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At their time of need, Graeme Swann has decided to desert his team-mates
December 22, 2013
First Jonathan Trott is forced out of the Ashes tour with a stress-related illness and now, with Christmas approaching, Graeme Swann wisecracks his way into the sunset. If anybody doubted that this England team has been well and truly broken by Australia, they must surely accept it now.
Swann has been a wonderful servant for England, not just one of the most successful England offspinners of all time but a perpetually uplifting presence, living proof that you can still play - and talk about - international cricket with a sense of fun.
He was almost 30 when he reached the England side and he was a rounded personality relishing the opportunity. We should all be immensely grateful for that.
But the nagging feeling remains that Swann is wrong: wrong to retire now with the Test series still incomplete, wrong not to see it through to the end - whether picked or not - to stand alongside his team-mates after a failed Ashes challenge and at least reach the finishing line together.
That the series is already lost is largely immaterial. It is a matter of appearances, of collective will in good times and bad. Countless boxers have reached the final rounds so far behind on points, so lacking in energy to have any hope of a knockout punch that their only pride rests in hearing the bell ring for the end of the final round, to have been there at the end.
But there is something awry in this England squad, an exhaustion that is defeating good men. England's immense management team might still be functioning, but many of the players they are supervising are spent: so spent that they can barely see beyond themselves. They are no longer thinking straight.
It will seem perfectly appropriate to Swann to stand down now. He will be able to enjoy a family Christmas and New Year not caring that the clock has crept past midnight, or if the extra glass of wine is unprofessional.
He says he is being unselfish by getting out before the end of the series, by admitting to himself that, after his elbow operations, he no longer has the resilience to bowl long second-innings spells, especially when England have batted so poorly that they have not allowed him the recovery time he needs. He, above all, will know that. His analysis of his own game, as it stands now, should be respected.
But ultimately selection is not his job. It does not matter how spent he felt when Australia kept hitting him back over his head. He is contracted to see it through. It is the role of Andy Flower, as team director, and Alastair Cook, as captain, to choose an XI for Melbourne and Sydney than can best serve the collective in times of need - and, in discussion with him, to decide if he is worth a place in the final XI. By retiring now, Swann has not allowed them that opportunity.
This is not to accuse Swann of betrayal, or of fleeing a sinking ship. That is not the intention. But, if he did feel that retirement was the only option, there was no need to tell Australia until the series was over.
It is not sanctimonious simply to observe that there is something deeply unsettling about this, a suggestion that an England team which has revelled in the good times - not just revelled in them, actively helped to create them - is looking less impressive now Australia have beaten them so soundly.
England's mental and physical exhaustion, the result of a financially-driven and unsustainable international programme, could not be clearer. That unsustainable programme comes hand in hand with intense micro-management which makes heavy demands of all players in an attempt to maximise success. That cohesion is breaking down.
Retirement in the middle of a series is traditionally reserved for beaten captains, who feel responsibility for general failure, and for those so badly injured the end of their career is inevitable. The rest have tended to stick it out.
By choosing to retire now, Swann, subconsciously at least, is asserting his rights as an individual, in the face of intolerable demands, to retire when he pleases.
Swann talks of his love for the England family as much as anybody. It is not an affectation, it comes from the heart. It has been part of England's success. But after their hounding from Australia, this England family is looking increasingly dysfunctional. It would have done no harm to wait a fortnight.
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