July 7, 2013

'I enjoy being the centre of attention'

Graeme Swann, expected to bowl England to Ashes glory, can't wait for the battle to commence

For Graeme Swann life, at least where cricket is concerned, has always been about the Ashes. As a boy he was one of thousands who would stage mock battles in the garden, although being younger than his brother, the former Northamptonshire and Lancashire batsman Alec, meant he had to switch allegiance.

"When I was growing up playing cricket in the garden with my brother, it was always England versus Australia," he remembers. "Unfortunately I had to be Australia because I was the youngest. It was Ian Botham versus Allan Border. Now I'm one of the very lucky people who has got the chance to do it for real."

Swann is in high spirits - it takes a lot to knock him out of the persona. After a few weeks of injury niggles and one major scare over a possible broken arm, it is now just a few days before the Ashes. "It's the greatest cricket show in the world," he says.

The series that begins at Trent Bridge - Swann's home ground ("The best ground the world," he is happy to remind everyone) - will be his third Ashes. He has yet to lose possession of the urn after the 2-1 victory in 2009 and the historic 3-1 in 2010-11. Alastair Cook and Andy Flower are doing their best to dampen the hype ahead of the start of this run of ten Ashes Tests, but Swann is like a kid on Christmas Eve.

"I've been thinking about it for 18 months, to be honest, but now it's in the forefront there's nothing else to focus on, which is a great place to be. When I'm at home at night all I think about is Ashes cricket…

"Well, sometimes there's other things. Without a doubt the biggest games we play are Ashes ones. It's very easy to get very hyped up. I've never made any apologies for that."

The lead-up to this series has not been without its worries for Swann. First, there was the second operation on his right elbow to remove bone fragments that became unmanageable during the tour of New Zealand. Then there was an injury-hit Champions Trophy campaign, where he missed matches due to a back spasm and a calf strain.

Last week there were some sharp intakes of breath when he was smashed on the forearm by Essex firebrand Tymal Mills. For a while Flower feared it was a broken bone and that England's premier spinner would miss at least part of the series. Swann's ulna never quite gained the status of David Beckham's metatarsal, but there were a few crossed fingers for a while.

"Without a doubt the biggest games we play are Ashes ones. It's very easy to get very hyped up. I've never made any apologies for that"

"The only time I really worried was when I got smacked on the arm the other day, because I thought I'd broken it," Swann says. "That would have been a bit of sickener."

If any reminders were needed, the significance of Swann to the Ashes series was made stark during the Champions Trophy, when, even in a global tournament England were desperate to win, he was not risked. In James Tredwell they had a more than able deputy - and arguably a more in-form one-day bowler - but the protective wrapping was well and truly around Swann.

"The reason I had my operation when I did, and the reason I was wrapped in cotton wool during the Champions Trophy, was all for the start of the Ashes. I remember Alastair Cook saying to me on the New Zealand tour that if the elbow has gone, you've got to get it sorted now because I want you for the Ashes.

"You don't think like that, but when someone else spells it out, you do think he's right. Even though I didn't want another operation - because there are always nerves about how you'll come through it - the timing meant I was always going to be fit for the Ashes."

It is plainly clear what a central figure Swann will be over the next few months, with an Australia line-up packed with left-handers and the likely presence of at least one left-arm seamer to create footmarks outside the right-handers' off stump. Swann also comfortably wins the head to head with whichever spinner Australia pick in their XI. Coupled with a warm, dry spell that is forecast to last for at least a few weeks, is it shaping up to be "Swann's Summer"?

"I don't feel the expectation," he insists. "What you've done before doesn't count for anything. Unless you bowl well in the game, it doesn't matter how many wickets you have in the past. If you let external pressure affect you, then it won't help."

Swann's Test record against Australia is, in fact, markedly down on his career: an average of 40.13 compared to his overall figures of 28.50 for 222 wickets. But his match-winning roles have been significant - Lord's and The Oval in 2009 and Adelaide in 2010-11, plus an underrated spell in the second innings in Melbourne.

While Swann is expected to pick off Australia's left-handers, one of the compelling duels of the series will be his tussle with Michael Clarke. "He's a very good player of spin, and full stop. He was their form batsman in England in 2009, although he didn't have such a good series in Australia. He uses his feet well. The year he's had has been phenomenal, so we'll be hoping to cut the head off the serpent, if you like, as a captain.

"In the two Ashes series I've played, one of the main reasons we've won, is because we've been able to make some of their best players have poor series. Clarke and Ricky Ponting last time, Mike Hussey, until The Oval, in 2009, and that's what you need to do to win big series - make sure the match-winners in their team don't have a chance to perform. We'll have two or three players on their team we'll definitely be looking at to keep especially quiet - although you hope everyone on the opposition has a poor series."

Swann has often said how he doesn't mind standing at slip watching the quick bowlers complete swift victories, but this time he really does want to play a central role. Earlier this summer, against New Zealand at Lord's, he was barely needed when James Anderson and Stuart Broad demolished the visitors, although he made amends a few days later at Headingley, where he took match figures of 10 for 132.

"I still feel a bit cheated by how well Jimmy and Broady bowled at Lord's, because that second innings the pitch was possibly the best spinning pitch Lord's will ever produce," he says with a smile. "Kane Williamson was turning it square while I was batting and I thought, 'This is going to be brilliant.' Then I didn't even warm up. Don't get me wrong, I'll take the victory, but I feel like I was cheated out of a few wickets there.

"I'm a player who enjoys being the centre of attention, let's not beat around the bush. To drive away from a game where you've hardly contributed, like Lord's, even though you are over the moon that you've won, you feel a bit like a spare part. Driving home from Headingley, I felt like the main man."

It's a feeling Swann is likely to have a few more times this summer.

Graeme Swann is promoting "NatWest's Big Cricket Ticket Giveaway", giving NatWest Current Account customers the chance to win one of over 1000 tickets to England matches this summer. Sign up to enter at natwest.com/cricket

Andrew McGlashan is senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo