Graham Thorpe: Thorpe rediscovers his love of the game

'I'm 33 and I think I can play for four or five more years. Whether at the highest level is down to others' The Brian Viner interview

So, the first Test against South Africa is unfolding without Graham Thorpe, one of the few Englishmen capable of racking up runs as powerfully as the supposedly beleaguered opposition did at Edgbaston on Thursday.

Among the cricket correspondents of the national press, opinion was generally in favour of Thorpe's omission. It seemingly came down to a straight choice between the Surrey left-hander and Anthony McGrath, and McGrath, it was felt, did not deserve to be dropped after performing impressively against Zimbabwe. However, the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, admitted that the matter had been "well debated". And in saying as much, Graveney indicated that he and the coach, Duncan Fletcher, do not intend to punish Thorpe for his decision to withdraw from last winter's Australian tour for very public personal reasons, two weeks after making himself available.

Whether they are worried that if they pick him, he will again be assailed by "personal reasons", if not this summer then next winter, they naturally will not say. Even with his life apparently back in order following a messy divorce and wrangles over access to his two children, there are no guarantees that Thorpe's inner demons will not, once again, pad up and stride out to the middle.

As Michael Atherton wrote in his autobiography: "Of all the players I played with, [Thorpe] was the one whose state of mind most affected his play. A happy, contented Graham Thorpe is a world-class player, his presence beneficial to any team. If something off the field is eating away at him, he cannot put it to the back of his mind and concentrate on his cricket."

Still, if the Thorpe I meet after stumps in a County Championship match at The Oval is dwelling on a non-cricketing matter, it is merely the remarkable goings-on at his beloved Stamford Bridge. He has a girlfriend, sees his kids, is palpably contented. As for the prospect of resuming his international career, he is sanguine. "I have no idea whether I will be picked again for England," he says.

Incidentally, like an improbable number of English cricketing heroes, among them Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, his voice is not as macho as his deeds. He has a pronounced lisp.

"All I can do is try to contribute heavily to Surrey's success. And if it doesn't happen, I'm not going to sit here with regrets. I played for England for 10 years, got to the top of my profession, and I take a lot of pride from that."

If Australia rather than South Africa were the visitors this summer, it is likely that the selectors would have reached a different conclusion. Against the Aussies these past 10 years, no England batsman has fared nearly as well as Thorpe, whose Ashes average tops 45. His initial taste of Ashes cricket was at Trent Bridge, with England 2-0 down in the series. "My first-ever ball was from Merv Hughes. He sent it straight past my hooter, and said he was going to kill me. I was out for six. But I got a hundred in the second innings."

He also scored one of the great English centuries in Australia, a doughty 123 on a lively pitch in Perth. Yet he has never been able to overcome those demons as he has Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. I tell him that it felt hugely frustrating, as an Englishman, to see him sitting in a television studio over the winter.

He smiles. "I was in no shape or form to be there. I couldn't have gone. Sitting in a room with Duncan, Nasser [Hussain] and David Graveney, I said that I would, but within three weeks I had to say 'sorry guys'. That wasn't easy. But Duncan was very understanding, and concerned about me going into a downward spiral, which for a while I did."

Did he - I'm not sure quite how to put this - ever think of jumping off The Oval balcony? "No. I didn't get to that stage. But I didn't always see the light at the end of the tunnel." A burgeoning romance helped him cope, and he also received counselling.

Indeed, he talks like someone who has been in psychotherapy, using words like "closure" and being disarmingly frank about his problems. I expected to find him slightly taciturn, but he could not be more open, nor more engaging. "At least I was upfront with him," he says, returning to his dialogue with Fletcher. "I didn't go on tour and piss them around, suddenly saying 'I can't cope with this, I need a plane home'.

"But after that, I basically didn't play for seven months. Eventually my father said 'Come on, get on with it, get back in the gym, life goes on'. A few words, but they meant a lot. And here I am. I'm 33 and I think I can play for four or five more years, whether at the highest level is down to others. But it's only in the past three months that I've started to enjoy my cricket again."

He learned to play cricket in the garden with his two elder brothers, and being the youngest of three boys rendered an already competitive edge razor-sharp. But he was also good enough at football to represent England Schoolboys, and it is his experiences playing local league football, he says, with big bruisers telling him how hard they were going to kick him, and where his bits and pieces would end up, which enabled him to shrug off all the verbals that were later hurled at him by Merv Hughes and others. As he says: "Football is a physical contact sport, and man-to-man marking was played out quite heavily. Sledging in cricket has never been as bad as the intimidation I faced as a kid playing football."

Sledging or not, he remembers "a good working over" by Phil DeFreitas on his first-class debut for Surrey, against Leicestershire at The Oval in 1988. He was 18. "I batted eight in those days, and bowled a few seamers. I was lucky enough to get David Gower out in that match." The following season he moved up the order and did enough to attract the notice of the England selectors.

He was chosen for an A tour to Kenya and Zimbabwe, where he played sufficiently well for people to suggest sending him to join the main squad in the West Indies. "All of a sudden I'd gone from club to county cricket to an A tour, and then there were a couple of injuries in the full England team and talk of me joining them. I remember thinking how ridiculous it seemed."

As it happened, he was not despatched to the Caribbean and played poorly the following year, which is when he underwent his first bout of disillusionment with the game. "But Keith Fletcher, who was the A team coach, still picked me for that winter's tour to Sri Lanka, which was a real confidence boost. Otherwise I could have disappeared out of cricket."

