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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ultra on February 28, 2013, 10:31 GMT

    Indian fan here. I grudgingly and belatedly give my (unworthy) stamp of approval to both Swanny and Monty for their success against our batsmen. What bowlers like Warne could not do, this duo has done with distinction. Not a small achievement against batsmen who can play spin in their sleep with one hand. For an Indian fan my ego just got hit for a towering six. I never imagined two english spinners playing havoc in our own backyard. A belated and grudging well played England.

  • shashwata on February 27, 2013, 16:04 GMT

    I have always believed that it is better to have a classical off spinner in your team than a "mystery spinner" because the mystery surrounding these bowlers is cracked sooner or later and then they find it a mystery to bowl to the opposition without being hit !And Swannproves this just why.The man has no frills like the doosra ,teesra or the carrom ball.All he does is that he BOWLS WELL ,proper line ,length and with some of the best variations in the game. but I agree with the author that his biggest strength is his forever up for it cricketing brain and a never say die attitude.He easily is one of the cleverest bowlers in world cricket and thus achieves success even with his limitations.And trust me he would have a longer succcessful period in his carreer than any of the Mystery Men!

  • Partish on February 26, 2013, 21:33 GMT

    While I agree with Crowe's assessment that Swann is a good bowler - an artiste as he calls him - but I think it is unfair on his part to label people like Murali, Ajmal and Harbhajan as Camouflaged fools. I think it takes a lot of skill to do what these guys have done over a long period of time. For me Ajmal is the best spinner in the world right now. With regards to rules being bent or changed, well I think cricket has changed enourmously from the time Crowe played. Rules have been changed through the eras to accomodate not only bowlers, but more so batsman. take for example - the limit of 2 bouncers per over, improved and bigger bats, smaller boundaries, leg side wide (even if it misses the batsmen by an inch) & he can play a proper cricket shot, the front foot no-ball rule vs back foot no balls earlier, covered pitches vs wet uncovered pitches. Now question for Mr Crowe is does he have any less respect for batting legends like Lara, tendulkar, Ponting & Kallis?

  • Raymond on February 26, 2013, 18:14 GMT

    Swann has an excellent record; especially as wickets don't tend to break up as they often did in the past. He is a beautiful bowler and with a lovely action and a great ability to make the ball dip into left-handers. Is is interesting to watch hime side-on - not a kink to be seen - unlike a number of other off spinners one could name!

  • naresh on February 26, 2013, 17:01 GMT

    Totally agree with the sentiment in this article - but I disagre with the title. "artist without mystery"? come on - what is the mystery with those "dossra" peddlers? we all know how they do it. The artistry is to NOT do what thy do (i.e. bend it like - ok we will leave out names). I absolutely love Swann's bowling an dlook foreward to watch him and we need more like him. AND the bent arms gotta go out of the game.

    As for "reverse swing being now considered art form" - well nobody bent an arm for that. so lets not draw meaningless paralllels just because the current poster boy of doosra happens to be from the land of reverse.

  • ian on February 26, 2013, 12:13 GMT

    Swann is very much in the mould of JC Laker (and that's a major compliment!) - a classical off-spinner with a full range of variations. Of course, just being able to spin the ball into the RHB doesn't make him (or any good technician) a great bowler, even if an immaculate line & length are a given; it's the ability to work a batsman out, to plan his destruction (sometimes self-destruction!) & this is where Swann has the vital edge on all of his contemporaries, bar Ajmal. It's Swann's cricketing brain that's as special as his bowling. The offie that relies on the doosra/carrom can become caught up in his own cleverness & the control of his stock ball, or his doosra/carrom, or both, can suffer. When that happens he becomes a very ordinary bowler indeed. The case in point is Ashwin in the Tests v Eng. Ashwin, however, is a clever bowler & an intelligent man & v Oz his bowling was far more tightly controlled & the variation used sparingly. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

  • Dummy4 on February 26, 2013, 9:20 GMT

    "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."

    "He doesn't bowl the doosra, so he doesn't pretend to be two bowlers."

    Wow, I don't think that's fair Mr. Crowe. Sounds bitter to me, if a bowler is bowling legally today with some degree of straightening and has the variance of a doosra then he is a "fool" and "pretending to be two bowlers?"

  • dinesh on February 26, 2013, 7:26 GMT

    undoutedly always loved to watch him bowl, swan doesnt have doosra but he's such a clever bowler he will get u no matter how much u read him as he did in india, despite not havin doosra indian batsman stugglrd to play him , this is what aus needs as they dont allow their offspinner to bowl doosra they need a swan, surprised eng picked him too late.

  • John on February 26, 2013, 2:48 GMT

    Sorry, Deckchairandsixpack, but if you think conditions were in Swann's favour in the series against SA last year then your hat must have slipped over your eyes. In a wet summer, with the pitches so hard they would have been good for a 10-day game, none of the spinners could turn the ball at all. Try looking at the Indian series where Swann took 20 wickets in 4 games, or the Sri Lankan series in early 2012 where he took 16 wickets in 2 games, and you'll see what Swann does when wickets really are in his favour.

    I don't expect him to have great figures in the NZ series; the wickets are far too easy-paced and only real pace or swing are likely to be effective. If England has a Summer with a bit of sun and there are some wickets which assist spin, he'll thrive (look at his 9-208 against India in 2011 at the Oval, while Mishra got 0-170).

    In the meantime, look at his 212 wickets in 50 games and research how many spinners outside Asia have done better. You'll be surprised.

  • adeel on February 26, 2013, 2:28 GMT

    you prbably said the same thing about reverse swing. thats its cheating blah blah it became art when everyone else started to do it! so i've no doubt when NZ one day produces a offie who can bowl doosra will be hailed as an arties, most probably by you!


    "The initial reaction to all this was of suspicion, and perhaps further ignorance. Lawsuits have been filed, dirt has been carried in pockets, a Test has been called off, bottle caps have been credited, lozenges have been thought of as cricketing equipment… Whether the ball used to be tampered with or not, whether Pakistan alone did it or not, we will never know, but it will be pointed out - not without merit - that it all became kosher when Zaheer Khan and James Anderson and Brett Lee began to do it too. "

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