December 15, 2010

Swann owes much to his wilderness years

Swann's time on the sidelines has played a huge role in his transformation and England's recent success story

From England's point of view, arguably the most perfect aspect of the "perfect" performance that they turned in at the Adelaide Oval last week was the sight of Graeme Swann doing exactly what was expected of him. The batting feats of Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen were the outstanding components of a memorable result, while James Anderson's first-morning spell was devastating and invaluable. But come the fifth day, with a victory to be harvested on a wearing pitch, though with bad weather lurking over the horizon, all eyes turned to one man - and he delivered at precisely the moment it was required.

Such is the peculiar nature of the specialist spinner - a cricketer bred to contain for long periods of a game but then, every now and again, is launched into an offensive of such intensity that failure is not an option. Many a spinner has paid the price for underperforming on a fifth-day wicket - most recently Australia's offspinner Jason Krejza, whose failure to prevent South Africa from chasing 414 in Perth two years ago meant his 12-wicket haul on debut in Nagpur one match earlier counted for nothing when it came to extending his international career.

Swann's second-innings performance of 5 for 91 was his tenth five-wicket haul in 26 Tests, seven of which have now come overseas. It was the 13th time he had played a part in an England victory since his debut in December 2008, and with 72 wickets at 20.25 in those matches, his value as a deal-sealer cannot be underestimated. One week earlier in Brisbane, he'd failed to nail the correct length for Australia's pitches and been battered to all corners by Michael Hussey. But the speed with which he re-evaluated was a testament firstly to his skill as a spin bowler, but moreover to his inexhaustible confidence.

Swann plays cricket fully expecting to win, and enters every spell with a spring in his step that has many of his opponents beaten in the mind long before they can be confounded by his flight or the unusually prodigious turn that he extracts for a fingerspinner. As Australia's selectors continue their search for the natural successor to Shane Warne, with Michael Beer set to become their tenth applicant in the past four years, Swann stands as a reminder of everything that they have lost in the interim. For at Test level, the art of spin bowling is about far more than mere talent, and while Swann's current tally of 122 wickets at 27.23 has no hope of rivalling Warne's legendary mark of 708 at 25.41, there are distinct parallels in the mindset of the two men.

"The main thing you find out about Test cricket is that it's exactly the same as county cricket," Swann said. "It's just that the pressure is ramped up ten-fold and that causes things to happen. The best players in the world and the best batsmen, I believe, are the ones who treat a Test match as if it's a knock in the back garden. The pressure doesn't seem to affect them and they treat it like the bat and ball game they grew up with."

It's a lesson that Beer, or Steve Smith - or maybe even, come Boxing Day, Victoria's own left-armer Jon Holland - will have to come to terms with in double-quick time if they are to play their part in rescuing Australia's Ashes campaign. Even the great showman Warne was over-awed at first, as he returned figures of 1 for 150 on debut against India in 1991-92, but by the time his career was into full swing, his personality had become large enough to dwarf all external pressures.

Swann's brand of showmanship is subtly different to that of Warne - for starters, it has involved far fewer dalliances with the front end of the newspapers, although his cat-under-the-floorboards drink-driving episode was an impressive variation on a theme. However, to judge by his ease in front of the cameras during his acclaimed Ashes tour diary, he could also end up one day fronting his own talkshow, because it is that very desire to be the centre of attention that has rationalised the challenges faced by both men, not least on days such as the fifth day of the Adelaide Test, both in 2006 and four years later.

To be approaching such lofty heights is remarkable for the long years Swann spent in the wilderness, and also for the fact that his particular art, traditional offspin, was widely assumed to be heading for extinction at the highest level

"In amongst all the jokes, he's quite a smart cookie, and I think he's really good for our dressing-room," said Andy Flower, a demure and thoughtful England coach whose willingness to accept Swann, warts and all, sets him apart from the last Zimbabwean to hold that position, Duncan Fletcher. "It's not exactly the rowdiest dressing room in the world, and he's a good guy to have around. We want people to influence our dressing room in a positive way, in their own way, and he does that. He's very much his own man.

