December 23, 2013

No hunger for Swann and England

They have lost the desperation to win and Australia were quick to sniff it out

It is hard to be sure what brings down a sporting team. Age, fatigue and complacency are all enemies, but most likely, it is the enemy itself.

Witness Bayern Munich's remarkable humbling of FC Barcelona. It appeared, reasonably enough, that the present collection of Barcelona players could never be beaten, primarily because their opponents could not get the ball. And on the odd occasion they did, Barcelona soon won it back and gave it to Lionel Messi. Job done. Bayern Munich bristled at this Catalan success story and resolved to do something about it, finding a speed and method that left Barca's ageing legs for dead.

Though it is tempting to say that Manchester United's iffy first half of the season is down to the new manager, it is worth a look at the players the previous manager left him: some old, some borrowed and some not worthy of the famous red shirt. There is a pleasure in United's demise, simply because Sir Alex Ferguson had a way of getting up everyone's nose. And there is a pleasure in seeing how Manchester City, for example, have gone about usurping them this season.

A not uncommon view is that England's cricketers had it coming. We know which of the team's more colourful characters encouraged that view - and a cocksure style is the sum of it. But the very certainty of cocksure was one of the reasons for their success. This is no different from the Australian side that walked the walk for so long. Shane Warne could intimidate with a look; Matthew Hayden with a word; Ricky Ponting with a narrow eye; Glenn McGrath with a sneer, and when the lot of them were on top - as one, like a pack of hyenas - they became excruciating to play against. Call this bullying and you wouldn't be far wrong. And that is what the best teams do: they bully the game out of anyone who shows the slightest sign of weakness against them.

When Warne retired he said he had "run out of arse", which, translated, means the luck had deserted him. The best players make their own luck, as much through the power of their personality as anything else, and Warne was the luck-maker-in-chief.

You can wager Graeme Swann reckons he had run out of luck. By this we mean the 50/50 decisions that went his way, the fingertip catches, the long hops hit down midwicket's throat and daft moments, such as Chris Rogers' swipe-and-miss at Lord's last summer in England, that result in embarrassment for the opponent. Swann knows that while he was running out of luck, he was running out of desire. This is not to say that he no longer cared about winning. Far from it, that inherent trait will be with him on golf courses and ping-pong tables for the rest of his life. No, he had run out of desperation. Though a cricket match still mattered, it was not to the degree where he could sacrifice all else for its purpose.

The sudden, and strangely sad, announcement yesterday by Swann crystallises the problem that has confronted Alastair Cook since Brisbane. The England team has lost its desire. He did not know this before the first Test but he quickly found out and then alluded to it at the post-mortems. Bravely, and without option, he suggested "the will" - as he called it in response to a question - could still be found, but deep down he must have known the game was up. Jonathan Trott's depression, Matt Prior's extraordinary downturn, Kevin Pietersen's indifference, James Anderson's lethargy, all these, and now Swann's bizarrely timed retirement are as one in the fall of the empire Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower built and Cook inherited. The desperate need to win cricket matches: the need that sees you burn through the hardcore challenges and the endlessly stressful public examinations of self and team; the need that takes you into dark places in order to emerge having seen the light. It is that need that appears to have deserted many of Cook's most trusted fellows.

Jonathan Trott's depression, Matt Prior's extraordinary downturn, Kevin Pietersen's indifference, James Anderson's lethargy, all these, and now Swann's bizarrely timed retirement are as one in the fall of the empire Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower built and Cook inherited

The last exceptional performance from this team came in India just over a year ago. Thrashed in Ahmedabad and 1-0 down, England came back to win the four-match series against all the odds. Now, that is desire. Since then, England have played in patches, often very good, sometimes very bad. The odd magnificent innings, usually safe catching and some memorable spells of bowling - think Stuart Broad in Chester-le-Street - have saved many a day. Retaining the Ashes was good but it wasn't euphoric, because Australia were an improving shambles.

The Australians themselves realised this and, to their credit, have done a bit of a Bayern Munich on the England players in Australia: sneaking up on them with canny selection, aggressive intent and smart, high-octane play. Some of the more senior Australian players said immediately after Brisbane that this was the least committed England group they had been confronted by. They smelt the lack of hunger and knew that just a few days in Adelaide would offer the chance to wipe out any remaining threat. As the carcass began to rot in Perth's hot sun, the vultures swooped.

Swann said that it would be selfish of him to continue in the side for the sake of another Melbourne or Sydney Test. Maybe, maybe not. It will be no sinecure for whoever replaces him. All those clichés about leaving a sinking ship will follow him around for a while yet. Perhaps he should have seen it through. Unless the selectors had another idea, anyway.

It is a pity that an exceptional cricketer and most enjoyable man should leave in such a hurry. There is something almost suspicious in the air, as there might be when a team is down at heel. It would have been nice to have given him a curtain call for he has brought nothing but good to the game and pleasure to those who have watched him. He came to international cricket late, at 29, and soon grasped its tricky nuances. In the age of the doosra, he kept fingerspinning simple and quite old-fashioned by giving it a rip and keeping going.

He benefitted hugely from the DRS and became a voracious feeder from the way it changed the perception of umpires and batsmen. He relished the pitches that spun and the opportunity to close the deal for his country. Not all spinners have such courage or self-belief. He has been the first-choice interviewee for broadcasters and press and is the master of the sound bite. In next to no time he will be talking about the cricketers he just left behind.

Perhaps it will niggle that he left under a cloud for English cricket, the canvas of which he has brightened. He says he simply could not resist a tilt at four Ashes wins on the bounce. We can resist everything but temptation. Clearly, Graeme Swann had not bargained on another bounce - the one made by the enemy, who had had enough of England's cricketers licking their lips at the sight of a baggy-green cap.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK