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Graeme Swann is as good a continuity candidate as England could have hoped to put forward
September 14, 2011
When Michael Vaughan was appointed as Nasser Hussain's successor in the summer of 2003, he famously declared he wanted "11 captains" to take the field in every England match. Coming off the back of a long era of English dysfunctionality, his appeal invited gentle ridicule at the time, and gave the initial impression of a leader who lacked the courage of his convictions - certainly when compared to the autocratic approach that Hussain had favoured in the preceding four years.
It didn't take long for that perception to be transformed, however, for what Vaughan had been getting at was the need for collective responsibility at the highest level. As England's standards began to rise from the nadir of the 1990s, so the team could no longer afford any mental passengers in their set-up - the sort of players who, in Hussain's day, had obliged their captain to stand at mid-off and micro-manage every detail of their performances. By the time Vaughan and England embarked on their six-series unbeaten run, up to and including the 2005 Ashes, only the most upstanding individuals were being considered for selection.
Eight years on from Vaughan's appointment, England appear to be well on their way to that 11-captain utopia. Graeme Swann's promotion for the two Twenty20s against West Indies takes the summer's tally of leaders to five, and the overall figure for 2011 to six, given that the long-forgotten Paul Collingwood led the side to a shared Twenty20 series against Australia way back in January. By rights, such a mishmash of helmsmen should be a recipe for disaster, something akin to Pakistan's shambolic summer in 2010. But right at this moment, the policy comes across as a show of strength and depth.
Perhaps that can be taken as an extension of the old truism that "team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in victory", for England's breadth of success this summer gives them licence to indulge in a bit of freestyle. But equally, the appointment of Swann is a no-brainer when you consider his status as an old head in a young and forward-looking squad, especially when you consider the long-term plans that England, under the watchful eye of Andy Flower, are keen to set in motion in all three forms of the game.
In the absence of both Stuart Broad and Eoin Morgan, the anointed captain and vice-captain of the Twenty20 operation, the easy option for the West Indies challenge would have been to recall Alastair Cook in a temporary capacity, particularly given the turn of speed that he showcased during his matchwinning 80 not out from 63 balls in the 23-over ODI against India at the Rose Bowl last week.
However, with the defence of their World Twenty20 title looming in Sri Lanka in 12 months' time, such an approach would have had awkward implications for all concerned, especially given that Broad is by no means certain to be fit to resume his leadership for the one-off challenge against India at Kolkata on October 29. That match is England's first real chance to assess their Twenty20 aptitude in subcontinental conditions, and particularly to determine the boundary-clearing potential of their preferred opening combo of Craig Kieswetter and Alex Hales.
For all his undoubted virtues as a batsman, Cook has struck a grand total of seven sixes in 13648 international deliveries to date - or barely one every 2000 balls. His record in domestic Twenty20s is considerably better than that - 15 from 642 - but the aerial route is not an option that comes naturally to him. In 2010, when England won their title in the Caribbean, Cook was not even considered worthy of a place in the preliminary 30-man squad, despite being England's Test and ODI leader in Bangladesh at the time the announcement was made.
Had Kevin Pietersen not been assigned a complete break from all cricket, it's not inconceivable he could have been offered these two games as closure for the manner in which he was stripped of the captaincy three years ago. However, England's current policies - those of selection as much as non-selection - are nothing if not rigid, and so the reins have been passed to the untested Swann, a man whose only captaincy in a professional capacity came in a pre-season friendly for Northants in 2004.
It's not an accolade he has actively sought, for Swann's reputation - aside from being a top-class spinner - is that of the class clown. With his sharp wit and his refusal to take any unnecessary aspect of his life too seriously, he is a reliable source of mirth within the dressing room, and as Andrew Strauss admitted after England's arduous Ashes campaign, a vital reason why England's morale remained unshakeable in key moments of that series.
"I don't think I could still be the light-hearted, piss-taking guy if I was in a position of authority," he told Spin magazine earlier this year. Nevertheless, Swann has a calculating brain, as shown by the thoughtful manner in which he takes on his opponents with the ball and, strangely enough, through his improbably measured comments to the media, both in press conferences and through his favourite form of communication, Twitter.
It's a leap of faith to assume that the ability to compose lucid quips in 140 characters or less marks you out as a leader of men. But rarely, if ever, has Swann fallen into the trap that has been sprung on so many sportsmen in recent times, and allowed his unguarded public utterances to become a cause of regret and embarrassment. And given how close to the wind he seeks to sail at all times, it's a remarkable balancing act he's achieved.
At the age of 32, Swann is more mature than he'd ever wish to let on, and in a squad dominated by young challengers who are sure to be urged to play their natural games, he's as good a continuity candidate as England could have hoped to put forward in the circumstances. He'd doubtless make the joke himself that he's the "stand-in's stand-in's stand-in", but unlike the situation that faced Strauss in 2006, when Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff undermined him through their absences, Swann will be doubtless have the confidence to run the show as he wishes, at least for a week. England have somehow dispensed with the angst of old, and these days back their various components to do their best for the common good.
Certainly the current vibe is vastly different from the last time England fielded such a glut of captains in a single summer. Back in 1988, the only real similarity was a Test scoreline of 4-0, but it was England who were on the receiving end of the battering from the rampant West Indians. Four official captains were used in the course of the debacle - Mike Gatting, John Emburey, Chris Cowdrey and Graham Gooch - as well as one further stand-in, Derek Pringle, who took over from Gooch for a session of the fifth Test at The Oval with the instruction: "Don't give the ball to David Capel".
Times have changed beyond recognition since that time. Even in a team that bears less than a passing resemblance to the one that stepped out at Cardiff to launch England's international summer back in May, this late-season squad exudes a sense of belonging that could never have been conferred in previous eras. It's no mean feat in the circumstances.
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