Cricket: Thorpe back in back trouble

CRICKET: England 373 & 207-5 Victoria 300
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The Independent Online
THE RECURRING back problems that Graham Thorpe has endured since March has effectively ruled him out of the third Test in Adelaide, which begins on Friday. Batting in England's second innings against Victoria, Thorpe had managed just one run in 40 minutes before he retired hurt, a move that provoked yet more speculation over his short-term future as a player.

The setback is one England could well have done without before what is potentially the most important Test series. Averaging 83 on this tour, and 48.5 in all Tests against Australia, Thorpe is arguably the most essential ingredient in England's batting line-up.

But if players cannot always guarantee their form, their fitness has to be taken as read. In fact, no side can afford to risk a player, no matter how good, if he alternates between rock and crock on a daily basis, and England clearly risked Thorpe here, perhaps unwisely, in order to find that out sooner rather than later.

Thorpe, who missed the second Test in Perth with back problems, was apparently compromised before his innings began. One of England's most accomplished batsmen, the Surrey left-hander had managed just a single run in 29 balls when he summoned the England physiotherapist, Wayne Morton, on to the pitch at a drinks break.

Following a brief conversation with Morton, Thorpe decided to retire, passing his captain, Alec Stewart, as he made the long, disconsolate trudge back to the pavilion.

"Graham felt the stiffness begin about 20 minutes before he batted," Morton said. "The area of pain is in a broad band across his lower back, and it prevented him from transferring his weight, which in turn limited his movement at the crease."

"Locked up" were the words the England manager, Graham Gooch, used to describe it, though, in an attempt to be upbeat, the tour authorities claimed they would not be rushed into a decision.

"We knew Graham's back was a risk from the day we brought him out," Morton explained. In fact, the rehabilitation programme, since the surgery he had in August to remove a cyst from a facet joint, had been going pretty well.

"Indeed, everything was fine until the last fortnight, which has been disappointing for him, and we shall wait for it to settle before reassessing the situation."

Backs can be fickle things and Thorpe's has been playing up since last March, when he came home early from the one-day series in the West Indies. Despite rest, it "went" again at the start of the season, causing him to withdraw from the Texaco series against South Africa. He also withdrew from the Test series after the third Test at Old Trafford, where his back condition contributed heavily to his pair of ducks.

But if many feel the prognosis is dicey, Thorpe himself is confident of making a recovery. His encounter with a back specialist in Perth - apparently the first person Thorpe feels has properly understood his condition - has given him hope, at least in the medium term.

Coming 70 minutes from the end of the play, Thorpe's retirement spoiled an otherwise decent day for England. Having bowled Victoria out for 300, they batted positively to finish 279 runs ahead at the close.

Apart from Thorpe, Michael Atherton was the only batsman who did not get going, despite getting off the mark with a flashing cut for four to backward cover. A cussed fellow who has fallen several times this tour to the hook shot, Atherton has none the less insisted on playing it. He did so again on here and with the same sorry outcome.

If the truth be known, he probably considered himself a tad unlucky, and the top edge off Brad Williams would have gone for six on most grounds. Unfortunately for Atherton, the MCG has one of the largest playing areas anywhere and the ball was held a yard inside the rope, albeit by a superb tumbling catch by Mathew Inness.

Although he did not know it until towards the end of his innings, Thorpe's injury will have given John Crawley's so far subdued tour new impetus.

Crawley, his footwork shot, looked a mess in Perth, and he fell well behind Graeme Hick in the pecking order for Adelaide. But if he once again began scratchily, some of the old fluency began to return once he had reached fifty.

Mind you, he should have been run out on 59, following a mix-up with Alec Stewart, after the pair ran a leg bye. Having already been involved in a run-out with Nasser Hussain - a hairline decision decided by the third umpire after several inconclusive replays - Crawley was fortunate that the replay equipment went on the bleep. Indeed, as far as the naked eye could discern - although the umpire was strangely reticent to use his - the direct hit from Brad Hodge looked to have found him well short of his ground.

Crawley, like Stewart and Mark Ramprakash after him, eventually perished trying to accelerate the score, though he fell to leg-spin, rather than the towering medium pace of Ashley Gilbert, a lumbering 6ft 10in beanpole. Like the "albatross", Michael Gross, Gilbert looks as if water might be a more suitable habitat.

With the Australian selectors recalling Stuart MacGill in place of Mike Kasprowicz, leg-spinners are a topical subject. England, too, are using them, and Chris Schofield, Lancashire's young leggy currently playing in Melbourne, will travel with the team to Adelaide as a net bowler, presumably in order to reacquaint England's batsmen with the subtleties of wrist spin.

Earlier yesterday, the second new ball helped to end some annoying resistance from the Victorian tail, whose last five wickets added 213 runs. In case the selectors missed it on day two, Dean Headley gave them another nudge, taking 5 for 58 as Victoria were bowled out in their first innings for 300, a total that owed much to the left-hander Shawn Craig, unbeaten on 83, and the wicketkeeper, Peter Roach.

If England decide to go into the next Test with four seamers, as they did in Perth, rather than with three pace bowlers and a spinner, it is Headley who has edged ahead in the reckoning in front of both Angus Fraser and Dominic Cork. But, whoever takes up the fourth bowling place, it is Thorpe who is likely to be missed most.


Third 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

(Overnight: 177 for 5)

S A J Craig not out 83

P J Roach c Ramprakash b Headley 80

J M Davison c Ramprakash b Croft 42

B A Williams c Headley b Croft 1

A S Gilbert lbw b Headley 1

M W H Inness c Hick b Headley 3

Extras (lb6, nb21) 27

Total (106.1 overs) 300

Fall (cont): 6-217, 7-281, 8-283, 9-294.

Bowling: Headley 27.1-3-58-5; Fraser 22-6-58-0; Hollioake 19-1-72-1; Croft 31-4-79-3; Ramprakash 7-2-27-0.

ENGLAND - Second Innings

J P Crawley b Craig 68

M A Atherton c Inness b Williams 14

N Hussain run out 28

G P Thorpe retired hurt 1

*A J Stewart b Gilbert 36

M R Ramprakash c Arnberger b Gilbert 33

G A Hick not out 15

B C Hollioake not out 4

Extras (b4, lb3, w1) 8

Total (for 5, 57 overs) 207

Fall: 1-25, 2-82, 3-128, 4-179, 5-188.

To bat: R D B Croft, D W Headley, A R C Fraser.

Bowling: Williams 10-5-14-1; Gilbert 13-5-44-2; Inness 8-2-22-0; Mott 1-0-9-0; Davison 19-3-79-0; Craig 6-0-32-1.

Umpires: T A Prue and G T D Morrow.