Cricket: Thorpe ready to take his place on England's World Cup stage

Derek Pringle talks to an international cricketer keen to turn winter frustration into summer celebration
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SPRING IS here and the countdown to the cricket season, plus that promised carnival of cricket, the World Cup, has begun. But if mother nature allows things to unfurl gradually at this time of year, England's one-day squad are off next Sunday to stretch their limbs in Pakistan and Sharjah as a curtain-raiser to the main event. An early flowering will be crucial for those teams eager to bear fruit in early June, when the competition comes to a climax.

Fastidious preparation is crucial these days, though for players like Graham Thorpe, Surrey's skilled and doughty left-handed batsman, there is much more at stake. Thorpe, along with three other members of the World Cup squad, Michael Atherton, Neil Fairbrother and Ian Austin, have all recently been in the wars. For them, Sharjah, where England play India and Pakistan twice each for the Coca-Cola Cup, is both a warm-up and a final fitness test.

"I'm really looking forward to Sharjah massively," says Thorpe, a man who rarely fakes enthusiasm for the sake of it. "After working and training a lot indoors to overcome my back problems, I'm sure to be a little apprehensive at loading the body under match conditions again. But outdoors is where the skills of the game are best used and where they count most, so I can't wait to get out there."

Thorpe's problem, which forced him to abandon England's Ashes tour midway through, was a general lack of stability in his lower back. At the time, many presumed it was linked to the operation he underwent the previous July to remove a cyst on a spinal facet joint, though this has subsequently been rejected.

"When it happened in Australia, it felt like something new rather than a chronic injury. But it's one of those frustrating things, where no easy cure is available. In the end, it has been a question of strengthening and stabilising the pelvis and generally re-educating myself over posture."

Injury can often sap a person's spirit, and it is good to see that Thorpe has yet to succumb to the numbing frustrations sometimes associated with overcoming it. He even chuckles at the irony of driving a sponsored car provided by Posturight, a company which specialises in furniture for people with bad backs.

Mind you, he has many reasons to be buoyant and the rehab, under the guidance of England's doctor, Philip Bell, and the physiotherapists at the Barbican House appears to have done the trick. Last week Thorpe was given the go-ahead to tour Sharjah.

"It's been a hard two months physically, but the mental rest I've had from not staying on in Aussie has been a bonus. It was an unfortunate way to get a break [it is the first time Thorpe has spent most of the winter in England for 10 years] but, looking back, I probably needed it." In fact, once back he kept only a cursory eye on proceedings in Australia. "As there is nothing you can do about things, you don't feel part of it, even though they are close mates."

As most injured sportsmen will tell you, hard work is vital, for there are few stigma worse in a professional sporting career than that of being considered injury-prone.

"As a career, cricket has a limited lifespan, so when you get injured, fears inevitably enter your head about how long you have left. I'm 29, but the way you hear people talk about me, you'd think I was an old crock.

"It is difficult, but you've got to stay philosophical about it. People - usually those who don't understand - are always getting on others' backs over injury. The important thing is to stay upbeat and not get paranoid about things. I've chatted to Athers [Atherton] about his problems and how to deal with the pain. Obviously, if I overwork my back at the moment it hurts, but the trick is to learn the difference between the pains and twinges of muscles working hard and real danger signs."

Ever since sportsmen first accepted money for their services, there has always been a pressure for injured players to return to the fray sooner than nature intended, especially if they are world-class performers like Thorpe. In hindsight, his return to play for Surrey in the last game of the 1998 season, less than two months after his back operation, was probably a mistake.

"Actually I'd always earmarked that game to play in once I'd had the operation. I suppose, had Surrey not been second in the Championship, I probably wouldn't have played. That was the difference when I came back from Australia - there was no rushing. Instead there was time to sit down, assess the matter and plan the rehabilitation step by step. This time it's been thorough. I've even watched videos of my body positions when batting and fielding, and, although I'm not looking to make big changes, I'll have to try and keep some movements within a certain range."

Thorpe apart, nobody will be hoping that the slowly-slowly approach has worked more than the England captain, Alec Stewart. As a fellow member of the same Surrey side for the past decade, Stewart needs no reminding of how much England's one-day batting line-up missed Thorpe. Indeed, when it comes to indispensability, Thorpe probably heads the list - how else could England's selectors justify dropping Thorpe's good friend, Nasser Hussain?

During the recent one-day series in Australia, the one glaring weakness England had, apart from rarely getting a good start, was keeping the score moving during the middle overs without losing wickets. Hussain made a decent fist of it but blew his big chance in the first of the one-day finals against Australia.

Having all but won the game for England, the Essex captain committed the cardinal sin of getting out with the job unfinished. Predictably, England collapsed from a seemingly impregnable position to hand Australia the match.

Playing the middle overs is a deceptive skill. With the field set deep and defensive, the nuances are not always apparent to the untrained eye, which tends to notice the biffers and bashers that begin and end the typical limited-overs innings.

Instead of big shots, with their added risk factor, clever placement and manipulation of the ball, as well as shrewd running, are the modus operandi required mid-innings. Inevitably, shot selection has to be spot on, something at which a fit and confident Thorpe, who averages 40.05 from his 44 one-day internationals, is an acknowledged master.

The trip to Sharjah, while hopefully providing a stepping stone to the resumption of Thorpe's career, is likely to come at a price, and Thorpe's wife Nicky - he first met her in neighbouring Dubai during a Surrey pre- season tour there in the early 90s - is expecting their second child slap bang in the middle of the tournament.

"It is not easy to sacrifice such moments to the job and I thought about it long and hard. But my career does help to support my family, so playing in Sharjah will hopefully be good for all of us. I just hope the baby either comes early or late, then I can be there."

Notwithstanding the importance of Sharjah as a yardstick for his fitness, you get the impression that the World Cup, which follows it a month later, means an awful lot to Thorpe.

"It's simply the pinnacle of the one-day game - a pressure event that tests both your consistency and your nerve. Mind you, if we won it, I think it would only mean a lot to people for a short time, though hopefully it would help get youngsters involved in cricket generally."

Firstly, though, Sharjah has to be negotiated by both Thorpe and England. Inevitably, and in spite of the vastly differing conditions between those found in the Arabian Gulf and an English May, conclusions about players and England's overall chances of making the World Cup final are bound to be made.

"We will all be taking one thing at a time," Thorpe says. "Obviously we'd like to win both tournaments, but Sharjah is really about our World Cup squad being and working together. Getting players to gel is very important and it increases your chances of winning. I'm just looking to contribute to that."