Cricket: Graduation day at hand for Thorpe: Texaco Cup focus: Surrey's No 3 batsman has had to endure a long international apprenticeship. Rob Steen reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN ENGLISH cricket's sartorially challenged 1993 summer collection was unveiled at The Oval last autumn, the final pyjama-clad mannequin down the catwalk was the local supermodel, Graham Thorpe. Primed by hours of swotting in front of The Clothes Show, he got a little carried away, preening and strutting his stuff long after the music stopped.

Here, clearly, is a young man who takes his responsibilities seriously. Dig beneath Thorpe's unassuming veneer and there is indeed a showman there, yet one who knows that discipline and self-restraint are more traditional passports to the highest level of his profession. Happily, pragmatism is beginning to reap its due.

Thorpe seems to have been a contender for an age - nine England A graduates have beaten him to senior recognition. All the same, given the England selectors' habit of putting age before beauty, the presence at Old Trafford today of the 23-year-old left-hander from Farnham positively reeks of cradle-snatching. Since Mark Lathwell (21), Dominic Cork (21) and Andy Caddick (24) will also be on hand, one can only assume Ted Dexter rented a video of Bugsy Malone to enliven last week's ruminations.

Sceptics point out that Thorpe has taken four A-team tours to win his spurs, if one dare use such a term about a lifelong Stamford Bridge regular. Football, in fact, afforded this versatile athlete his first glimpse of the limelight as an England Under-18 midfielder.

That first A venture, to Zimbabwe in early 1990, followed a maiden full season rich in promise. Against Hampshire he entered at 22 for 2, 'walked' on 11 before being recalled, was caught off a Malcolm Marshall no-ball on 23 and finished with 115, exuding a composure all too rare in a county freshman. Against Kent he loosened up, cantering to 154. 'When batsmen play shots off the back foot the ball tends to go square, but he manages to direct it past cover and even mid-off,' Alan Knott marvelled.

Scoring rates in Harare and Bulawayo were barely worthy of the name, but the baby of the party refused to settle for grim occupation. Thorpe alone had the temerity to loft the miserly John Traicos over the top. He alone treated Eddo Brandes's bouncer as an invitation to hook. A few weeks later, 14 county captains nominated Thorpe as the one to follow in the 1990 season, but he made just three half-centuries and was twice nobbled for a pair.

'All that talk of Thorpie being the new Gower must have affected him,' was the sympathetic verdict of Geoff Arnold, the Surrey coach. Thorpe prefers to cite the experience as a necessary brush with failure. 'People ask if self-doubt crept in during all those A tours but I did all my doubting after that 1990 season. I had a dozen knocks in a row in May without reaching 40. 'Christ', I thought, 'is this really happening?' For the first time in my life I lost confidence. But I came through it.'

Subsequent A trips broadened his education. In Sri Lanka he tackled spin with nimble footwork, reaching 50 in all three unofficial Tests. In the Caribbean he stood up to Courtney Walsh and his henchmen as resolutely as any, Keith Fletcher singling him out as the best of the visiting batsman despite a knack of succumbing to blinding catches or shortsighted umpires when about to turn attrition into attack. On the bouncier Australian pitches earlier this year Thorpe 'learned to line the ball up better', topping the tour aggregates and first-class averages. Among English-qualified batsman on the right side of 30, only Graeme Hick, Robin Smith and Atherton can boast a higher career average than his 43.12.

The advent of a full four-day Championship, Thorpe feels, will help him improve. 'For one thing, it should enhance my mental sharpness because of the extra days off. Last season we played 20 days on the trot at one point, so when you woke up in the morning you had to kick yourself up the backside to keep reminding yourself how much you wanted this.'

Fortunately, the desire is considerable. 'I might only get 25 first-class innings a summer, so going on, making every one count, will be all the more important. People often say how the Australians seem hungrier than us because they play so little. Perhaps this'll make us hungrier.'

Now entrenched as the Surrey No 3, Thorpe has also benefited from having to play Ernie Wise to Alistair Brown's Eric Morecambe. 'We have two or three players who like to smash the ball around, so we need someone to push it around. I've worked as hard on defence as attack over the past year. Geoff Arnold is always trying to drill in the need to be selective.'

He was that and more during last week's Benson and Hedges Cup tie against Lancashire. There were but seven fours in his century, yet deft placement and stealth between the wickets more than compensated. He and Alec Stewart put on 212, apparently deciding matters, whereupon the last nine wickets fell for 18 runs.

'We bottled it,' Thorpe admitted, 'and I was the culprit. Me and Stewie should have knocked off the runs but as soon as he went I got myself out. You couldn't blame the rest of the lads because they had to come in cold.' Whatever else he offers England, selflessness, refreshingly, takes pride of place.

(Photograph omitted)