Thorpe's injury adds to the torment

The Ashes series: Debate surrounding central contracts rages again as England's players go into Tests under-cooked against Australians
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The Independent Online

There is usually a price to pay for the man who takes on champions unprepared and Graham Thorpe has paid it. Brought in cold by England for the second Test against Australia, after five weeks out with a calf strain, Thorpe will now miss the next two, after a bouncer from Brett Lee cracked a bone in his right hand.

Like Nasser Hussain's injury at Edgbaston, it is an undisplaced fracture which, according to the specialist the batsman saw in Windsor yesterday, will take three weeks to mend.

Thorpe's absence could hand a reprieve to his Surrey team-mate Ian Ward, who has so far struggled to cope with the Australian bowlers. If not, Usman Afzaal and Owais Shah must come into the reckoning for the third Test at Trent Bridge on 2 August, if only to provide consistency of selection.

"After my calf injury, the broken bone is a real hammer blow," said Thorpe yesterday. "What I thought was going to be one of the most exciting summers of my career is turning out to be one of the most disappointing. It was a hard Test for me, coming in without any match practice, but I don't regret it."

Having endured only one other break during his 12-year career, Thorpe added: "I knew, as soon as I was struck on the hand that I'd suffered a bad injury. I couldn't make a fist or hold the bat properly. Had I not been out two balls later, I would probably not have come out after tea."

In part, Thorpe can probably count himself a little unfortunate. The ball that hit him on Saturday, was a brute and came during Lee's fastest spell of the summer. But the £50,000 question (the amount the England and Wales Cricket Board pay Thorpe to be an England player), is would he have been struck had he been match fit?

Thorpe is a good player of fast bowling, but his reactions, after five weeks on the sidelines, will have been impaired along with his decision-making processes. Normally he pulls or ducks short balls, but this time he didn't do either, a millisecond of hesitation that cost him and England dear.

Thorpe's absence from the frontline adds to the list of contracted players missing through injury. Although Hussain hopes to return for the next Test, Michael Vaughan (knee cartilage) and Matthew Hoggard (stressed left foot) will probably not be fit for England duty until the fourth Test at Headingley in a month's time.

While it is self-evident that the glut of injuries to England players is not helping matters, the complex interface between the domestic fixture list and central contracts has been a hindrance. By their very nature, injuries mean time out of the game, but this season finding the corresponding time that even Test players need to get them back into form, has been hard.

Although many counties took some persuading at the start, most now agree that central contracts are a good thing. In theory they are, but with a fixture list that has provided just one opportunity for four-day cricket between the first and third Tests, players, whether injured or out of form, have had to feel their way back in the Tests. Against a side as omnipotent as Australia, it has been lambs to the slaughter.

Players under central contracts are managed by the England coach Duncan Fletcher. Setting Test players free from the county grind was a priority and last year he struck the right balance between rest and work and players benefited from being fresh. There is a difference between fresh and under-cooked though, which is what England look like at the moment, especially their catching and batting which have an early season apprehension about them.

In a bid to be even handed, Fletcher's management of centrally contracted players has largely been to treat them the same. If one opening bowler gets a rest so does the other. But now that the chips are down and Fletcher wants them to play (the first time this season that all the able-bodied have been made available), there may be a reticence amongst counties to picking them.

Yorkshire for one, have recently left out Matthew Hoggard as well as "resting" Darren Gough, a euphemism for dropped following the fast bowler's poor showing in the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy against Surrey. In fact, most counties find accommodating England players at short notice disruptive and Yorkshire will give serious consideration to leaving Gough out of their C&G quarter-final against Warwickshire at Headingley tomorrow.

Avoiding county cricket may explain aspects of England's poor batting and indisciplined bowling, but it is surely the main reason behind their poor catching. Taking catches when you are expecting them, as happens in practice, is easy. But only proper matches can replicate the hours of distracting inaction that often precede that crucial split second when an edge comes your way.

England practice hard at their fielding, but only by putting hours in on the field can players prepare for reality. So while there is still something to be salvaged from this Ashes series (preventing a 5-0 whitewash for one), it's back to basics, and that means county cricket.

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