England v Pakistan, 3rd npower Test, The Oval, 2nd day August 19, 2010

Sober Swann England's linchpin

Graeme Swann was sober, in every sense of the word, as he faced up to the media at The Oval on Thursday night. He was back in the headlines for the right reasons, having bowled with his now-habitual canniness to keep England in touch in the third Test, but talk of screwdrivers, kittens and upended floorboards were firmly off the agenda as he offered a terse "no comment" to all queries relating to his drink-driving court-case.

For any other cricketer, such compartmentalisation would come as standard, but Swann is one of those rare characters who delights in treating everything he touches with irreverence. In many ways, it makes him the player he has become today - a man with sufficient worldly-wisdom to know that, in the final analysis, cricket is nothing more than a game, and a faintly ridiculous one at that. But nevertheless, with his side up against it today and leaning on him for a performance, he was still able to fall back on a steely core of professionalism, and perform as if he hadn't a care in the world.

Clearly, an issue as serious as driving under the influence is not one to be trifled with, no matter how many jokes his cat-related alibi has spawned in the course of the past week. But in any other situation, Swann would have lapped up the acclaim from his dozen-strong press audience like a stand-up comic at this month's Edinburgh fringe show. Not only did he claim his 100th Test wicket, and the big one of Mohammad Yousuf at that, he was also belatedly included in the ICC's Cricketer of the Year nominations, following an unexpectedly grovelling apology from the five-man awards committee.

All of the above would be grist to the Swanny humour mill, surely? Not on this occasion. As he coughed and hacked his way through a curt five-minute briefing, it became clear that he was significantly under the weather as well - "I feel dreadful, to be honest," he acknowledged at one point. And while he dismissed the impact of his court appearance as a case of "missing one day of training, that is all", his absence of humour was revealing in the extreme. Not for the first time in his career, we may have been guilty of under-estimating him. And given that he is currently acknowledged as the world's leading exponent of slow bowling, that is quite some feat.

Regardless of the anxieties and illnesses that may be dogging him, Swann showed that his game-face is as rigid and unperturbable as the one that Shane Warne (who also brought up his 100th wicket in his 23rd Test) is currently attempting to transfer to the world of professional poker. Confidence was the key ingredient that turned Warne into the greatest matchwinning bowler of all time, in particular the ability to feign confidence even when he had none - a state of mind never better exemplified than at Adelaide in 2006-07. Swann on this cursory evidence has something similar, for no-one looking at the way he went about his work would believe he's in anything other than tip-top condition.

There was assistance in the wicket, but nothing more than any self-regarding spinner would hope for on the second day of an Oval Test - a bit of useful bounce, and some handy grip and turn, but no huge cracks to fall into such as the ones he located during his career-best at Edgbaston last week. But with the utmost cunning, Swann computed all the available data in an instant, and gave Pakistan's batsmen the hurry-up from beginning to end of his 27.2 overs.

Swann could have struck in his first spell on Wednesday evening, when his third ball to Imran Farhat zipped past the outside edge and off stump in the same movement, but this morning he made amends with the second-ball extraction of Salman Butt - by some counts the 22nd occasion he had broken through in the first over of a spell. Sixteen overs later, the count went up to 23, when Wahab Riaz missed a sweep to be adjudged lbw, and by the end of the innings, as Pakistan's tenth-wicket stand started to slog the seam bowlers off their lengths, back he came again for another essential intervention.

The big one, however, was the wicket of Yousuf, and though Swann was not in the mood to gloat, he did admit that, of all the players in the Pakistan line-up, his was the scalp that would be prized the most. The manner in which he out-thought a player who was visibly grinding into top gear was fascinating to behold as well, as he teased him in flight and probed away with impeccable self-control, limiting his prey to seven singles in 30 balls before snapping the trap shut with a sharp but calm return catch.

It was the big moment of the day, and it could yet be the decisive breakthrough of the match, if England's batsmen perform with anything like the resolve that their previously meek counterparts displayed today. "No doubt about it we're behind the eight-ball a little bit because of the deficit but it's still a cracking batting track," said Swann. "We can't bat as badly as we did in the first innings, and we need to get a decent total to give ourselves a platform to win the game."

Whatever one's take of Swann may be, the fight in his performance was plain to see today. Come the fourth innings, he's sure to be a factor - regardless of everything else that's going on around him.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.