edgbaston innings in particular convinced me that he was – or at least ought to be – here to stay.  This wasn’t the case.  After performing creditably in very difficult circumstances on his first major Test tour, Thorpe found himself out of the England side at the start of the 1994 home season.  I was disappointed about this, and blamed it on Illingworth’s apparently peculiar regard for the potential of Craig White.  At the time I couldn’t see what White had to offer and I really felt that there was something about Thorpe. Something which to me spoke of unusual stoicism and guts and coolness under fire.  These were rare qualities for a modern English Test batsman.  At the time we had Atherton, and Stewart, and Robin Smith, but Gooch, though still very good, was growing old, and Hick and Ramprakash were as they would remain for the rest of their days – underachievers.  We needed Graham Thorpe.

By the second Test of the summer’s second series, against South Africa at Headingley, he was back where he has continued to belong. England had lost heavily at Lord’s, and, according once again to Wisden, White’s ‘absence with a stress fracture of the shin enabled the selectors to submit to the clamour for the left-handed Thorpe’.  It’s interesting and mildly irritating to read those words in retrospect, as it implies that the clamour for Thorpe was based upon the fact that he was a left-hander. This may well have been true, but those of us who wanted him back in the side wanted him there not because he was left-handed but because he was good.  He didn’t let us down at Leeds, making runs in each innings with the air of a man with several points to prove.  The first innings 72, in which he struck a series of sweetly polished cover-driven boundaries off Fanie de Villiers and Craig Matthews, lives especially strongly in the memory.  These innings were followed by two more punchy contributions as England levelled the series at The Oval.  This was a man who could provide a lot more than mere stability to the England middle-order.

I caught up with Thorpe in person over the following two winters in Australia and South Africa. A number of images from those tours remain in the memory.  On the second day of a Melbourne Test which England ended up losing heavily, Thorpe assisted Mike Atherton in trying to re-establish an England first innings which had hit early difficulties.  Warne was at the absolute height of his powers, but both players played with fortitude, poise and patience in very difficult circumstances.  Once again, the most impressive thing about Thorpe was the way in which he was apparently impervious to pressure and appeared to play better as the atmosphere grew in intensity.  In the Third Test at Sydney, where England improbably turned the tables on Australia and almost won, we saw the other side of Thorpe’s game.  This time he found himself in partnership with Hick as a dominant England pushed for a declaration on the fourth day.  While the main talking point afterwards was Atherton’s declaration with Hick on 98 not out (I didn’t have a problem with it, though others did), I preferred to recall the refreshing pugnacity of Thorpe.  Clearly he was a player for all seasons and was obviously destined to be a fixture in the England side for years to come.  After I returned home from Australia he made his second Test century at Perth, and, later in 1995, was England’s most consistent batsman against the West Indies.

South Africa, in late 1995 and early 1996, was more difficult.  For some reason I have an especially vivid recollection of Thorpe hitting a long-hop to mid-wicket to become the much-vaunted Paul Adams’ first Test wicket at Port Elizabeth, but, in the next game at Newlands, he was far more impressive as everything crumbled around him.  England lost the match in three days, but, as their second innings fell away before Donald and Pollock in the enervating Cape heat,  Thorpe played a gallant lone hand to finish with 59, which ended with him being run out, the subject of a contentious Third Umpire referral by Dave Orchard.  In general, England, under Illingworth’s increasingly capricious charge, were no further forward, but Thorpe was in the side to stay.

From the end of the 1994 season to the time of writing in 2001, Thorpe’s place in the England side has barely been questioned, although there was a period in 1998 and 1999 when he was failing much more often than before.  He was struggling with a persistent back complaint which forced him to return home early from the 1998-99 Australian tour, and, following series after series of repetitious achievement, he had simply run into a prolonged loss of form.  A clue to the reasons for this came when Thorpe opted to make himself unavailable for the tour to South Africa in 1999-2000 in order to spend some valuable time with his family, from whom he had become used to being apart over six consecutive winters of England tours.  In 2000 he returned to the side to share in the long-awaited defeat of the West Indies, but he still looked to be out of sorts, falling repeatedly and almost comically to Courtney Walsh’s slower ball. There was criticism again, but I still believed in him.

As 2000 drew to a close, Thorpe opened England’s Pakistan tour with a hundred in Lahore and followed it with fifties in Faisalabad and Karachi.  In the last of these innings he memorably guided England to their first Test victory in the country since 1962 with his customary coolness and skill.  In Sri Lanka after Christmas he repeated the trick, building gradually towards the two vital unbeaten innings which secured victory in Colombo for his side and led respected observers to comment that he was now one of the finest batsmen in the worldIs this really true, and where does he stand in relation to the players who have accompanied him on England’s journey from darkness into light?

At this point in time, given the combination of desire, technique and sheer physical toughness which he displayed in Sri Lanka, Thorpe is undoubtedly worthy of favourable comparison with the best batsmen that the rest of the world has to offer.  But there are, as always, doubts and questions.  He still hasn’t turned enough of his Test fifties into hundreds and, as a result, his average hovers around forty when it should be higher.  There’s been enough introspectiveness and inconsistency in Thorpe’s past career to cause one to wonder what the Ashes Tests may bring.  Only three of Thorpe’s nine Test centuries have been made in England and he increasingly appears a player at his best when the heat is intense and the pitch is hard and dry, rewarding good footwork and decisive strokeplay against spin and pace.  But whatever the playing conditions I always have a sense of excitement and anticipation when Thorpe comes to the wicket.  If it is a good day, the early, testing deliveries will be kept out with some ease. Then the drives and cuts and pulls will flow and the gaze of suspicion and concentration from behind the grille will deepen in intensity.  And, when he’s really into the innings, there’ll be that characteristic mannerism where he blows on his gloves and maybe, just maybe, the odd smile.

These are satisfying days for Thorpe.  While Atherton and Stewart appear more popular with England’s supporters, this is probably on account of their prolonged exposure to the new ball and the vicissitudes of the England captaincy.  Hussain reigns supreme for the time being, regardless of how many – or how few – runs he makes.  The likes of Ramprakash and Hick engender greater sympathy and fascination because of the sense of unfulfillment that seems destined always to accompany their talents.  But Thorpe will not worry.  The introspection of Hick and Ramprakash comes from lack of confidence and the fatal imbalance between expectation and achievement.  Thorpe’s is a product of assurance and certainty.

Call it what you will, Thorpe has always possessed the elusive quality that makes some men stronger while others wilt when the pressure is on.

You could call it coolness under fire.

Cricket Lore, Volume 4, Issue 8, August 2001