October 27, 2009

The clown who came back

Spinner, jester, all-round "Marmite personality", Graeme Swann talks about how his wings were unclipped and he returned from the county wilderness

Graeme Swann moves his face close to the page, like a short-sighted pensioner, the better to examine the picture. After a few seconds he sits upright again, his features dominated by a toothy grin and a look of wonderment. The photograph (from the last issue of TWC) is of the moment England won the 2009 Ashes: Hussey, caught Cook, bowled Swann.

It is a chilly Friday afternoon at Lord's in early September. England are 0-3 down in the one-day series against Australia and have just completed a lengthy training session in which Swann was berated by the coach, Andy Flower, for a cock-up in a fielding drill. That sunny Sunday at The Oval in late August seems a lifetime ago but Swann is more than happy to transport himself back there.

"I've watched the footage and it feels like I'm watching someone else do it," he says. "I have certain memories of it, almost slow-motion, but it just feels a bit surreal. I could never have imagined that anything - certainly in sport - could make you feel as good about yourself."

Swann is resentful that the Ashes triumph, in his eyes, remains uncelebrated, in contrast to 2005. Four days after the Oval finale England were in Ireland for a 50-over game, three days later they were in Manchester for a Twenty20 against Australia. It is not open-top bus parades he is after, just time to enjoy the win and reflect on it with family and friends. Since The Oval he has been home in Nottingham only once, fleetingly, on his way to Manchester for the Twenty20. "This last week has felt as flat as anything, having this seven-match drudge around the country playing these one-dayers. It's a huge comedown from that incredible high."

He cites "external pressure", from the media, not to celebrate too hard. The suggestion that this was because 2005 went over the top is met with scorn. "I truly believe in life that you shouldn't live on an even keel. For me that is an absolute joke of a way to live. You have to really experience the highs and take the lows when they come along. 2005 didn't go over the top. The celebrations were right for that time, marking the end of almost two decades of annihilation by Australia, playing a new aggressive brand of cricket, unearthing new heroes. How can it be over the top to celebrate properly? If this country wins the football World Cup next year, it will be pandemonium and we'll have 11 knighthoods. That's the way it should be."

This is not so much the Swann interview as the Swann lecture. He is in his element, holding court as an England player of substance. "I wanted to be famous as a kid. I wanted people to recognise me. When I was a kid I wanted the opposition to know who I was and say, 'Oh no, Graeme Swann's playing'."

He had recently filmed an episode of A Question of Sport and the word is that he was sounded out as a possible team captain when his career is over. One can easily imagine him doing that and other television gigs. He has the breezy self-confidence of Matt Dawson, the England rugby player turned TV celebrity and QoS skipper. He is perhaps a more mainstream version of Matthew Hoggard, whose quirky intelligence was initially endearing but then started to grate.

Swann also has a hinterland: he is a music obsessive and has his own band, Dr Comfort and the Lurid Revelations. He has more than 16,000 followers on Twitter, the internet's latest social networking craze, another ideal platform for his student-union wit and waspish humour. He reads the papers, an experience he describes as "cathartic" after a bad day on the field. And as one might expect from the son of a teacher, he has an open mind, a willingness to absorb new ideas and experiences, unlike some of his more pre-programmed team-mates.

He is now 30 and his irrepressible personality has matured, like a decent red wine, into something palatable and refined. On the England Under-19 tour of South Africa in 1997-98 Swann wound up the team manager, Phil Neale, to such an extent that the two wrestled on the floor of the dressing room. "Phil probably wanted to knock my head off," says Swann. Neale, now the England senior team's operations manager, says: "He was quite annoying then but is much better now."

"I'm one of those people you need a break from after a while," Swann adds. "I was a cocky little upstart who no doubt deserved a good kicking." He delights in Andrew Strauss's jokey assessment of him as a "buffoon", partly because he thinks Strauss's choice word exposes the England captain as a walking Wodehousian stereotype. "I've got to make sure I'm toeing the line between being a healthy, positive character and a pain in the arse."

Swann's father Ray, a Geordie teacher who relocated from the north-east to Towcester in Northamptonshire, was a fine league cricketer in his day and renowned as an uncompromising opponent. He also played for Northumberland, Bedfordshire and Northants 2nds. "The most competitive man I've ever seen" is Graeme's description. "I remember the first time I beat him at golf, when I was about 16 or 17, he didn't speak to me for three weeks.

"When I was a kid I saw how seriously my dad took his cricket and how competitive he was. He went out of his way to teach me and my brother [Alec, who opened the batting for Northants, Lancashire and England Under-19], to throw balls to us, teach us proper technique and also that if you're going to do something, you do it right. As a result I felt I was miles ahead of other kids of my age."

Graeme was playing men's cricket for Northampton Saints in his early teens. He echoes the thoughts of Ian Chappell [TWC, August] that he and his brother Greg were better served by playing men's cricket from an early age whereas their other brother Trevor played only in his own age group. "It made me a far better cricketer," says Swann. "When I went into first-class cricket I'd been playing men's cricket for the best part of a decade."

