The cluelessness of England’s Test batting against Pakistan has made their triumph in Pakistan in 2000/01 seem even more extraordinary. In that, and their subsequent victory in Sri Lanka, England had one man to thank above all.
On those two tours, Graham Thorpe towered above his teammates: he averaged 61, 19 more than anyone else managed, twice scoring centuries and remaining unbeaten in both series-clinching victories. In England’s first series in Asia since losing all four Tests against India and Sri Lanka in 1993, it was a genuinely remarkable performance.
How did he do it? Memories of Thorpe that winter centre on his self-denial, epitomised by a century in Lahore that, uniquely in Test history, featured only one boundary. Playing the ball extremely late from his back-foot base and always light on his feet, Thorpe’s greatest skill lay in his ability to glide the ball past fielders. He also mastered the fine art of using the sweep shot intelligently to rotate the strike whilst refraining from using it excessively and predictably.
But unlike so many of the current side, Thorpe, even whilst focused on unobtrusive accumulation, was ruthless in dealing with loose deliveries, in particular deploying his rasping cut shot. He also displayed a chameleon-like ability to adjust his game according to the side’s need.
In all three of England’s victorious run chases that winter, Thorpe stood out – and not just because he top-scored each time. Displaying adaptability worthy of Tom Jones, he swapped the attrition of his first innings batting for second innings aggression, driven either by outrageous time wasting in fading light (Pakistan in Karachi) or the sheer extent of his team mate’s struggles (against Sri Lanka at Kandy and Colombo). In all three of England’s run chases, Thorpe’s second innings strike rate was at least 65; it didn’t pass 46 in his six first innings in 2000/01. Most impressive of all was his sheer mental strength facing multifarious challenges, encapsulated in his 64* to take England to their first victory in Pakistan for 39 years.
England's failure to utilise his experience this winter is all the more puzzling in that his coaching of the England Lions has been widely praised, notably by James Taylor. This is not to belittle the influence of Graham Gooch – that “daddy hundred” has become an infuriating cliché is the greatest testament to his impact. But on tours of Asia, Thorpe’s experiences, possibly alongside that of new permanent batting coach Gooch, could help the side greatly: no one should believe a few ODI wins, impressive as they have been, mean England are suddenly experts at playing spin in Test cricket.
Thorpe encountered Muttiah Muralitharan’s doosra when England toured Sri Lanka in 2003/04 and, although his performances were far less impressive than in 2000/2001, his insights into coping with would have been of great help, especially to Ian Bell. Then there is the case of Eoin Morgan. Thorpe, a fellow left-hander and with a very similar stature and style, may have been able to prevent the disintegration of his confidence and technique that occurred in the Pakistan Test series.
Sri Lanka may lack a bowler of Saeed Ajmal’s mystery but the fundamental nature of the challenge will be the same. It is one Thorpe understands better than any other Englishman, and England should use his expertise.