"I think he's an outstanding bowler," added Flower. "An outstanding competitor and his results suggest that. You can't get away from results, what's in black and white, and he's been producing results for us on a consistent basis."

Fletcher, famously, never saw anything beyond the cockiness in Swann's cricket, and banished him after a single five-over performance in a one-day international in Bloemfontein in January 2000 - with some justification, it has to be said, given the tales of late alarm calls and misplaced arrogance that stalked the 20-year-old Swann's maiden England tour.

Likewise, Kepler Wessels, Northamptonshire's autocratic coach of the mid-2000s, took umbrage at his light-hearted attitude to the game, and in an episode of his career that Swann regarded as out-and-out "bullying", effectively drummed him out of his home county and forced him to seek new opportunities with Nottinghamshire - a move that would prove instrumental in his second coming.

"He has spoken about some of the situations he's been in with captains, teams or coaches, in which it hasn't worked that well," said Flower. "You learn as much as a player from watching, listening and observing other people and learning what not to do, as you do from watching great performers and learning what to do."

In hindsight, the years of hard yakka on the county circuit have made Swann the player he is today, a man who had come to accept that he would never get the chance to play Test cricket, only to be offered a belated opportunity that - like his former Northants team-mate Michael Hussey - he was too long in the tooth to allow to go to waste.

When asked if he felt frustrated not to have been given his chance to impress sooner, Swann's reply was disarmingly candid. "Not really," he said. "I fully accepted the situation I was in. I had made a rod for my own back with the previous regime and that wasn't going to change until the regime changed. There are no regrets from me.

"It's easy being 31 and having bowled for 12 years because I won't have to worry about my action or where the ball is going to land," he added. "I didn't feel close to the Test team two years ago. I was a very jovial tourist but just that, so it's nice I got the chance in the first place and to have grabbed the opportunity with both hands is very pleasing. I think I was bowling at a pretty consistent level for a couple of years before I got into the Test team but you get better as you play."

By the end of his second year of Test cricket, if Swann can maintain his form at Perth and Melbourne, he could find himself emulating Warne in another significant manner, by displacing Dale Steyn as the No. 1 bowler in the world - a position that Warne first captured during his command performance during the 1994-95 Ashes.

"It's quite flattering that I may get to be No. 1 in the world although it's still two good games away," said Swann. "It would be very nice, my mum would be very proud, but I honestly couldn't give a monkey's as long as England win the Ashes. I could get to No. 1 and we could lose a Test match so it wouldn't matter at all. I'd rather be down at No. 20."

Nevertheless, to be approaching such lofty heights is remarkable for the long years Swann spent in the wilderness, and also for the fact that his particular art, traditional offspin, was widely assumed to be heading for extinction at the highest level - beaten into submission by heavier bats, shorter boundaries and the difficulty of imparting sufficient revolutions on the ball with just the fingers, and not the wrist. Unless you were a "mystery" spinner with a doosra in your armoury, it was assumed you need not apply.

"Towards the end of my playing days I'd have said times have moved on for the orthodox spinner being able to take wickets like he's done, so that has surprised me," said Flower, who was one of the best players of spin in his day. "But all that does to me is emphasise the value of doing the basics very well, and the basics for him are getting enough energy on the ball that it drifts and turns.

"I played against him, I always saw something there. He always had lots of energy on the ball, that's what I remember about him, and therefore got the ball to drift or dip a little and spin. He's always had that. The stuff he's acquired now are his patience and nous, he's quite a canny operator now."

Whether he's canny enough to close out an Ashes series in Australia remains to be seen, but his natural ebullience is these days tempered with a worldly wisdom that matches the ethos of the squad in which he has made his home. "We're not going to go down the Aussie media way of saying we're the best team in the world and that they're all doom and gloom because we know that's not true," he said. "As the ancient Chinese proverb says, 'He who looks at the clouds takes his eye off the plough'."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.