The Ashes – Handling extremes vital for England’s Ashes bid, says Graham Thorpe
Graham Thorpe is the man responsible for guiding England’s batsmen to the runs they need to win the Ashes but he admits fate might have seen him lining up in Australia colours.
There are few prouder Englishmen than Thorpe, who wore the Three Lions throughout 100 Tests over a 12-year period, and now works as a trusted lieutenant in Trevor Bayliss’s backroom team.
And yet, for a short while more than a decade ago it seemed like he might have ended up on the other side of cricket’s oldest divide.
His first coaching assignment after his retirement in 2005 took him to New South Wales, a reflection of the high esteem he was held in by the old enemy from the moment he marked his Ashes debut with a stunning century way back in 1993.
He quickly went from batting coach to assistant coach on his Sydney sojourn and it is tempting to wonder how far he saw himself going. As far as his former England team-mate Graeme Hick, who did wind up in the Australia dressing room and will act as Thorpe’s opposite number this summer?
“Potentially, yes. We moved over there and bought a house, we went in with an open mind. We didn’t dip one toe in the ocean,” he said.
“I’m an Englishman in my heart, through and through, but I viewed it as an amazing opportunity and an apprenticeship. If family life had suited us over there, who knows?
“My daughter went to school every morning with the Aussie flag going up and the national anthem being sung. She didn’t know all the words but I did tell that didn’t matter too much!”
In the end, the call of home proved too strong and he returned his old county Surrey before being called on by the national side to share the expertise that made him one of the classiest left-handers of his generation.
While in Australia he helped mentor at least six future Australia internationals, including Steve Smith and David Warner – the controversial duo who are still trying to escape the shadow of their roles in the sandpaper scandal.
The pair are certain to be in the spotlight throughout the five-Test series, with the hostile welcomes they experienced during their recent World Cup outings sure to be replicated, and probably amplified, given the partisan nature of the crowds.
Thorpe hopes the series can be played in good spirit but expects the constant scrutiny and persistent barracking to be tough for his former charges.
“They will know what’s coming. It’s a real mental challenge for them to deal with and you do feel for them from the human element,” he said.
“We’re only here for a certain period in our lives and we’ll all make mistakes from time to time. They would know they did and you could say they served their punishment.
“But what happened to them is a reminder to everyone in world cricket. We have great rivalry, everyone wants to win – for a start, it’s more fun – but if you push that button too hard you lose sight of sport itself.
“When I grew up I was encouraged to play to win, but also to shake hands with the opposition after the match and thank the officials. Without all that, there isn’t a game.”
One of Thorpe’s biggest challenges over the next few weeks is helping England crack their opening conundrum.
Having never satisfactorily replaced Andrew Strauss they are now without Sir Alastair Cook too, leaving Rory Burns and World Cup hero Jason Roy as the likely next pairing to try to succeed where others have so often failed.
“For whatever reason, we haven’t been able to lock down that spot,” Thorpe admitted.
“At times, we have thought that we found those players with longevity but they didn’t quite carry it on.
“Temperament is massively important, the mental side.
“It’s about being able to handle the extremes of the game because there are two things that can take your career down: not being able to handle the quicks and not being able to handle high-quality spin.
“In county cricket, you might have guys scoring runs but you have to ask: Who are they scoring them against? What are their strokes? Can they play them when it’s 10mph quicker?
“I like guys who are comfortable exploring with new things, who never die wondering with their technique.
“I’ll try to arm them with enough tools – technical and mental – in their back pocket to deal with what’s coming but it’s up to the players.”