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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jason on July 9, 2013, 10:24 GMT

    @WheresTheEmpire, to be honest, 90% of the Aussies I've met at ashes games have been ok and chatting about the relative strengths of both sides, is always enlightening. Yes Aussies play hard, but they pretty much have a good knowledge of the game, just like the core of the barmy army who often go on tour, rather than those who are there to be part of the in-crowd. Or go to tests for just so they can say they were there, which happens in London quite a lot.

  • xxxxx on July 9, 2013, 8:42 GMT

    @Meety @YorkshirePudding and others. All this camaraderie and reasonableness is completely at odds with the traditions of the Ashes. I fully hope and expect that we will all be back to normality by 11:00am tomorrow.

  • Jason on July 9, 2013, 7:53 GMT

    @Meety, good point about Australia Prefering Leggies, though I think thats more to do with the way Warne performed, just as England after Botham tried to find the next botham often to the detriment of putting a team together who could be comeptative, first it was Chris Lewis, then Craig White, even Gough was touted as an All rounder at the early part of his career.

    I think the person Lyon most needs to watchout for is Steve O'keefe, if what I've read from fans is true, and his stats look like they back it up to a point, in 2-3 years he may well be as good if not better than Lyon, but I've not seen him bowl so cant comment on evedience other than hearsay and stats.

    Still it should be an interesting contest and look forward to watching Lyon bowl/

  • Andrew on July 9, 2013, 0:41 GMT

    @YorkshirePudding on (July 8, 2013, 8:18 GMT) - yes, people need to stop & remember that 3yrs ago, Lyon was just a club cricketer working as a groundsmen to try & stay involved in cricket. He has now toured SL, SA, WI, & India as well as home series v India, SL & SA - all good players of spin & he has SURVIVED & at times flourished. He outbowled Ashwin in Oz, & has had some suspect keeping that I know in the last summer alone cost him at least 4 GENUINE chances, (+ a few more 50/50s that good keepers could spill). At the same age, Swann was basically plucked from obscurity at 21 to be in National squads - then sent packing for another 6 or 7yrs to learn his craft before re-emerging as a "mature" aged player of 27ish. Lyon is about where Swann was at 27/28. By the time Lyon reaches 30 - IF he tracks LIKE SWANN, he will be one of the best offies doing the rounds. His problem will be - Oz prefer Leggies, & the first half decent one to come along will see him yo-yo in & out of the team!

  • Andrew on July 9, 2013, 0:25 GMT

    @ H_Z_O on (July 8, 2013, 18:32 GMT) - yep, Swann is a far more credentialled bowler. He has 50 Tests to back his sub 30 average & takes his wickets at 4 per match, all indicators of high quality for an offie. It is the word "comfortably" that gets my back up, as Lyon has a comparable average v Sth Africa to Swann, & his 1st tour of India was WAY better than Swann's 1st tour. What a lot of people (especially Ozzy fans unfortunately), is that Lyon has now played 35% of his Tests against India - arguably the best players of spin in cricket & he has had 30% against SL - the next best players of spin (arguably). The weakest team he has played is NZ, but they were basically Green tops, he has had very little in the way of long-hanging fruit & yet boasts an average comparable or better than Panesar. Good comms. @ FitzroyMarsupial on (July 8, 2013, 16:49 GMT) - yes, nailed it one. Hussey treated Swann with disdain in Brisbane & was good other times - Haddin too!

  • Scott on July 8, 2013, 23:02 GMT

    @HZO, I agree with you that Lyon and Siddle cop a lot of undue flak. Siddle more so than Lyon. The problem with Lyon is that he doesn't ever look threatening. As in, he doesn't have the variety to spook batsmen. He has his stock delivery and seems to use length rather than flight to deceive. Any batsman worth his salt will pick up length pretty quickl from a spinner. Whereas you see Swann, or any decent spinner for that matter, and they're using drift, flight, turn, changes in pace to deceive and look more likely to take wickets. Another criticism of mine is that when given optimal conditions, ie, 5th day of a test with 8 wickets to get, Lyon seems to be incapable of utilising conditions, or even building sustained pressure to get wickets. He's definitely a contributing factor to some of Aus's recent draws rather than wins...But the truth of the matter is, he is learning/progressing, and he's the best we currently have. Agar is too young right now, but looks a good future prospect.

  • H on July 8, 2013, 18:32 GMT

    @Meety My issue with that sentence is one word. "Comfortably". I would probably say Swann's a better bowler but he's also a much more experienced bowler. A case in point is Monty. Remember when Warne made that comment about him playing the same Test over and over because he didn't seem to be learning? Lyon's been the exact opposite of that, he's looked a better, more threatening bowler with every Test, and England would do well not to underestimate him. Worth pointing out that the one bowler to consistently trouble Compton during the warmups was Lyon. He and Siddle seem to be getting a lot of stick, from both sets of fans, and it's unjustified, imho. I reckon both will surprise a few people this series.

  • Amit on July 8, 2013, 16:49 GMT

    I like Swann. England missed his influence and personality in NZ.

    Rather than focus on his less good average v Aus the Australians would do well to focus on why that's the case. Ironically a lot comes down to a leftie - Michael Hussey. Notwithstanding the overall result in the last Ashes Huss went after Swann and (generally) bossed him. Took lots of singles and was always looking to pull or cut anything remotely short. In Watson and Hughes Aussie have batsmen suited to that type of play (albeit not in Hussey's class). It's a risk but get to Swann and you upset England's plan A. Good as they are, I'm not sure they really have a well thought-out plan B...

  • Jason on July 8, 2013, 8:18 GMT

    @Meety, totally agree with your comments re Lyon, and I suspect a lot of that statement is Hyperbole on the part of the Author rather than the general opinion of the England team.

    As you say Lyon is still learning, most spinners learn in FC games but Lyon didnt have much chance to do that following his drafing after the 2010/11. If he watches how swann bowls, especially the lines and lengths he will be a major threat to the English batsmen, who amy try and dominate him early. Haurtiz was on par with swann in 2009 in terms of wickets and average.

    Lyons problem seems to be hes used more to contain and so bowls a little flatter, and quicker than he needs to, if he gave it a bit more air and took some pace (1-2 kph) off the ball so it can 'grip' he'll cause problems for batsmen.

  • Bryn on July 8, 2013, 5:57 GMT

    cant see swann being a threat. never has been a threat against anyone really, steady bowler, nothing more. i see him as more of a run scoring opportunity for australia than anything. bring it on