December 27, 2013

Why we'll miss Swann

Not just a fine and match-winning bowler, he could also be relied on for a wry smile, a joke, and a willingness to go left-field when answering a question

Swann: made for good copy © Getty Images

There must have been times over the last five years when English cricket writers felt Graeme Swann was heaven sent. After all, there's a damn sight more job satisfaction to be had from writing about a winning team than one that's being kicked from pillar to post by the opposition, and when England have been in the ascendant during recent years it was Swann who was often to be found at the heart of their success. From Lord's to Colombo to Mumbai, he was a match-winner around the globe.

A hundred and fifty wickets at an average of 22 in the 30 Tests England won during his time with them, with five or more in an innings 11 times. That's an impressive record.

Add in an ability to tie down an end with long, accurate spells that allowed England to play a four-man attack, some useful lower-order batting, and one of the safest pairs of hands in the team, and you've got a player who was integral to England's fortunes. Someone who provided the media with plenty of back-page headlines.

Off the field he was good copy too. A highly quotable figure in an age when players are media-trained to say absolutely nothing that could frighten the horses.

England have averaged almost a hundred days' play a year during Swann's international career. That's a hundred end-of-play press conferences. A hundred occasions journalists have tried to pry something of interest from tired players who want to be anywhere but in front of the press.

There must be only so many times even the most hardened journalist can write down the phrase "bowled in the right areas" before they feel like throwing their laptop into the nearest river and jumping in after it. But when Swann was being questioned, that was never a problem. He wasn't a man to cling to well-worn cliché or bland, innocuous statements of fact. He could be relied upon for a wry smile, a joke, and a willingness to go off-piste when answering a question.

Perhaps that's why the announcement of his retirement was received with more understanding from the touring press corps than from some of those watching on from the other side of the world. The media knew what Swann had done for them and what five years of non-stop cricket had done to him.

If you travel with a man for that long you can see the truth when he tells you he has come to the end of the road. And the reasons Swann gave for retiring in his final press conference did ring true. The wear and tear on his troublesome elbow. The resultant loss of effectiveness as a five day Test match progressed. The feeling that others could now do a better job. The need to get off the international treadmill and spend more time with his family.

The only real fault with that reasoning was that it came framed with the words "I felt" rather than "we felt". When he looks back, Swann might reflect that he would have been better advised to give his thoughts to England's management first and decide with them on when and how they should announce his retirement. Given the nature of the current Ashes tour, the timing of that retirement only adds to the feeling that England have little control over their destiny.

For Swann this tour is now over, and it's Monty Panesar who has taken his place in Melbourne.

Monty has been a match-winner for England himself in the past, although mostly in combination with Swann. Whether he can provide as many on-field headlines as a lone spinner remains to be seen, but it's hard to believe he can replace Swann's ease in front of the media. Monty is a more reserved figure, plays the press with a straighter bat, and is no stranger to the phrase "bowled in the right areas".

Perhaps that means it will be the English cricket media who miss Swann the most. We'll all feel the loss of a matching-winning bowler; there are too few of them in international cricket. And we'll all miss a player who so readily conveys his enjoyment at playing sport for a living; there are too few of those in international cricket as well. But it's the press who have had their jobs made just that little bit less interesting, and who'll have to work that much harder in the future to find a memorable quote for their headlines.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses