Thorpe to profit as middleman

Derek Pringle meets a batsman who has the technique to revive England

Like Rolex timepieces, the best left-handers have always appeared to impart grace and style. The sheer fluidity of Brian Lara's shots, the deft panache of John McEnroe's groundstrokes and the effortless grace of a Ryan Giggs bodyswerve are typical of the elevated levels of sporting achievement which are rarely equalled by those doing things the other way round.

So it comes as some surprise to find a nuggety, dependable and thoroughly undemonstrative left-hander such as Graham Thorpe described as England's best batsman, an accolade graciously bestowed by none other than the England captain himself after the Surrey man's superb series against the West Indies, where Thorpe's aggregate of 506 runs was the highest ever made against them by an Englishman.

Unfortunately for Thorpe, now 26, it was a billing he did not quite live up to until the last few weeks of England's unhappy tour of South Africa. By then his upturn in form could not reverse England's slide towards meek surrender, as the final Test and one-day series were lost in a fortnight of wretched performances.

Happily, apart from the occasional looseness of bowel suffered by most on this trip, his form with the bat has remained reassuringly solid, and he is England's leading run-scorer in the tournament, with 239 runs from three completed innings, as they go into Saturday's quarter-final against Sri Lanka in Faisalabad.

But like the man himself, his undemonstrative batting in the middle of the innings goes on almost unnoticed. With its clever placements and cheeky running, Thorpe is a batsman whose shots seldom find their way on to the half-hour highlights. Instead, he accumulates his runs with the skill and savvy of a Javed Miandad, playing shots all round the wicket but rarely taking risks until the situation forces him to.

"It's more or less the role I play for Surrey," he said. "When I get in, I just look to play through the innings at somewhere near a run a ball, depending on the state of the game."

However, there are, he points out, glaring differences between the one- day cricket encountered here from the stereotyped stuff played at home. "For a start, we don't play any 50-over cricket, or any cricket at the moment that has field restrictions in the first 15 overs. It is such an important part of the competition over here, and yet we're still not sure what our best way of approaching it is.

"That wouldn't have happened if we'd have been playing something similar domestically for the past five years. If you can get off to a flyer, like the Sri Lankans have been doing, it makes the middle and death overs so much easier for the batsmen."

That is not the only factor Thorpe feels is disorienting England's batsmen at present. "At home you feel confident of chasing anything up to eight or nine an over. But here, with the ball getting soft, you wouldn't want to be chasing much more than six, so it's important to take advantage at the start.

"I've also noticed that you come up against bowlers here who are trying to get you out. That's rarely the case in England where teams just try and contain in the hope the batsman will get himself out."

Part of England's problem is that they are not batting well as a unit and are without a clear match-winner with the ball. Mind you, only Dominic Cork, Thorpe's room-mate, was ever likely to be a contender, though his sore knee - a legacy of being overbowled in South Africa - and a lack of swing with the new ball, have both conspired to reduce his firepower and confidence.

Repairing that confidence is never easy, particularly when it has spread through a team and off days have become the norm. The situation is compounded when there is little prospect of a decent rest to break the sequence.

"When you lose nine one-day internationals out of your last 12, your conviction starts to go and you begin to lose belief in yourselves as a team," Thorpe said. "Part of the problem is that you are only ever as good as yesterday's match and players are constantly having to prove that they can play at this level.

"It is a pressure that builds up quickly when the team does poorly, especially when you get heavily written down in the press. In the end you're frightened of taking any kind of risk, and you stop trying things that would be almost second nature when you're confident.

"It's difficult, but no one should be afraid of failure. New developments and techniques in one-day cricket move forward so fast that the game is always going to be part gamble anyway, and that tends to favour the bold."

For England to go further than Faisalabad, Thorpe stresses the need to remain positive and learn from what has gone before. "South Africa got hammered over here not so long ago, but they've managed to turn that round to their advantage. That's what we've got to do.

"There is no doubt that Sri Lanka are cock-a-hoop with confidence at the moment, after their recent run-scoring bonanzas, and many people are expecting us to be going home on Sunday. But if we really believe we can win, we will. And if we do, it'll be just the boost we need for the semi- final in front of 100,000 in Calcutta."

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