Thorpe went on four A tours, evidence that the England selectors were not totally useless at nurturing promising young cricketers. His full debut, as we have heard, could hardly have come in more difficult circumstances.

"But I have always believed," he says, "that you should take fear of failure out of the equation. Sport is all about taking pressure off yourself. You can always build yourself into a bag of nerves if you want to, but it helps to think of the worst things that have happened in life, and to reflect that you are just playing a game. Jimmy Ormond here at Surrey is very good at that. It takes a load of pressure off."

All the same, having the temperament for the big occasion is no good without the technique, and Thorpe felt, on England's 1993-94 tour of the West Indies, that he was still technically deficient.

"The first few Tests there were disastrous. I was bowled in my first four innings. But one of the biggest influences I have had in cricket is watching Brian Lara bat close up, watching his technique, his ability to score runs all round the wicket, to create attacking opportunities for himself. I looked at my own technique and decided I was limited at Test level."

That was the series in which Lara scored his Test record of 375. And Thorpe's scrutiny of the great man paid off. He scored 86 in Trinidad, then 84 in Barbados. "I watched his backlift, the way he got into position before the bowler had released the ball. You see some great players, like Viv Richards, Tendulkar, who stay dead still at the crease. That's a brilliant eye. But Lara's way is to get himself into a position to score runs before the ball is bowled. His high backlift opens up the pull, the cut, the slice, the drive... you can see that his feet are not always in a perfect position, but he gives himself options.

"And although you can never copy, you can slowly work these things into your game. My backlift increased, and I was able to pull and cut more. Here at The Oval, pitches were bouncier so it was already in my technique to hit the ball on the up. I had a good eye, good hands, and although my front foot was not always to the pitch of the ball, I definitely came back an improved player."

He was not, however, much of a conformist. Although Atherton writes about him with great affection in his book, he explains that Thorpe was riddled with contrariness. If players were asked to wear long sleeves, he would turn up in short, and vice versa. I mention this, and he laughs.

"Yeah, I've read it. I suppose I was anti-authority in a way. I wouldn't go out of my way [to flout the rules] but I remember my first Test in Jamaica, having a team meeting supposedly about Ambrose and Walsh, and without wanting to have a pop at the management of that time, they had this thing about shaving. Certain dignitaries were coming out from Lord's and it was important we were clean-shaven. I did put my hand up and say 'can we finish with the shaving issue? It's not high on my list of priorities in the morning, when I'm thinking about Ambrose and Walsh running in'.

"I mean, it's not right either to look a complete mess, but I couldn't agree with the importance they attached to these things. It's not like I'm a difficult character. The only captain I have ever clashed with was Ian Greig here at Surrey. He was a headmasterly figure, and I just didn't think it was the end of the world if we had a bacon sandwich on the balcony. I probably should have just toed the line. It would have made life a lot easier."

I invite Thorpe to comment on the captaincy differences between Atherton and Hussain. "Nasser probably manages the temp- eramental guys better than Athers did, but Athers didn't really have the system working for him; he didn't have central contracts. I actually thought he was a very positive captain. Against Lara, someone would say 'Why don't we put a man out on the boundary straight away?' But to him that was a sign of weakness. Whereas Nasser would do it, to get him out, but also to annoy him, to make him play a great shot and only get one."

Thorpe's captain at Surrey is Adam Hollioake who has had personal problems of his own to contend with. Thorpe, too, was deeply affected by the death of Ben Hollioake. "I spent a lot of time with Ben. Adam would often ask me to have a word with him. He said 'He'll listen to you if you tell him to work on his fitness, or tell him he can get back in the England team'. I liked that. Ben was a hugely talented cricketer, and when he walked back into the dressing-room you wouldn't know whether he had scored 150 or 0. He had a wonderful attitude to life." If only Thorpe's own attitude to life were as uncomplicated, he would be at Edgbaston today. But it surely won't be long before he is back in the fold.

Graham Thorpe the life and times

Born: 1 August 1969, Farnham, Surrey.

Family: two children, Henry and Amelia.

Teams: Surrey, England.

Surrey debut: 1988.

Appearances for county: 297 first-class matches and 340 limited-over matches.

Batting averages for county: 44.44 (first-class), 39.84 (limited-overs).

England Test debut: v Australia, Trent Bridge, 1993.

England ODI Debut: v Australia, Old Trafford, 1993.

Appearances for country: 77 Tests and 82 one-day internationals.

Batting averages for country: 41.87 (Tests), 37.18 (ODI's).

Last played for England: At Test level in the first Test against India in 2002 at Lord's and in an ODI in the same year against Sri Lanka at Headingley.

Notable achievements: Made 114* on his Test debut.

Is one of three batsmen, along with Mark Ramprakash and Graham Gooch, to have averaged more than 40 against Australia in the past decade.

Thorpe was the first England player to undergo 10 consecutive years of touring, for the A and Test team.

Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1998.

Highest Test score: 200 not out v New Zealand, Christchurch, 2001 (then the fastest double-hundred in Test history - 231 balls, 330 minutes).

This year: After pulling out of last winter's tour of Australia which seemed to signal the end of his Test career he insists that he is ready to return to playing for England in both Tests and ODIs.

He says: "I guess it's fair to say my decision-making was indecisive. The problem was it was absolutely the wrong decision to say, 'OK I'll tour'."

They say: "He is one of our best players but we can't keep having the Graham Thorpe issue cropping." England captain Nasser Hussein, last August.

"Graham Thorpe was considered and we are pleased his personal situation has improved and he is now able to commit himself to England home and away." David Graveney, the England chairman of selectors, last week.

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