Swann torments the best players of spin
At stumps on Sunday evening, Graeme Swann arrived at the media briefing, sat down, looked around the room and asked, "Right, who's first?"
When he takes the field tomorrow with only seven Indian wickets remaining between England and 4-0, it is a question Swann may ask himself again to work out how he should set about his day. The choice is between Sachin Tendulkar and Amit Mishra, batting titan and nightwatchman; with Swann's love for centre stage as an indicator, it won't be difficult to guess against whom he would like to weave a spell within a spell.
Like he always does, Swann will bound in tomorrow; floppy hair, whirling arms, clean action, sunglasses, part skittish-schoolboy, part-performer. This, The Oval, is his element. A victory to push for, a pitch giving him the whole deal, eccentric turn, an explosive rough, lively bounce, even some skid, and a selection of the world's best players of spin.
Given the first set of conditions in this series that suit his gifts, Swann has gone seeking the truffle among his opponents. He has offered his brand of classical offspin, varying loop and pace with control and tempting the great stroke-makers to hit against his break with the deception of a cheeky expression.
On the green deck of Trent Bridge and the quieter wickets of Lord's and Edgbaston, the masters treated him with contempt; before this Test he had taken four of the 60 Indian wickets in the series.
Now at the first sign of bite, Swann has dived into a feast. He accounted for Sachin Tendulkar and Suresh Raina in India's first innings. As they followed on, Swann came on in the seventh over with the new ball and sent back Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag in an uninterrupted spell of 15 overs till stumps.
Dravid - Swann's second Test wicket - faced him for 100 deliveries and when following on, was forced into defending far too much with men around him. Something had to give, and after almost seven hours of batting, it had to be Dravid. It was "very satisfying," Swann said.
"Dravid was the one wicket we were gunning for ... we were happy to see the back of him." The wicket came with another prolonged piece of debate about a referral over a not-out which was reversed. Dravid later said he had got "a bit of a feather" on the ball which went to Alastair Cook at short leg.
If Dravid was resolutely trying to keep the ball away from the stumps, Sehwag was trying to settle into his longest innings on this tour so far. Everything that Swann threw at him, Sehwag tried to flay through the off side. Early on, one turned sharply and flew past bat, pad, stumps and wicketkeeper for four byes and Swann mournfully told his captain, "It's not my day." Strauss told him, "Stop being so bloody pessimistic."
A few overs later, one zipped through the gate past a loose drive to strike Sehwag's middle stump. "It only happens three-four times a year if you are lucky so when it does turn up in front of you, it's one to savour ... especially when it's a player of his (Sehwag's) repute and standing," Swann said. "When it comes out of the hand, you know it's in the right place but when you actually see it go through the gap, it's a wonderful feeling."
He wants more of that tomorrow, the quicker the better. Once soft, the ball actually sank on Sunday into a passage of play where between the 60th and the 80th over, the bowlers suddenly went flat and batsmen found run-making easier. "We've probably got 25-30 overs with it still spinning and seaming. Today, it did absolutely nothing for 15 overs. We need to be wary of that, we need to try and get the wickets early in the morning." His aim was three-four before lunch. "Especially if we get Tendulkar. We don't want him staying around for too long."
Swann also offered another option which England have: reverse swing in case of the ball staying dry and the wicket seeing enough sun. If it does pan out the way Swann wants, everyone could be home just after lunch. If it doesn't, then the England bowling attack will have to show one another aspect of their considerable skill.
The period when the ball went "dead" - around the 60th over - said much to the Indians about the opportunities they have squandered. India's innings have got shorter and shorter in this series, like skirts in the Sixties. The past two days, twisted antecedents aside, are the longest England have bowled in the series, clocking 129 overs.
When kept in the field for long, like all bowlers, England's began to show a few fraying edges as well. A couple of misfields, a bad throw here and there, a missed run-out, the first signs of heavy-footedness in the field from an otherwise energetic pace attack. A possible stumping of Tendulkar off Swann, which was the topic of much debate, didn't even reach the third umpire because no one appealed.
Swann heard about the incident when he returned to the pavilion and offered one of his wisecracks. "What can I say, I can't see, I'm only at the bowler's end. There are only about 12 pairs of eyes all around the stumps. It's not exactly the brains trust you field out there, so it's no surprise none of them really picked up on it. Surprised Matty Prior didn't appeal because he appeals for everything."
Many throats will be cleared before England go out tomorrow because their push for 4-0 will require seven more wickets and much appealing off Swann's bowling to get there. "It's going to be a hard day, make no bones about that, we have got seven more wickets. We need to get them fairly sharpishly, so we don't end up in a situation where we might have to bat again. We need to crack on in the same vein where we finished tonight."
England have got to a 4-0 whitewash or beyond only twice in the post-war period: against West Indies in 2004 and in 1959 against India. Should India resist tomorrow, nothing will change in the scoreline that stands or in the ICC rankings, other than England sensing yet again how adeptly they have worked all their advantages in the series. Should India collapse in a heap, the sheer might of this result must be absorbed: unlike West Indies of 2004 - despite Brian Lara's presence - and India of 1959, a much stronger adversary has actually been made to look decrepit.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo