In March 2001, Graham Thorpe gave a lesson on how to bat in Asia. With England and Sri Lanka locked at 1-1 in the third and final Test, Thorpe walked to the centre of the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground in Colombo with his side on 66 for 3, still 175 runs in arrears.
What followed was a masterclass.
With all those around him losing their heads against an in-form Chaminda Vaas — who finished with 6 for 73 — and an ever probing Muttiah Muralitharan, Thorpe stamped his authority on the match with an unbeaten 113 in 330 minutes.
Sweeping out of the rough, rotating the strike with comfort and keeping his cool in energy sapping heat, the Surrey left-hander was the personification of calmness and class.
By scoring more than 45% of his team’s total, Thorpe dragged them to a first innings lead. Ashley Giles and Darren Gough then combined to bowl their hosts out for 81 in the second dig before Thorpe again took the lead role. With the side wobbling at 42 for 3, Thorpe steered them home with 32 not out.
“The most important thing is not to panic,” Thorpe told the Sports Gazette when asked how he managed to average more in Asia (47.85) than the rest of his career (44.46).
“That is the thing that happens to a lot of foreign batsmen over there. When the team is collapsing around you or you suddenly realise that you don’t have the technique or temperament to deal with the turning ball and manipulate it around the field, you can really lose control of yourself.
“I’ve seen world class players play the most poor shots because they panicked.”
England head in to their three Test series with Sri Lanka on Tuesday with momentum on their side. A 3-1 victory in the ODI series was followed by a 30 run win in the only T20 match. Joe Root and his team — third-best on the ICC Test rankings — also have the recent 4-1 series triumph over India as a reason to be optimistic against a side three places back.
However, a deeper dive suggests that this will be no walkover. In their own conditions and with the red ball, Sri Lanka are a much more formidable proposition than their low ranking suggests. Against non-Asian sides, the Islanders have won all seven of their last Tests at home, including a comprehensive 2-0 sweep of South Africa in July.
Compounding the challenge facing England is the unfamiliar feeling of Cook’s absence at the top of the order for the first time in 159 Tests.
“There’s no doubt this will impact the side, but now is a perfect opportunity for someone else,” Thorpe said. “Hopefully we can unearth another world class opener.”
Keaton Jennings’ Test career has ben a struggle since his ton on debut against India. That 112 in Mumbai came in an innings defeat, but showed that the young South African native is capable of playing against spin despite his questionable technique against a seaming ball.
Surrey’s County Championship winning captain Rory Burns looks the most likely candidate to fill the remaining slot at the other end and Thorpe is confident that he will be able to make the step up to Test cricket.
“He is one of the toughest competitors on the domestic scene and is so strong mentally,” Thorpe said of the 28-year-old who scored 1359 runs at 61.71 for his County this season.
“He just instils confidence in the side and knows his game inside out. It will be extremely difficult over there but he will find a way of scoring runs.”
Thorpe did offer a word of caution though. Alarm bells were sounded in the English camp when South Africa’s openers Aiden Markram and Dean Elgar were made to look like village cricketers on the turning tracks of Colombo and Galle.
he pair crumbled under pressure, searching for runs through shots that belied their usual solidity. For Thorpe, this was the telltale sign of panic.
“Asian spinners can smell weakness like a shark can smell blood in the ocean,” Thorpe explained.
“When they sense your frustration they move in for the kill and settle on a line and length that makes you question your defence and ability to get off strike. Every Test batsman has the ability to score runs over there, but not every batsman has the temperament to do so.”
Thorpe said he was one of those batsmen because he over-trained. “I would ask for pitches in practice that turned more than anything we’d ever get in a match. I hit far more balls than I’d likely face in most matches and I practised at the hottest time of the day.
“No matter how difficult things got out in the middle I knew I could cope because I’d gone through so much just to be ready for the match.”
With this confidence, Thorpe backed himself to get on top of the bowlers. Through resilience and patience he knew he could slowly knock them out of a rhythm. Asian spinners in their back yard are apex predators. Like any animal at the top of the food chain they can become rattled if challenged.
“If I defended well — going all the way forward or all the way back — for long enough I could sense their confidence shake,” Thorpe said.
“They didn’t like it when I met the ball with the middle of my bat and would then start to look for something that wasn’t there. Then I’d start to pick up ones and twos. When they had enough of that they’d get more adventurous and I could sweep or use my feet to them and pick up boundaries.
“All of a sudden I’m the one in control and could feel the energy shift. There is a moment where all bowlers, even the very best bowlers, can sense that you’ve got the better of them and then they start to panic. That is the place you need to get to.”
Whether or not England’s current crop of batters can handle the unique pressures of Asian conditions remains to be seen.
Their last visit to Asia ended in a 0-4 hammering against Virat Kohli’s India and was preceded by a first ever Test defeat to Bangladesh.
Rangana Herath’s decision to retire after the first Test will come as welcome news to Joe Root and the rest of the English batsmen. The 40-year-old spin legend is the most successful left arm bowler in history, having taken 430 wickets from 92 Tests placing him 10th overall.
However, Dilruwan Perera and Akila Danajaya proved against South Africa that they are more than a handful in their own conditions. England will receive no respite once Herath calls it quits.
This England side has dazzled against the white ball, but has proved susceptible to collapses against the red. It is in these moments that panic inevitably sets in, unless of course your name is Graham Thorpe.
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