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Thorpe's rise to rival Lara crucial factor for England

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

28 January 1998

GRAHAM Thorpe, of England, third; Brian Lara, West Indies, 13th: according to the official world rankings that is where the best batsman on either side stand in relation to each other on the eve of the Test series which begins at Sabina Park tomorrow, write Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

Messrs Coopers and Lybrand claim their classifications are more a guide to current Test match form than a merit table of careers taken as a whole. Nevertheless, their credibility is about to receive a severe test.

Everyone who saw Lara creating his own legend, to a substantial degree by performances which give him an average of 90 against England, believes that the outcome of the series revolves around the new captain.

It is quite possible to argue, however, that the real issue will be decided between the West Indies fast bowlers and the top order England batsmen and that no one's success or failure, Lara's included, is therefore more important to the outcome than Thorpe's. At first sight that proposition may seem faintly ridiculous. Lara is a genius; Thorpe a very good player, getting a little more convincing with each series he plays. To put it into the context of an earlier generation, this is something like a comparison between Gary Sobers and Ken Barrington. Lara, after all, has demonstrably won several Test matches by the speed of his 10 Test hundreds.

Superficially, Thorpe seems to be more a match saver; the boy on the burning deck. England have generally done well when he has made substantial runs and have struggled when he has not. Of his five centuries only one, at Perth against Australia, was played in the context of an England defeat.

The blazing 82 not out he scored in the second innings against Australia at Trent Bridge last summer was made in the Lara mould - dazzling cuts, swift pulls and crisp drives rather than the compact game of neat deflections and efficient dispatch of the bad ball, with which one has come to associate him. But both his mien and his method are more Allan Border than Brian Lara.

Thorpe has played 43 Tests, five fewer than Lara. He averages 42, well below Lara. He has scored five fewer hundreds, but two more fifties. While Thorpe's career has maintained a steady upgrade since his first senior England tour, to the West Indies four years ago, Lara has been distracted and cut down from the lofty heights of 1994, when he scored 375 against England before his prolific season in county cricket.

On this tour Thorpe's innings of 89, easily the highest score of the game on an unreliable surface, laid the basis of England's opening win against Jamaica.

When England were in trouble against West Indies A, his 81 gave Nasser Hussain the necessary support on the way to the totals of around 400, which will be needed. No wonder he is quietly sanguine about this week's match.

Thorpe said: ``I try not to get carried away by being in good form, or for that matter bad form. A Test match normally raises your performance, anyway, though I think this is the first time I've gone into a series with a few runs behind me.

``You become more at ease with yourself after 4.5 years in the team. You don't get concerned about the axe falling on your head, even if it threatens.

``Last time here I was still finding out about myself as a player. Now I'm quite happy with the way I play and about my ability to score runs at Test level.

``It's a question of going out there and doing it. You can't control whether you get good deliveries. Sometimes a ball comes along with your number on it and there's nothing you can do about it; but you can control your mental process and how you approach every innings. Then it's a matter of building an innings and partnerships.''

The experience of four years ago, especially of two failures at Guyana, forced Thorpe to analyse his technique on video. He decided that he needed to play straighter.

Since then it has been largely a matter of acquiring experience and making it pay. It is in character that Thorpe discusses the series ahead in terms of the team, not of his own performances.

He said: ``The big partnerships will be crucial. If we can get runs on the board, then we're going to have chances in the games. If we don't, we could struggle. We'll be looking for guys to make big scores once they get to 30.''

David Lloyd, the coach, has been emphasising that approach to all his top batsmen. He values Thorpe's ability to play for the team in all situations and puts his progress down to ``experience, team awareness and the ability to play strokes all round the wicket''.

Unlike all the other England batsmen, it seems, video analysis does not suggest that Thorpe is especially strong or productive in any particular area. ``To me,'' said Lloyd, ``that spells a good player.'' One other thing, it seems, has completed the maturity of a man who at the age of 28 is now on his ninth winter tour four for the A team, six for the senior side - and that is fatherhood, with a son called Henry.

Thorpe said: ``My wife might be out for a week to Trinidad, and she and the little one will be coming to Barbados. Being a father has made me feel I'm doing it for someone else rather than just myself. Before, I used to stew on my disappointments. Now I can put it to the back of my mind much quicker, whether I've failed or I've done well. You realise there's another day tomorrow and another challenge ahead.''

The outcome of the Cable and Wireless Test series depends as much on how Thorpe responds to the challenge as Lara. Which of them scores more runs will probably finish on the winning side.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:31