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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on December 26, 2013, 10:54 GMT

    Fine cricketer for England Cricket Team. One of the main reasons for the very successful. Early 2009 to Early 2012 for English cricket. I doubt Eng will be able to find someone of his ability for some time. He was a unique attacking off spinner who invented new deliveries for cricket on his own such as the 'flying saucer' ball etc. He was a very different off spinner to the normally tidy but defensive minded off spinners England's had through the decades. He will be missed.

  • Patrick on December 25, 2013, 22:45 GMT

    @please_concentrate, appreciate you rising above hurling insults at people, if only Swann could've done the same then I too would be remembering him foremost for his entertaining cricket and huge contribution to Eng's success over recent years, he's certainly been central to it, no argument there. If you can't appreciate this viewpoint then take it up with Michael Vaughan, I'm hardly out on my own here... Anyway Merry Xmas and good luck in Melb, disappointed I won't see Swann out there, expect he'll be disappointed in how he'll be spoken of throughout remaining tests as it won't be much for his cricket!

  • Dummy4 on December 24, 2013, 22:09 GMT

    Easy way to get the willpower back, get new blood in there. Sack anyone who's not performing at the best of their ability and get new fresh hungry players in their place.

    Bairstow for Prior for starters. Hard to drop KP though let's be honest.

  • N on December 24, 2013, 12:11 GMT

    @pat_one_back. OK I'll rise to this one. Perhaps you need to read more thoroughly. I simply stated that Martyn, like Swann, retired mid-Ashes - I made no comparison of the way they announced their retirement. The point I was making was that Swann, like Martyn, should be shown the respect deserved for their on-field achievements, as posted by cricket fans of ALL nationalities.

  • Biso on December 24, 2013, 11:29 GMT

    @Latecut_04: You have put it quite bluntly what I have tried to say in a beating about the bush manner. England are simply overwhelmed and I can only hope for some individual brilliance from KP or Bell that can be construed as an iota of resistance against an impending 5-0. Swan has already reconciled with the fact that he has been out-bowled by Lyons and recognizes that he does not have any more drive to improve upon his skills at his age. He has been a very good bowler but certainly can not be listed among the all-time great English Spinners. However, I do respect his decision to retire at this stage as he is brave enough to accept that Panesar might be a better or younger option for the team. Right now England do not have anyone better than Panesar and it will not do the morale of any younger rookie any good while there are shoulders drooping in the dressing room. With or without Panesar, England are in line for a white wash.

  • Rajkumar on December 24, 2013, 8:45 GMT

    Well I am not sold out about this "lack of hunger/will" thing.that is the most absurd reason anyone can give for English failures this season.They have been completely 'bowled over' literally.Also all this talk about English players feeling 'they have achieved everything' is another farce.They more than anyone else would know 0-3 scoreline was hardly justifiable in England.They more than anyone else would have known the side they beat 3-1 in 2010-11 was arguably the weakest ever Aussie Ashes side.(especially since majority of these players were around during 2006-7 whitewash.)They more than anyone else would have been aware of the glory due if they had beaten Australia 4 times in a row.They more than anyone else wanted to win the series.Its just that their batting has come a cropper,they have come up aginst piercing fast bowling and their bowlers have not been able to make up for their batsmens' errors.Please don't say Alistair Cook doesn't have any will...its simply unfair..

  • Biso on December 24, 2013, 8:14 GMT

    England did well when India had an already aging side and Australia were in transition. In fact Australia are still in the process of transition while India's transition is nearing the end and they are fast becoming a settled side. England is now getting exposed as India and Australia are back on the ascent.

  • ian on December 24, 2013, 7:37 GMT

    So many people seem to think that Swann has made the wrong call, asking him to think again, and so on. Here's another thought to add to your first one. How many of you have got direct & unimpeded access to Graeme Swann's mind, specifically his decision-making process? If you are not GS you are in no position to understand all the factors that have led him at this precise time to make this life-changing decision - his life-changing decision - not anyone else's. As a great team player (no one can level the accusation against GS that he doesn't think of the team; it's not in his DNA), he must make his own calls and as empathetic fellow men & women, it's our obligation to respect it, without reservation. Merry Christmas, everyone!

  • Luke on December 24, 2013, 7:14 GMT

    Apart from this Ashes win, the best thing to happen to Australian cricket since McGrath is Mark Nicholas. Love his commentary, love his writing.

  • Andrew on December 24, 2013, 7:11 GMT

    No criticism from me on this one. Until anyone has walked a day in someone else's shoes, who are we to be critical of Swann ? It does raise the question though- when did the desire go & should Swann or for that matter Jonathon Trott have been here in the first place ? People will say that cricketers these days earn a very lucrative living from the game, surely that compensates the demands & expectations of long tours halfway around the world ?It's not the whole story though ! Test match tours have become far too compressed & it is throwing things much more in favour of the home nations. When do players truly have the time to stop & rest & enjoy the surroundings of foreign shores now? When do we allow the players a proper warm up & acclimatization to the away conditions ? It just seems as though if the touring players aren't at an airport, they're either at the hotel or the ground ! It will be the baggage carousels; not the game, that will bring us more Graeme Swann scenarios.

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