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Hasib
October 13, 2003, 08:18 AM
Interview: Graham Thorpe

As England's tour of Bangladesh gets under way, their previously unwilling tourist talks to Donald McRae about how his troubled past may help him assist others in the future

Monday October 13, 2003
The Guardian

Graham Thorpe, a cricketer so accustomed to purgatory that he can claim to have made more trips to hell than he has to even Brisbane or Cape Town, says the names on his latest touring itinerary with surprising relish. "Chittagong and Dhaka," he murmurs of the two ancient and mysterious cities where England play Test cricket against Bangladesh this month, "might be a bit of an adventure. I'm really intrigued by the whole idea of playing in Bangladesh for the first time."

We study each other carefully at this point. Thorpe looks for my reaction, while I wait for the joke or the crack in his voice.

There is no need. I should know, by now, to believe him. In our first half-hour together he has already shredded the tedium of a conventional sporting interview. With painful candour and unexpected humour he has analysed the impact of his bitter divorce, dissected the custody laws, discussed the suicidal depression that afflicts so many retired cricketers, explained the reasons why he needed to "save himself" by withdrawing from past winter tours, revelled in his recent elation while scoring a magnificent century at The Oval, and even offered, "as a local boy and long-serving Chelsea fan", a ringing endorsement of Claudio Ranieri.

He may still be the finest batsman of his generation, yet Thorpe has invariably been English cricket's most complex and troubled man. No one has suffered more during the annual trek towards the sun every English winter. He has never been able to compartmentalise and box away his inner demons or the bruising vagaries of life.

In 1997 the death of his friend Graham Kersey haunted him during a traumatic trip to Zimbabwe. A year later he headed home from the Caribbean weeks before his team-mates. In 1999, after a decade on the road and with a compelling need to spend a Christmas in England with his wife, their three-year-old son and baby girl, he declined to tour South Africa.

In 2001 he rushed home early from India in a vain attempt to salvage an already ruined marriage. The anguished fallout was seen during India's return the following summer. At Lord's, Thorpe missed a straight ball in the first innings and turned a long hop into a simple catch to end a dismal second knock. He immediately announced his retirement from Test cricket, only to declare his willingness to tour Australia last November. He was welcomed back, but changed his mind two weeks later. His former wife was on the verge of emigrating to South Africa with their two children and her new partner. Thorpe was accused by some of "betraying" England. The creaking door to his Test career had, it seemed, slammed shut forever.

And then came redemption at The Oval last month. England had just blown the fourth Test at Headingley to go 2-1 down to South Africa, Nasser Hussain had injured himself in the process and, suddenly, the call went out to their beleaguered saviour.

When Thorpe came to the wicket, England were more than 400 runs behind South Africa. He batted through an awkward late-afternoon session, displaying his familiar gum-chewing, chin-strap-twiddling and plain old cricketing toughness. The next day he and Marcus Trescothick shared a sumptuous and enormous partnership. Thorpe's 124 not only helped England to an extraordinary victory but cemented his place on this current tour of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

"A year ago," he says, "I was utterly lost. But my life off the pitch has settled down. I'm on an even keel. I know this might sound weird, but I have a real hunger to play cricket now."

Claims of rejuvenation made by the fallen victims of professional sport should usually be regarded with sympathy or suspicion. Yet the 34-year-old Thorpe now exudes a controlled exuberance that is hard to resist or even doubt. He describes it "as a fresh outlook on life which is both philosophical and optimistic".

His girlfriend, Amanda, has clearly helped him, but he has confronted his own flaws and troubles. "There've been plenty of times when I've just said, '****, this game's tearing me apart. I've been away from my kids nine out of the last 11 months.' I've always been an instinctive character. I get a gut feeling. It's something inside telling me that, no, I just can't do this any more, I'm playing cricket for the wrong reasons.

"When I was with my wife and children, touring was very tough. I would be away three or four months at a stretch. I was missing birthdays and Christmases. That's brutal. So cricket, in a way, split us apart. When you're away that length of time and your communication breaks down, it's hard to keep things going. My wife went in a new direction and I had no control over our future. It was awful."

Thorpe with his acrimonious divorce heads the list of English cricketers whose marriages have eroded. Graham Gooch, Dominic Cork, Mark Butcher, Darren Gough and Chris Silverwood have all endured divorce, but none has struggled quite as publicly as he to rebuild his life.

"I remember that moment on the balcony at Lord's after we played India. I was alone with Duncan Fletcher. I just said, 'Duncan, I can't cope with this any more.' He showed me huge compassion. But he also made a telling point. He said: 'All right, if you don't want to play cricket any more, that's fine. But what are you going to do with your life?' Those words rang through my head all winter when I had a very dark period."

He pauses for a moment before, gathering himself, he says: "I love my children and I recognise that there are times when, for their sake, I have to stand back. Henry's seven in November and Amelia's turning five next April. I don't get to see enough of them anyway and so, when you're not on tour, it's important that the mother of your children is flexible about you seeing them." He smiles wryly when I ask if that flexibility has returned. "It's got better . . ."

His renewed passion for cricket was confirmed at The Oval. "I was more nervous than I've ever been in my whole life. I was trying to prove so many things to so many people. I wanted to show my team-mates that I'm still a good player and that I've regained my desire. I wanted to prove to the selectors and public that I've overcome my problems. I tried very hard to look keen and upbeat. And, deep down inside, that's exactly how I felt.

"But I also was trying to steel myself so I wouldn't fear failure. My girlfriend said: 'Imagine if you get a hundred.' And I was like, 'Don't . . . don't even say it.' It seemed a one-in-a-million chance.

"I didn't expect the ovation I got when I walked out to bat. That depth of feeling towards me took me aback. I thought, '****, I better not get out first ball after that.' It turned out to be the finest innings I've ever played, by a long way. I was so fulfilled when the century came - not only as a cricketer but as a human being. When I look at the context and circumstances surrounding that knock, I'm really proud. It was a sweet, sweet day."

On a similarly sweet day three years ago, Thorpe hit a masterly and unbeaten 145 against Sri Lanka, and Muttiah Muralitharan, in Colombo. He then showed flaming defiance in the near darkness of Karachi as he drove England to victory over Pakistan.

"That was a fantastic tour," he remembers. "Apart from winning the Ashes, it doesn't get better than winning back-to-back series in Sri Lanka and Pakistan. A few of the boys from that tour are with us this time round, so we know we can do well.

"It's crap when people go on about the subcontinent being an awful place to tour. Most of our guys view it as a real challenge. Early on in my career - and I hate to admit this - I was one of those blokes who went from the airport to the hotel to the ground and back to the hotel pool. I'm now a much better and more rounded person.

"When we were in Pakistan last time, in Peshawar, some of us got up early and headed up the Khyber Pass. It can be an incredible experience if you open yourself up to the world outside."

Thorpe will also travel a little deeper inside his own head. Although he jokes that he has learnt enough to become a decent divorce lawyer, he is more serious about turning his tribulations into a positive post-cricketing career. "Cricketers really struggle when they get back out into ordinary life. But I'm going to be OK. I've already been out on my own, down on my arse, hardly knowing my left from my right while I'm being slapped about by real life. I've learned I can survive those bleak periods sportsmen go through when their careers slip away.

"I've been thinking a lot about sports psychology and I've got some books on the subject for my quieter moments in Bangladesh. It might come to nothing but it could be an area where I've something to offer. Some past managers and captains of mine didn't have a clue how to handle 'difficult' players. But we're not 11 robots. It's important that we retain our individuality. Look at Phil Tufnell's career - people never knew how to respond constructively to him. So much talent goes to waste.

"I know something about sport and I've been through the grinder over the years. It's not been easy but I've managed to piece my life back together. Maybe I can help someone else do the same thing a few years from now. Wouldn't that be strange? Wouldn't that be good?"