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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Srinivas on November 4, 2011, 21:30 GMT

    Ok, Swann's behaviour is unacceptable. Period! It is the class of KP that he let it go easily in front of the public. Even if KP humbly says that he may not be fit for Captaincy, that is not for his team mates to mention in their autobiographies while still playing. Absolutely unacceptable behaviour by Swann. When will people realise that KP is a very simple, brutally honest and loveable person who is a totally different beast with his own unique, subtle arrogance while executing some glorious strokes? Let us not confuse his brutal stroke play with his off-field persona. I'm a huge fan of KP mainly because of the contrast he brings to himself while batting and while carrying himself off the field. What a gem of a destructive player! What a loveable person to have around you. I'm with KP on this. No questions asked.

  • Karthikeyan on November 4, 2011, 12:17 GMT

    At the launch of Brett Lee's autobiography titled "My Life" in Sydney recently, he said he hoped Katich, a friend, would be able to return to the Test side. He gives the discarded opener his full support."If circumstances were different, he would have made a great Test skipper," Lee writes of Katich, who he played under at New South Wales."His leadership was brilliant. Plus, he remains a top person. If you can't get on with 'Katto', you must be an ordinary bloke. Period," he adds. I just hope that somehow, Lee can help bury the hatchet between Clarke and Katich, although he does not seem eager, saying "I don't think it's for me to get involved in all that type of stuff." I really wish NSW had won the 2011 Champions League under Katich's captaincy (they were knocked-out in the Semis). That would have put him on par with Clarke, as leaders of winning teams, ahead of his hearing with CA. I know many in India, who are sad and who would have liked to see more of him in the "baggy green" cap

  • Mainuddin on November 4, 2011, 10:37 GMT

    Swann was spot-on. Kevin Pietersen should be dropped from the England team. He is clearly the most hated England cricketer ever both by the fans and the teammates.

  • Paul on November 3, 2011, 20:29 GMT

    He didn't read the proofs of his own book? WTF?

  • Hollis on November 3, 2011, 19:10 GMT

    So Swann has made his comments about KP. That's his opinion and he has the fortitude to say it as he sees fit and in writing. Can his opinion be challenged and is he wrong to state that KP was not the right man to be selected as captain at the time ? Maybe , but that's the man opinion and so we can agrree to disagree .. his opinion still stands and we should respect that. It's better to state the facts up front than to twiddle the thumb and castigate your mates behind his back. What I agree is questionable is the inappropriate timing of the comments. But what is a good timing ? When Swann or KP retire and who decides this is right ? KP is a tough cookie and I will be surprised if he is personally bothered about Swan's comments. It's certainly not affecting his batting. In fact this may propel him to score more hundreds. This reminds me of the unresolved Chris Gayle / WICB situation.

  • joel on November 3, 2011, 19:01 GMT

    Kevin Pieterson , has achieved twice as much as Swanny has in his England career . Dont get me wrong , im a big fan of graeme .But seriously its only about selling books , i would like to think most cricket fans can see that.

  • Alan on November 3, 2011, 13:18 GMT

    I agree that the notion that modern sportspeople will keep autobiographies until they retire, as Steen says, 'profoundly wishful thinking' (Strauss, Broad, Cook, Flintoff, Vaughan and Panesar among recent England players all published books while in the team), and what Swann says about Pietersen is indeed really no revelation. I agree that Swann is brash, has a big mouth and is a bit egocentric and one could say much the same about Pietersen, but these are the very same characteristics in both players to which the public responds most warmly in other contexts. There is surely a link between the success on the field of many players and their tendency to stick up for themselves in friction with colleagues: personal confidence, competitiveness and assertiveness tend to go along with both. Steen could have cited many other examples, such as Botham's attacks in his books on Boycott, Roebuck, Border, Gooch, etc. This surely explains the proliferation of feuds among team-mates in cricket.

  • Kannan on November 3, 2011, 6:41 GMT

    Some people think they can achieve stardom by running down other stars. Some stars also think that they can get away with anything, little realising that they turn to dust when they lose their sparkle. That said, the image and personality of a player which the public understand through the media is often different from reality. In a competitive team sport that is often run by has-beens and never-beens, there is also a lot of pettyness to contend with and it is seldom that this can be filtered out by the reader in the public domain.

  • Abhik on November 3, 2011, 5:16 GMT

    I doubt whether the impact on the dressing room atmosphere is as much as it is being made out to be. Public figures are quite aware of the need for controversies to sell a book. The notion that KP was quite aware of what's being written by Swann may not be as hilarious as it sounds (based on the media hype).

  • Rahul on November 3, 2011, 5:14 GMT

    Current England team prides itself on being a professional outfit. And Swann coming up with the pleasantries to share about KP in his autobiography was the most unprofessional behaviour. What I am surprised is that Swann's dislike of KP being appointed a captain is not the only instance coming out in media. Not so long ago Jimmy Anderson had something similar to say about KP in media. KP is not a saint and has a habit of rubbing people in wrong way is common knowledge but two wrongs don't make one right. The incident seems to have affected Swann as well as he was not his jovial best in India when POMs were getting walloped all over the place. Also does Swann have the achievements to come up with a autobiography while still playing is another debate all together.

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