December 23, 2013

England's best since Laker

When in full flight Graeme Swann was a brilliant offspinner - third on the all-time list after Prasanna and Laker

Graeme Swann turned out to be the world's best offspinner without the "other one" © PA Photos

Just a few weeks back, a couple of days before the Adelaide Test, Graeme Swann told me his elbow was giving him grief and that he was not far away from retiring. In the wake of a terrific career, which netted him 255 Test wickets at 29.96, Swanny decided to call it quits because he just could not physically do what his mind was urging.

Although he didn't harvest wickets in this series the way he did in the Ashes in England, for a time during Australia's second innings in Perth his bowling was back to the Swann of old: fiercely spun balls complemented by an acutely dipping arc.

This was Swann at his best. He spun to confuse and befuddle. And he confused the brilliant David Warner that torturously hot afternoon in Perth. Warner got a quickfire 112, but Swann confused him a couple of times and should have had the gritty little left-hander out cheaply but for some deplorable keeping by Matt Prior, who missed two stumpings off Swann that afternoon.

As in Perth the other day, Swann's strategy throughout his career was always to take wickets. He could dry up an end, but he never did by bowling the sort of flat, quickish offies that less talented offspinners resort to, though there were times when Swann bowled a little too straight, when he operated to a right-hander on an off-to-middle line with the ball turning down the leg side.

I first saw Swann when he was in Adelaide with the England Cricket Academy. The head of the academy then, Rod Marsh, asked me to work with Swann, Worcester offie Gareth Batty, and Monty Panesar. Out of that trio of budding England spinners Swann was easily the most talented. It was probably around this time that Nasser Hussain was saying that any offspinner without the doosra would never make it at the highest level. But most offspinners know full well that you have to bend and straighten your elbow to achieve that particular ball and some, like Swann, refused to go down that track.

Swann turned out to be the world's best offspinner without the "other one". He did, however, have a far better straight-on ball than most fingerspinners: the square spinner. I showed Swann this ball, having already shown it to Daniel Vettori, and he picked it up immediately. As with Vettori, the young Swann was similarly intelligent and I figured that he too would cotton on straightaway. He did.

The ball is spun squarely and looks from the batsman's perspective like an offbreak that is spinning but not hard spun, and his first instinct is to look for a ball that turns from the off. In fact, the square spinner behaves like a ball a legspinner has released out of the front of his hand. The ball strikes the turf and mostly skids on straight, and sometimes even ducks away from the right-hander. Swann knocked over Marcus North with this ball once, and the one Chris Rogers let go in the second innings at Lord's a few months ago pitched off and hit off.

Swann seemed to revel against the left-handers, and when he operated against the likes of Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja in England he was like a spider weaving a web, reducing their footwork to those of men wearing gumboots trying to make their way through a six-inch-high sea of mud. Against the wiles of Swann those two left-handers looked completely out of their depth.

Swann's strategy throughout his career was always to take wickets. He could dry up an end, but he never did by bowling flat, quickish offies as we see less-talented offspinners do

Given his dominance over even the best left-hand batsmen, this Ashes series must have been frustrating for Swanny, who was clouted all over the place by Warner and Mitchell Johnson. At his best they would have been fighting for survival. The Australian plan to attack Swann wasn't the key to his poor wicket haul this Ashes series. It was all due to his pain-wracked elbow. Some 27 pieces of bone were taken from his right elbow last April, and for a while after the operation Swann was in good spirits and the arm "felt terrific". But it became increasingly worse and while he hoped that he might last the Australian tour, Swanny made a decision to retire; out of big cricket immediately.

My mind always goes back to the days in the early 2000s when I coached him. I also had the odd session with Swann when I coached at the England Cricket Academy at Loughborough. Over the years he and I have kept in regular touch via email. It has been no big deal - just an old spinner mentioning things he might have seen with Swann's action or his field placements. His former England captain Andrew Strauss once had a man on the point boundary for Swann and I had to stress how wrong that was for the offspinner, because it sent a negative message to the opposition.

"I've got a man on the fence because I don't want to be cut for four," he said about the Brisbane Test in 2010, but after we spoke about it on the eve of the next match, in Adelaide, Swann got his way and picked up a bag of wickets to complement Kevin Pietersen's double-hundred.

But this time it has been so different for Swann and for England. When in full flight Swann was easily the best England spin bowler I've seen since Jim Laker. He could do a great job on the slow turners that he encountered in England and India and on hard-baked tracks in Australia and South Africa. Some of Alastair Cook's fields for Swann in Australia this time were defensive in the extreme, and the Australian players took so many easy singles under no pressure whatsoever. Cook's captaincy didn't help the offie, who was having enough trouble getting through his overs.

Swanny knew the value of a spinner doing a good job: that might mean building pressure from one end while the others get the wickets. He also knows how annoying it is to read some cricket writers who aren't in touch with the game sufficiently to know a good spell from a bad one. The only "good" spell to these people is one that brings the bowler a bunch of wickets. On my list of all-time offspinners I have Swann at No. 3: India's Erapalli Prasanna I have as my best, with Laker No. 2.

Apart from his class offbreak bowling, Swann was a brilliant slip fieldsman and very useful down-the-list batsman. He doesn't look unlike Hugh Grant, the English actor, and has a great sense of humour. Every spinner needs to have a sense of humour. Laker perhaps summed it up best. After taking all ten wickets in the second innings in Manchester in 1956 to make it a total of 19 for 90, he quipped from gully after Frank Tyson got the first Australian wicket in the next Test: "I've got nowt to play for now!"

It is sad that we will never again see Swann bowl for England. In full flight he was brilliant. How many left-handers around the cricket world will now sigh in relief?

Well done, Swanny. A career well played.

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor