Winter failing spoils Thorpe's spring show

<preform>Sussex 370 <br> Surrey 402-5 dec <br> Match drawn</preform>
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The Independent Online

A nothing day at The Oval. Because of bad light and April showers on the first three days, a draw was inevitable. There were batting and bowling points at stake, but the thing that mattered most was the form of Graham Thorpe. The general assumption is that he will play against Australia in the Ashes this summer; but there is an influential insider's view that he might become a victim of the Pietersen Effect. His early-season form may prove to be significant.

A nothing day at The Oval. Because of bad light and April showers on the first three days, a draw was inevitable. There were batting and bowling points at stake, but the thing that mattered most was the form of Graham Thorpe. The general assumption is that he will play against Australia in the Ashes this summer; but there is an influential insider's view that he might become a victim of the Pietersen Effect. His early-season form may prove to be significant.

Since his family life stabilised in 2003, Thorpe has been like a Corinthian pillar in England's middle order. Four of his 16 hundreds have come in this final act of his England career. He made a match-winning 119 in Bridgetown in Barbados during the tour to the West Indies last year, and a valuable century in Durban last Christmas.

Instead of brooding, he was cheerful, and claimed he had never enjoyed playing for England as much as now. But for all that, he had only a so-so series in South Africa, averaging 35.88, which brought his career Test average below 44. He has now played in 98 Test matches, and if he remains a fixture, the Lord's Test against Australia will be his 101st, and the last before his 36th birthday on 1 August.

His innings of 59 against Sussex's decent bowling attack yesterday deserved a good notice, with one important qualification. He played a wide variety of attractive shots, displayed physical agility when run-outs threatened, and scored eight boundaries that were nonchalant or neat, precise or purposeful - but he was out sweeping the leg-spinner.

Mushtaq Ahmed got his wicket, caught at short leg off a top edge, but Thorpe had swept him regularly and it was the one shot that wasn't working. He connected once but missed three times. This was the same weakness that Graham Smith had exploited in South Africa. It is worrying and it will be scrutinised, perhaps mercilessly, in the three months before the Ashes series starts.

Kevin Pietersen is Thorpe's problem because his spectacular form in the one-day series in South Africa appears to have persuaded most in the England camp that he is too good to be left to mature for a summer playing county cricket for Hampshire, where he has now moved from Nottinghamshire.

If Pietersen plays, someone loses out. It could be Robert Key or Mark Butcher if Michael Vaughan were to move up to No 3, in which case Thorpe would bat either at No 5 as he does now, or move up to No 4. But if Vaughan sticks to No 4 and Pietersen plays, then Thorpe probably does not. The mere thought of it, which is rather shocking, is a good example of the opportunity and uncertainty of top-class sport.

Yesterday at The Oval, Thorpe not only looked good - with the exception of that dodgy sweep - he also made a decent contribution to Surrey's chase for batting points. It had begun slowly. Two wickets had fallen by the 24th over with only 34 runs on the board. If Surrey were to manage 400 and five batting points, he and Mark Ramprakash would have stay in and raise the scoring rate. They did just that, adding 116 in 34 overs.

Ramprakash, who is Surrey's captain for the fortnight or so before Mark Butcher is fit, controlled his natural aggression and stayed till Surrey were 385. He accumulated the runs steadily, unspectacularly, and without risk. As the rate exploded, he put on 122 with Jonathan Batty and 113 with Ali Brown, whose 74 came off 72 balls.

Mushtaq proved expensive (1 for 126), but it is a bit early in the season for him to be firing. When the 400 came up in the 110th over, Surrey declared and let the scattering of chilled spectators home for an early supper.

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