Graeme Swann October 9, 2007

Fletcher's sprat, Moores's whopper

Graeme Swann's long road to redemption

Graeme Swann: a seven-year hiatus between England games, but still determined to enjoy himself © Getty Images

Duncan Fletcher's memoirs are fast approaching their publication date, and it's safe to assume they are going to cause quite a stir when they hit the bookshelves. Rumour has it he's taken aim at more than just a few of the characters he encountered during a tempestuous seven-year tenure, but for England's cricketers - currently in the throes of their first overseas campaign of the Peter Moores era - such considerations are a lifetime away. Hell, times have changed so much since Fletcher's departure that they are even bossing a one-day series away from home.

One of the tourists in Sri Lanka, however, might just be anticipating an uncharitable footnote or two in Fletcher's tome. Graeme Swann was there at Fletcher's coronation in South Africa eight long winters ago, and he was banished unceremoniously the moment the team arrived back in Blighty at the end of a tough three-month tour. Now he is back to assess the dawn of Moores, and if the evidence of his first three games is anything to go by, he's going to prove tougher to shift this time around.

"I probably did put the odd foot wrong," Swann admitted this week as he reminisced about his first coming as an England cricketer. "I can't remember any specific incidents apart from missing the coach a couple of times. It's taught me that when I go on tour I have to take two alarm clocks. It was a missed opportunity in a way, but then again it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. I was 19 or 20, very naive about cricket and life in general, and it taught me a hell of a lot."

On the face of it little has changed. The cocky, chippy character who so antagonised his hard-bitten coach is still very much in evidence. This time, however, he is the toast of the team rather than the pariah, after starring roles in each of the first three ODIs - two of which led to victories.

If Swann had had his way, he'd have been the hero many moons before. Until last week, England had played 175 ODIs since his solitary appearance at Bloemfontein, as a late replacement for Ashley Giles, way back in January 2000. He bowled five wicketless overs, conceded 24 runs, blamed Nasser Hussain's field settings for his lack of success, and swiftly made way in the next game for Gloucestershire's Mark Alleyne. "I was absolutely deflated," he told the Northamptonshire Echo upon his return home from the tour. "The match [in Cape Town] was set up for a little Swanny cameo and I felt sure if I'd played, we have won."

Three Swanny cameos have since confirmed there may well have been substance behind that bombast, although Fletcher - a stickler for discipline and as judgmental as they come - refused ever to countenance forgiveness. Instead Giles, his most loyal disciple, cemented the central role in his squad, while the bit-part spinners came and went like commuters on the Tube.

In ODIs alone, eight other spinners were handed debuts after Swann had been ignored: Paul Grayson, Jeremy Snape, Ian Blackwell, Gareth Batty, Jamie Dalrymple, Alex Loudon, Michael Yardy and Monty Panesar. Three further names featured in Tests alone: Chris Schofield, Richard Dawson and Shaun Udal. Swann's Northants team-mate Jason Brown appeared and disappeared in Sri Lanka in 2001, while Robert Croft, Ian Salisbury and, of course, Phil Tufnell, were all handed shortlived recalls.

There is little doubt that it was Fletcher and Fletcher alone who took issue with Swann's immature antics. Hussain, in his autobiography, recalled the young egomaniac in his midst: 'He had a bit of swagger, he gave you a bit of chat. I didn't mind him at all.'

It's an inauspicious list, a catalogue of English slow-bowling shortcomings, but it is that very last name that is the most significant. Tufnell was Swann's senior colleague and role model on that 1999-2000 tour. With Dean Headley also game for a giggle, the Fun Boy Three was formed - a loud brash clique that was determined to live their sporting lives to the full. They picked the wrong coach to play such games with, however. After South Africa, the trio featured in just one match between them in the whole of Fletcher's reign. Tufnell was recalled to face the Aussies at The Oval in 2001, and was spanked for 174 runs in 39 overs.

There is little doubt that it was Fletcher and Fletcher alone who took issue with Swann's immature antics. Hussain, in his autobiography, recalled the young egomaniac in his midst: "He had a bit of swagger, he gave you a bit of chat. I didn't mind him at all." But even Headley felt obliged to step in on one notable occasion, when Swann's penchant for speaking his mind to his captain reduced the dressing room to silence.

He may have learnt his lesson in the interim, but Swann has weighed up the odds and decided there's no point in biting his tongue second time around. He's 28 now, the right age to be coming into his own as a spinner, and ready to be accepted for the character he undoubtedly is. "He's funny, he's a lad," says Moores. "You need all sorts of different people because it makes touring parties fun. In our set-up the lads enjoy him."

Regardless of the hi-jinks, Swann is an intelligent character - he writes a monthly column for All Out Cricket magazine, he's a regular on the sofa of Sky's Cricket AM, and a career in punditry is his for the taking when he retires, all the more so now that he's got the international recognition that seemed destined to elude him. Although he has never bettered the haul of 57 wickets he took for Northants in the summer of 1999, Swann was wise enough to recognise he was treading water at the county, and in 2004 he joined Stephen Fleming and the thoroughbreds of Nottinghamshire. It hasn't been a dull switch. The Championship followed immediately, relegation thereafter, and a handsome return to Division One in 2007.

With such a plethora of sharp-ended competition, Swann's competitive juices were flowing long before his England recall, but none of his spinning predecessors - not even the people's champion Panesar - has arrived with the sort of assurance that he showed in Dambulla over the last few days. It doubtless helped that his most recent A tour, in 2005, was also to Sri Lanka, where he sealed a thumping 197-run win by taking 5 for 79 in the first unofficial Test. His first delivery of this series pitched and ripped past Kumar Sangakkara's edge, and with seven wickets in three games he has all but assured himself of a Test debut when the teams reconvene in December.

And if it did so happen that he was slotted into that pivotal No. 8 position, what then would his old coach think? One man's supreme confidence is another's misplaced arrogance, and there's no question that Fletcher believed young Swann to be too much mouth and not enough legwork. But in his eternal quest for multi-dimensional cricketers, especially those of the spinning variety, it seems he threw back a whopper that he had mistaken for a sprat.

Mind you, Swann's not the only reject making a handy case for himself at present. Owais Shah and Ryan Sidebottom were also banished from the England set-up for unfathomably long periods of Fletcher's reign, and they too have emerged as key matchwinners in this series. "I think I deserve to be here," Swann told Sky Sports earlier this week. It's a message that's being picked up by every member of England's squad at present. Maybe it's not such a crime to be fun.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo