In a difficult decade for the England team, Graham Thorpe was one of the few consistently reliable performers. Thorpe, who celebrates his 50th birthday on the first day of this summer’s Ashes, was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1998 and Colin Bateman wrote this tribute at the time.
There are few quieter men in the England dressing room than Graham Thorpe, and even fewer with more to shout about. The Farnham boy has the face and demeanour of a poker player. The eyes say nothing, the straight-set mouth betrays no emotion. He does not believe in small talk. Yet the runs have piled up in front of him like columns of chips.
Ask any England follower to name the leading batsmen of recent years and they will reel off Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart. Nasser Hussain might get a mention too, and, oh yes, that little left-hander… Thorpe. None has contributed more consistently over the past four years than that little left-hander, who has the scoreboard ticking over before you have even noticed he has taken guard.
Accumulation is the name of the game. Unspectacular and uncomplicated, Thorpe reached the end of 1997 with a Test average of 42, better than any of his contemporaries in the England side.
He ushered in the New Year of 1997 with something of a reputation as a nearly man. Since scoring a century on Test debut, he had reached 50 on 20 further occasions in 33 more Tests, but only once made it through to three figures again.
Thorpe might have made a New Year’s resolution to do something about it. Three centuries came in the next four Tests, two against New Zealand and one against Australia. That brought a rhetorical question from him, at one of his rare press conferences: “I didn’t notice too much of a mental barrier today, did you?” Even in an Ashes series that brought more disappointment for England, Thorpe topped the home batting with an average of 50.33, while none of his colleagues could reach the 40s. He scored 453 runs in the six-Test series, which was bettered only by Australian opener Matthew Elliott. To round off this summer, he signed off with a career-best 222 in the vital Championship match against Glamorgan.
More than anything, though, Thorpe had faced the best team in the world and come out with his reputation enhanced. Even then, during a sticky midsummer patch while the Australians were winning three straight Tests, his place in the middle order had been called into doubt again, while other, more high-profile, players escaped criticism.
Thorpe insists he will not change for the sake of the image-builders being brought in by the ECB’s new regime. The only spin doctor he is interested in is one who can help him identify Shane Warne’s variations. “If you’re naturally enthusiastic and a showman, that’s fine, but I’m not, and I think it is important not to try to be something you are not. That way, you only fall into traps,” says Thorpe. “Others may attract the publicity, but I don’t need that. In sport, you can get envy and jealousy in a dressing-room, but thankfully I’ve never felt that. You’ve just got to enjoy it your own way.”
Graham Paul Thorpe started in the archetypal English way. Born on August 1, 1969, into a sports-mad family, by the age of 13 he was playing with the men of Wrecclesham, a village team in the heart of Surrey. Two years later, he followed his older brothers, Ian and Alan, into the Farnham first team in the Surrey Championship, and at 16 he was invited up to The Oval.
Cricket, though, was only half of it for Thorpe, as he worked his way towards a PE diploma at Farnham Sixth Form College. By winter, he was a highly promising footballer, good enough to make the England Under 18s as a nip-your-ankles midfielder, to use his own description. When it came to the time to make a career move, however, Thorpe had not progressed up the soccer ladder. Only Brentford had shown a passing interest, and cricket won the day.
His early development was moulded at Surrey by Micky Stewart and Geoff Arnold, two more characters interested in spit and polish rather than flash and dash. Typically, his role models were not two high-fliers but doughty opener Ray Alikhan and left-arm spinner Keith Medlycott, a man whose own playing career nosedived but is now back at The Oval as coach. “It was their attitude that I admired most. I liked them as blokes,” says Thorpe. “They weren’t bothered about who they were playing against or who they were playing under, they were not in awe of anyone – they just got on with their job.”
Thorpe, having played for England sides from the age of 15, made the natural progression through to the A team. But there the progress faltered a little. He made four successive England A tours from 1989/90, but did not progress until England were enduring another demolition job by the Australian bowlers in the summer of 1993.
Beaten in the first two Tests, England called up Mark Ilott, Mark Lathwell, Martin McCague and Thorpe for their debuts in the Third at Trent Bridge. The other three made only a passing impact on the international scene, but Thorpe announced himself with a second-innings 114 not out. He was the first England player in 20 years – since Frank Hayes against West Indies – to score a century on debut.
Apart from a broken thumb, which kept him out of the last Test of that 1993 Ashes series, and a brief spell in 1994 when he was dropped, Thorpe has been one of the few constants in the England side of the past four years. Despite problems off the field in 1997 which troubled him deeply – the death of Surrey colleague Graham Kersey in a car accident and Sunday newspaper allegations about his private life – Thorpe remained the most single-mindedly successful of English batsmen.
This article was first published in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Read more from the Almanack archive.