Initially he was an opening batsman. His attempts at spin bowling went to pot in his mid-teens as he endured his growth spurt. Then, as the hormones settled down, his bowling radar righted itself and he emerged from adolescence as a bowling allrounder. On the England Under-19 trip to South Africa he was the third spinner behind Chris Schofield, the Surrey and former Lancashire leggie, and Jonathan Powell, an Essex offspinner who would also play for England A but is now a carpenter in Romford. Powell hurt his back and Schofield was cowed by strong, confident South African batting and unforgiving conditions. In the two four-day "Tests" Swann bowled 85 overs, while Schofield, who two years later would have an England central contract, bowled only 37. "It suited me down to the ground. I always want to have the ball in my hand. I can't understand how batsmen can just field. I don't care what people say about how important fielding is. It's just rubbish, I hate fielding. Compared to batting and bowling it's the third, very distant, cousin."

"I don't care what people say about how important fielding is. It's just rubbish, I hate fielding. Compared to batting and bowling it's the third, very distant, cousin."

Two winters on, Swann was back in South Africa on a senior tour, part of the new wave hand-picked by Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher as they surveyed the wreckage of England's home defeat by New Zealand and a rock-bottom world ranking.

The county game was discredited and there was a desire, almost a desperation, for new, young stars. Swann had been selected in the squad - though not the final XI - for the final Test of the 1999 summer, a match that ended in defeat and Hussain being booed by the Oval crowd. "That was weird," remembers Swann. "It wasn't really a team, just a collection of individuals, before Nasser grabbed hold of it and really shook it up. It was bizarre. I'd only met half the team before and you weren't introduced to anyone, so you just sat in the corner.

"When I look back it was laughable that I got picked to go to South Africa. I'd had one good one-day game on telly, 30 off 10 balls against Essex or something. I wasn't ready. I wasn't mature enough emotionally or physically and skill-wise I was nowhere near good enough." The 20-year-old Swann played two first-class games and a one-dayer in South Africa and earned censure for being late for a team bus. He returned without enhancing his reputation and would not play for the national team again until the winter of 2007.

His career at Northants had begun to stagnate. He was not enamoured of the unforgiving, boot-camp style of Kepler Wessels, the coach who joined in 2004. Wisden described Swann as a "free spirit not always on the same wavelength as Wessels".

Swann concedes that his "Marmite personality" is not to everyone's tastes. It will either "fit into the system or drive people up the wall, and I just didn't fit into Northamptonshire". Kent wooed him but he chose Nottinghamshire because the coach, Mick Newell, told him he was "the sort of personality they wanted in the dressing room". "It was like having my wings unclipped," Swann says. "I've seldom had a bad day at Notts because it's good, fun cricket. It's a brand of cricket that's a bit maverick and we've had some success, winning the County Championship in 2005."

But the move to Nottingham did not suddenly signal an upturn in his England prospects. "I'd accepted that and was happy with my life. I was loving Nottingham but then England came round again and it's thanks to Peter Moores, who I believe got me back in."

"He got back in because he'd learnt his trade and was spinning it hard," says Moores, the England coach from 2007 until January this year. "Spinners are a bit like keepers, they mature later than others. He has the personality to create a theatre of pressure around batsmen. He was a breath of fresh air in the dressing room. He has always been full on and you need that, you need characters to lighten the mood." Within a year Swann had gone from bit-part one-day spinner to England's No.1 Test spinner, a function of Monty Panesar's water-treading but also his own ability to grasp the moment. He was unfazed by making his Test debut in India, has since opened the bowling against West Indies at Lord's last May ("the funniest thing in the world") and has taken the winning wickets in both England's Ashes Test wins.

His joie de vivre combines with a fatalism that produces apparent immunity against pressure. Before the triumphant Oval Test he had taken six wickets at 68 in the Ashes. As a finger spinner whose stats are never likely to have a wow factor, he knows that his place in the side is insecure. "I'm not stupid, I know it could all be over tomorrow, but I don't think like that. Anybody who does is shooting himself in the foot. If I have a couple of bad games, the press will be on my back as that's their job. I chose to be a spin bowler who bats down the order, so that's what I've got to go with. If I keep performing, then I'll keep playing; if I don't, I won't. I believe there's a degree of fate and destiny. You do your best to be as good as you can be, but don't tell me that luck doesn't play a big part."

He has developed an alliance with Mushtaq Ahmed, the former Pakistan legspinner who is England's spin coach. No surprise, except that this is as much about personal philosophy - and, bizarrely, batting - as spin bowling. "Mushy has been brilliant for me because our views on life are very similar. His comes from a different place, from his faith: that you will do well if God wills it. He recognises that my strength is being a happy bloke and someone who can provide others with energy; that's part of my use to the team. He says to me, 'I love it when you have a smile on your face. You and me, Mr Swanny, we enjoy our cricket and we must always have a smile on our face." Mushtaq has also become Swann's batting coach, encouraging a freedom of expression (Moores compares his batting to Shane Warne's) that has largely been successful in his short Test career.

Swann has much to look forward to. He is England's No.1 spinner, he has a personality made for TV and now fame and achievements to go with it. And he is getting married at the end of January, following an early October stag-do at the Stuttgart beer festival, a chance to do some of that proper Ashes celebrating that he feels so strongly about.

John Stern is editor of the Wisden Cricketer, in the November 2009 issue of which this article was first published. Subscribe here