November 3, 2011

When silence is mightier than the pen

Swann's criticism of Pietersen in his autobiography is another in a long list of players antagonising others in print - never been a wise thing to do

I'm not sure whether I am a more fervent advocate of freedom of speech than I am of the art, craft and heart of Graeme Swann. That there should be any debate at all speaks volumes for Swann's ability to enrich and enchant. That he should have exercised his entitlement to express himself and alienated admirers in one fell swoop is both deeply ironic and more than a little troubling.

In the latest episode of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, a 1920s-set saga of corruption and racism revolving around some the most accomplished gangsters in American history, Margaret, the Irish-born lover of big cheese Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, describes someone as cheeky. Nucky is baffled by the word; Swann could have apprised him of all its connotations with a nod, a wink and a twitch of the eyebrow. Unfortunately, in lending his name to an arguably premature autobiography, English cricket's resident cheeky chappie may well have mistaken the fruits of his animated labours, namely a nation's affection, for a guarantee of immunity. In eliciting sympathy for Kevin Pietersen, English cricket's resident pantomime villain, Swann has certainly achieved the remarkable.

The tome in question is The Breaks Are Off, one of the more compelling candidates for Punniest Cricket Book Title Ever, if not quite up to the shameless heights attained by the Yorkshire and England wicketkeeper Richard Blakey's Taking It From Behind. For someone who has captured a nation's heart as much through his sense of humour and mischief as his penchant for tantalising and bewitching batsmen, it was alarming to learn that Swann's first contribution to Amazon's profit margins has incited "death threats". That they emanated from the lawless jungle known as Twitter, a medium he himself has exploited so adroitly and winningly, only adds to the irony.

In fairness, what Swann says about Pietersen is neither original nor disputed. As leader, man manager and tactician, Pietersen was one of the poorer choices to ever captain England; worse, in undermining Peter Moores and delivering an ultimatum to the selectors (either the coach went or he did), he did nothing to dissuade those who surmised that there was no KP in team. To state this in a newspaper column before the start of a tour would have been ill-advised enough; to do so between hard covers - which unlike newspapers cannot easily be converted into the next day's fish-and-chip wrappers - and then serialise the juicier bits in a newspaper, was a step too bold even for Swann, however remunerative.

As expected, he has ridiculed the very idea that England's 5-0 thwacking by India in the ODI series was the consequence of his book, though some would maintain that the often comical fielding suggests otherwise. Steering his usual careful path between carrot and stick, Andy Flower proposed, not unwisely, that such tomes should be resisted until retirement. Given the nature of the publishing industry and the sportsman's wholly understandable fears about the tenure of his success and hence marketability, this would appear to be profoundly wishful thinking. The nicest thing one can say about Swann's decision to cash in while the going is so good is that the results are a far cry from the customary anodyne fare; his frankness over Pietersen, nonetheless, appears to serve no wider purpose.

NO SPORTSFOLK SPEND QUITE so much time in each other's company as those in a professional cricket team. Internal divisions are inevitable. It may surprise some that, as the ongoing argy-bargy between Michael Clarke and Simon Katich emphasises, many of the most notorious feuds have involved Australians and Yorkshiremen, though given their proud traditions for success this may say something for the benefits of fractiousness.

Swann implies that he did not read the proofs of the book that bears his name. Had he done so, he would "probably" have worded his criticism of Pietersen "a bit different". Such alibis are woefully inadequate

Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh had no respect for Kim Hughes the captain or human being, and delighted in showing him up, a public spat that led to Australia losing an unloseable game at Headingley, not to mention an Ashes series. Bill O'Reilly's hate-hate relationship with Don Bradman brought a premature end to his Test career. In a poll for Australia - Story of a Cricketing Country, a new book edited by Christian Ryan, five baggy-green cappers (out of 121) refused to nominate Bradman among their all-time quintet of Aussie nonpareils. "Stories point to him being a selfish, divisive person who sought advancement," reasoned one of the naysayers, Tony Dell. "To me that does not constitute greatness."

Rodney Hogg was seldom shy of showing his disdain for Graham Yallop, most notoriously during the calamitous 1978-79 Ashes series. At one juncture he invited his captain to settle matters manfully, behind the pavilion. Their mutual dislike extended back to a schools match in 1968-69: Yallop was the toff, Hogg the larrikin. "In Perth he had 2-3 off two overs and then wanted to go off," recalled Yallop. "We had England reeling and he reckoned he was hot. So off he goes. I'm thinking, 'What have I got here?' Sadly Sigmund Freud wasn't available for a diagnosis at the time." Not for nearly three decades would they share a conciliatory beer, and then only after Hogg had returned fire in his autobiography, The Whole Hogg (No. 3 in that Punniest Title chart). Unlike Swann, he gave his antagonist due warning. "Rodney rang me to say he was writing a book and that in it he was going to bag me," revealed Yallop. "He then asked me would I help launch it. Here we are, 29 years later, and he's still as mad as a cut snake."

In his splendid new warts-n-all portrait of Yorkshire's greatest fast bowler, Fred Trueman: The Authorised Biography, Chris Waters characterises the relationship between Trueman and Geoff Boycott as cricket's version of Cain and Abel. "Never bosom buddies as team-mates," relates Waters, "[they] fell out spectacularly during the seventies and eighties. Although they respected each other's talent… that was about as far as it went." Trueman deemed Boycott too selfish, and made him the butt of his after-dinner jokes. "It must be nice," ran one gem, "to go through life knowing you'll never die of a stroke." Only when Boycott contracted throat cancer were bygones permitted to be bygones.

Possibly the most regrettable and wasteful chapter in the annals of cricket's internecine wars pitted Johnny Wardle, England's finest spinner of the late 1950s, against his Yorkshire captain, Ronnie Burnet. Fast approaching 40, the county's 2nd XI skipper was promoted for the 1958 season despite having no first-class experience, which galled the arch-professional Wardle even more than his amateur status. The last straw came during a lunchtime altercation in Sheffield: Burnet inferred that Wardle, branded by some as a troublemaker, was not giving anything remotely near his all. Brian Close recreated the scene for Wardle's biographer, Alan Hill: "Johnny rounded on Ronnie and said: 'At the beginning of the season I was asked to give you advice. You've taken no bloody notice, and as a result you are making us professionals look idiots out there." Yorkshire sacked Wardle* and, after he vented his spleen in the Daily Mail, MCC withdrew his invitation to tour Australia. Never again did he play for his country.

Swann's fellow offie Jim Laker could have given him a few steers about the downside of using an autobiography to settle scores, however justified. In Over To Me, published in 1960 after he had left Surrey in discordant circumstances, the Yorkshire-born Laker pulled few punches. Peter May, Denis Compton, Colin Cowdrey and Bill Edrich all took a pounding, as did Viscount Monckton, Surrey's president. Laker did not read the page proofs before publication; hence his alarm when Doug Insole, soon to be an Essex colleague, pointed out that he had accused Hugh Tayfield, Laker's erstwhile South African rival, commissioned to cover the 1958-59 Ashes series as a journalist, of not attending every day's play.

Laker's gravest error was to cast the same aspersions against Edrich: Monty Garland-Wells, a lawyer who had once captained Surrey, informed the Middlesex icon that the passage was libellous. The offensive words were deleted and Edrich received an apology; Laker and the publishers met his legal costs. Just four years after Laker had performed the greatest bowling feat there has ever been or ever will be, Surrey and MCC withdrew his honorary membership (for four and seven years respectively). The first line of the letter from the Surrey secretary, Commander Babb, gives an inkling of the class warfare that still beset English cricket and fuelled much of Laker's justifiable ire: "Dear Laker…"

Swann implies that he did not read the proofs of the book that bears his name. Had he done so, he would "probably" have worded his criticism of Pietersen "a bit different". Such alibis are woefully inadequate. Maybe he was happy to take the chance - and the cash - because he fancies his chances of outliving Pietersen in the England dressing room. Or perhaps all other considerations paled beside a determination to do what he (and many others besides) felt was the right thing by Moores. But however you look at it, the impact on dressing-room unity, surely the overriding priority, was never going to be positive.

Then again, some believe harmony is overrated, that team chemistry requires a drop of acid, but that's another debate for another time.

*This line initially said Yorkshire sacked Wardle when he wrote in the Daily Mail. Wardle vented after Yorkshire sacked him.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton