April 30, 2014

The player England will miss the most

In the new era, England will find it hard to fill the huge hole left by Graeme Swann's retirement, on the field and off it

Along with his bowling, England will also miss Swann's human side as they try to bridge the increasing gap between the players and their supporters © PA Photos

England assembled at Loughborough last week for the famous fitness tests, an apt way to begin the Moores era. As Gideon Haigh noted wickedly, it is a group that "controls the controllables, achieves the achievables and eats the edibles". Awaiting them on the to-do list is not just the selection of a new team but the creation of a new way of playing, and beyond that, a new way of feeling. They have lost - well, given away - their batting match-winner, and yet the player whose absence demands the most reconstruction is not Kevin Pietersen, but Graeme Swann.

The spinner's retirement has so far been obscured by the debate around his exit, which was sad and undeserved. Some have grumbled about the method and moment of his leaving, but he was bowled into the ground by a team that had built their strategy in the field around him. He was the fulcrum of the side, the man who offered the endurance and control to play three seamers and seven batsmen alongside him. So impactful was Swann's late-blooming career that no one in Test cricket took more than his 255 wickets in the five years or so that he lasted; he re-popularised the big, drifting, ripping offspinner; he became the first great exponent of DRS. He was the scourge of left-hand batsmen and "not-outer" umpires alike.

He took two wickets in his first over on debut, in Chennai, beginning a trend for striking within his first six deliveries that persisted almost until the end. It was uncanny. He was a natural cricketer, his ebullient talent obvious in his batting: the purity of his striking belonged higher up the order, but he was anchored by a rather winning dislike of the short stuff. He never fancied that, and didn't bother to pretend to, either. He was a tremendous catcher at second slip, another tell of the genuinely gifted player.

Despite the best efforts of the spin department at Loughborough, who have made a deep study of the revolutions and drift that Swann imparted on the ball, there is no selectable specialist spinner demanding his place, let alone his role. That means a complete rethink of England's strategy in the field. Ben Stokes doesn't yet feel like the fully fledged allrounder who might suggest another way, and the idea of the admirable Moeen Ali somehow shouldering the role looks equally far-fetched. Moeen might at least allow for the selection of four seam bowlers, but England would be demanding both runs and wickets from a man yet to play a Test.

Beyond a broad strategic decision for which there may be no immediate answer, there is the other, more human side of Swann that has been lost. His jokes may have been terrible, his manner sometimes blithe, his rock 'n roll band not quite ready to trouble the charts, but he gave England an approachable public face during a time of austere relations with the media. Compare his natural way in front of a microphone with Alastair Cook's tortuous platitudes and obvious desire to be elsewhere. More than ever, England need to reduce the distance between players and supporters, to burst the remote "Team England" bubble and gain some support during a period of rebuilding. Pietersen's dismissal has offered a focus for a broader discontent compounded by the Ashes defeat and doubts over the new coach. How England could do with Swann's waggish grin and off-piste answers right now. He made an honest connection when he spoke, and he lightened the load: he always seemed to remember that he was playing a game, not running the country.

His age and experience played a role in that. England will have plenty of young blood, all of them media-trained into oblivion. Someone needs to let on that, you know, playing cricket is often fun too. Swanny had fun almost to the end and he will be missed.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here