February 25, 2013

No mystery but an artist all the same

Swann doesn't have a doosra but he has beautiful variations. And even if batsmen have begun to work him out, he's smart enough to keep adjusting

Graeme Swann flew into New Zealand last week having not played for two months. Coming straight out of a cold winter, you would expect his feathers and fingers to be stiff and a little raw. Alas for New Zealand, the first ball to Kane Williamson in the first ODI in Hamilton, was beautifully flighted, drifted a touch, landed on a dime, spun a fraction, and called for a searching, hurried stroke. One ball into the tour and I was hugely impressed, again.

I have been thinking about Swann a lot lately, while undertaking and enjoying the task of selecting my personal greatest 100 Test players of all time for my new book. Swann was highly considered but just missed out to many a fine bowler. He came close because he is a genuine artist in an era of camouflaged fools who need degrees of protraction and new laws to serve up their slow stuff. Swann serves up grace, integrity and honest endeavour. He bowls the old-fashioned way, with clever flight and guile.

Firstly, I thoroughly enjoy his movement; his initial practice of the wrist release before he runs in with his smooth rhythmical flow, then the busy body action to generate energy on the ball as it's released. Overall it's fluent and in sync.

He doesn't bowl the doosra, so he doesn't pretend to be two bowlers. Instead, he appears proud and fully equipped to be an orthodox Test offspinner, with beautiful variations to make the ball skip on or drift away or swing slightly towards slip. Above all, he is a resolute, intelligent character.

Swann knows he has to work hard, especially to right-handers, with the ball predominantly turning into the pads. Patience, subtlety, disguise and applying pressure come into the picture. He has to hit that dime. To his credit he has, since he debuted for England in Chennai in late 2008, although he came up against the mighty Sachin Tendulkar as India chased down a boatload. Still, capturing Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman in your first Test is a solid indication that you have the goods, and the gumption.

From there, he has been nothing but consistent. In 50 Tests he has 212 wickets at 29 apiece, striking every 59 balls; a significant return in the day of bigger bats, smaller grounds and flatter pitches.

I sense, though, that Swann will from here on struggle to maintain that form and return. It's not that he is losing any of his ability or control, but simply because I feel that the opposition are starting to work out his limitations. Without a doosra he will be an easier task mentally for the batsmen. The schedule will not assist him either. By having three formats to accommodate, of which he really only plays in one and a half, Tests being his mandatory game, he will find it tough to get enough top cricket to stay in top form.

I sense that Swann will from here on struggle to maintain his form and return. It's not that he is losing any of his ability or control, but simply that the opposition are starting to work out his limitations

His focus, and England's, will be the two Ashes over the next 12 months. Michael Clarke will be the biggest threat to his performance. If Swann can find his best drift and loop and keep Clarke guessing when on the charge, then he may be the trump card that helps England retain the urn. Get to Clarke and you get inside the nervous twitch of Australia.

On paper, over the next month he should dominate New Zealand in the three-Test series. However, it has been noticeable how Williamson, Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum have played him in the one-day series. They have all batted on off stump and got their right eyes in line with the ball, adjusting off the trustworthy pitches to spin and or drift, accumulating nicely without undue risk. If they are smart they will continue that way in the Tests, getting that right eye in line.

Knowing how smart Swann is, he will already be working out ways to combat those three batsmen. One adjustment might be to bowl a touch wider on the crease, taking the line outside the right eye, even if by just an inch or two. The other will be constantly shifting between delivering over and around the wicket, to try confusing the batsmen, taking them into a conscious mode rather then an automatic one.

England is hugely reliant on Jimmy Anderson for this series ahead, and he looks in top shape and form. Steven Finn is perhaps coming into some better form following his run-up adjustment, but Stuart Broad looks plain awful. Surely Graham Onions will be considered a better ingredient, but what form does he have of late?

New Zealand will hope that England retain a bit of winter rustiness for a bit longer. The hosts are undermanned at the top of the order and will rely heavily on Williamson, Taylor, Dean Brownlie and McCullum to keep the bike stand from toppling over. BJ Watling will keep and bat seven. History tells us he scores well as keeper, as opposed to when he isn't.

The Kiwi bowling has potential in three young swing bowlers but it isn't going to be a threat to an England side that has the nous, the guns and the ammunition to post massive scores on easy-paced wickets. After all, with Dan Vettori injured, New Zealand don't even have a left-arm spinner to tease Kevin Pietersen with, nor do they have a Swann.

England should swan through the Test series with grace and calm.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand