Third Test

Thorpe the perfect man for a crisis

Reassuring elder statesman steadies ship after loss of skipper leaves England foundering

When England's captain has just lost his off stump and England are 40 for 3, Graham Thorpe is the batter he wants to see walking down the pavilion steps as he climbs up them. Thorpe, stocky build, cocky walk, long sleeves short-buttoned at the wrist, is reassurance.

When England's captain has just lost his off stump and England are 40 for 3, Graham Thorpe is the batter he wants to see walking down the pavilion steps as he climbs up them. Thorpe, stocky build, cocky walk, long sleeves short-buttoned at the wrist, is reassurance.

His first run comes from a nurdled prod to mid-on. Just what you expect. Before long, Thorpe has driven Dwayne Bravo to the long-on boundary so crisply that no fielder bothers to move - the shot of the day. This is not batting made easy. The West Indians have rediscovered their confidence and come across some luck. It is not at all easy, but Thorpe is so efficient. The scoreboard makes the point. In 12 overs the score has doubled. England are not out of trouble, but the hole is not getting deeper.

Two years ago, Thorpe was a brooding presence, unhappy at home and lacking commitment on the field. Now he is the oldest man in the team and his role is transformed. Thorpe is the elder statesman, old enough at 35 to be allowed to settle for a single when two younger men would chase hard for a couple.

The transformation has been fascinating to track. When he was unhappy, he was reluctant to talk and not easy to talk to. He has a slight lisp and was conscious of it. Not any more. Now he chatters on television, and makes sensible remarks based on 11 years' experience since his Test debut against Australia, when he made the first of 14 Test hundreds.

His presence reassures more players than the captain. At the other end, Andrew Strauss is looking more comfortable after a difficult spell in which the West Indies fast bowlers seemed to have the advantage.

Strauss is a good leaver of the ball, but he was playing and missing, or hitting out unwisely and causing the slips to leap like salmon. In the more secure environment created by Thorpe, he was playing and connecting, and scoring just as quickly as his partner. They shared the runs almost exactly equally in their 100 partnership.

When the left-arm wrist spinner Dave Mohammed started to bowl, Thorpe took most of it. You could imagine him murmuring to Strauss that he would take the spinner. There are no better players of spin in the England team.

At his best, Thorpe always had that ability to inspire confidence. He made one of the best remembered remarks in the recent history of English cricket, in Karachi in 2000 when Pakistan were vulnerable. As he and Nasser Hussain left the field at tea, Thorpe said to his captain: "I can win this one for you, skipper." In the encircling darkness, that is just what he did.

This is why his descent into to depression was so distressing. When he should have been at the peak of his powers, he was playing a fairly modest role in a close-knit Surrey team on their way to the Championship.

But the clouds began to lift last summer and by the end of it he had persuaded the England selectors that he would once more be a reliable member of the team.

He celebrated his readmission with 124 in the Fifth Test at The Oval. That hundred was overshadowed by Marcus Trescothick's double century and Andrew Flintoff's pyrotechnic 95, but there was no understating its significance. It meant that he would tour again, to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and then to the West Indies, where Thorpe could have said to Michael Vaughan that he would win the Third Test for him too, as his 119 not out managed to salvage England's first innings.

His third hundred since his comeback came at Trent Bridge in the Third Test against New Zealand. Before he came in yesterday, he had played in 15 Tests since last summer, scoring 1,146 runs at an average of 52.09. Since his Test average is 43.66, he has clearly been performing above and beyond himself in second innings in Test cricket.

He had been a brilliant fielder, in the slips and the covers - he has taken 97 Test catches. No one could make that claim now. His fielding now varies between OK and awful. He can be relied on to drop at least one catch a Test, and when it comes to a sprint round the boundary it is usually safe to bet on the ball.

But the pluses of Thorpe's batting greatly outnumber the minuses of his fielding. Just hope that the new cheerful model Thorpe lasts until the end of next summer. What perfect symmetry it would be if Thorpe could end his Test career as he began it - with a hundred against the Aussies.

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