MODERN CRICKET tours have no time for sympathy these days and just hours after England had drawn their game against Victoria, Graham Thorpe was winging his way back to London. But if that wasn't alarming enough for one day a nose to nipple confrontation between Mark Ramprakash and the 6ft 10in tall Ashley Gilbert added an unnecessarily controversial note to the final day's play.
While Thorpe was busy packing his bags for the flight home, Ramprakash, rarely the coolest of customers, was off-loading his own verbal baggage after Dean Headley had bounced the tall bowler first ball. On the previous day, when England had batted, Gilbert had sledged Ramprakash, giving the Middlesex captain a double dose when he got him out mistiming a pull shot to mid-wicket while on 33.
Whatever was said on that occasion - allegedly it was no more colourful than a series of Anglo-Saxon expressions - it clearly niggled away at Ramprakash, who ran in from cover to have his say; Gilbert and Headley having already exchanged, presumably, differing viewpoints.
Although part and parcel of the game in Australia, the intensity with which Ramprakash made his point went beyond the normal bluster and it needed Alec Stewart, the England captain, to step in and defuse it.
Later Stewart tried to play the whole thing down by calling it the "Little and Large show", claiming that "it looked a lot worse than it was".
Despite the testosterone, it probably did, and neither umpire saw fit to lodge a code of conduct report. But if Ramprakash's actions were not sanctioned by authority, they will not have gone unnoticed by Australia, who are merciless at exploiting an opponent's weaknesses, be it emotional or technical. As Ramprakash has batted well against them in the Tests, some serious sledging could well be in the offing.
Curiously, emotion was the one thing largely missing when the England management announced Thorpe's departure. While his team-mates teased and tempted Victoria into chasing a target of 280, the Surrey man gave a curiously matter-of-fact press conference. "The Ashes is the biggest series we get to play in and it's a big disappointment to take no further part," Thorpe said. "Obviously, I'd have liked to help the team get back into the series, but when your time's up you have to go and I wish the lads well."
Including A tours, Thorpe has represented England on each of the last nine winter tours. It is a vast amount of playing and travelling to have undertaken and any disappointment may well have been cancelled out by a sub-conscious feeling of relief.
The impact on England's morale, if not devastating, could not have come at a worse time, and England's hopes of clawing one back in Adelaide will be that bit harder without their nuggety left-hander to oversee the middle order. Surprisingly for a tour where little has gone right and bad backs have been as common as bad batting, no replacement has been summoned.
It is a risky situation to be in and England's only contingency, should a batsman be injured in the next day or so, is to call on someone already playing in the general area. Adam Hollioake, currently in Perth, and Vince Wells, busy playing in New Zealand, are two players mentioned by Stewart who fit that particular bill.
Bodies can only stand so much, something administrators with their plans of increasing the amount of international cricket do not seem to understand. But if things are not likely to improve over the short term - the ECB plans to play up to seven Tests and at least five one-day internationals from the year 2000 - Thorpe is determined to be part of England's future and he scotched suggestions that this might be his last appearance at Test level.
"I don't think I'm at the age for hanging my boots up yet," he said. "It's really a question of sitting down and going back to the workshop and getting it right. It doesn't feel as chronic as it felt before I had the operation, so with time and effort I plan to put in, I hope to get there as soon as possible."
Thorpe's condition, described by the England physiotherapist, Wayne Morton, as "non-specific lower back pain", comes from instability and weakness in the lower back, something he will have to improve with strengthening exercises.
With the clock not ticking so insistently, Thorpe at least has time, something England ran out of in their bid to bowl out Victoria in 67 overs. Declaring overnight, they set their opponents 280 runs to win on a pitch still amenable to batting.
As draws go, it held the interest right up until the final few overs. At one stage, just after the Ramprakash incident, Stewart set a "Bodyline" field to Gilbert with four short legs crowding the batsman. If it was a success in 1932 under Douglas Jardine, it proved fruitless here, though England had dropped three catches earlier in the day.
But if the match provided a decent workout before Friday's Test, it has not narrowed down many options, and apart from Thorpe's injury bringing John Crawley back into the frame, England are probably no closer to playing a spinner in Adelaide than they were at Perth.
Robert Croft may have taken three wickets, but his efforts were not those of a spinner with the ability to bowl out sides in the last innings of a game. Indeed, Croft was so erratic and unchallenging that Stewart kept Croft on when he wanted to keep Victoria in the hunt after they had lost wickets.
Unless he plans to do the same to Australia, Stewart is probably better off playing four seamers, with Headley, who bowled well against Victoria, coming in for the erratic Dominic Cork.
Final day of four; England won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings 373 (A J Stewart 126, M R Ramprakash 78, G A Hick 67).
VICTORIA - First Innings 300 (S A J Craig 83no, P J Roach 80; D W Headley 5-58).
ENGLAND - Second Innings 207 for 5 dec (J P Crawley 68).
VICTORIA - Second Innings
M P Mott c Hick b Hollioake 9
J L Arnberger c sub b Headley 1
G R Vimpani lbw b Fraser 72
*B J Hodge c sub b Croft 50
S A J Craig c Hick b Headley 45
J M Davison c Hick b Croft 0
J R Bakker st sub b Ramprakash 33
P J Roach not out 24
B A Williams c Fraser b Croft 4
A S Gilbert not out 3
Extras (lb2 nb2) 4
Total (for 8, 66.5 overs) 245
Fall: 1-3, 2-33, 3-111, 4-156, 5-156, 6-211, 7-216, 8-232.
Did not bat: M W H Inness.
Bowling: Headley 17.5-6-54-2; Fraser 12- 2-33-1; Hollioake 10-1-40-1; Croft 20-3- 85-3; Ramprakash 7-0-31-1.
Umpires: T A Prue and G T D Morrow.