January 8, 2014

'As a nation, we're not comfortable with winning'

Interview by Felix White
Shortly before he left for the tour to Australia, Graeme Swann talked about playing for England, the Ashes rivalry, and retirement

Before Graeme Swann set off on what would be his final England tour, during which he called a surprise end to his career as his country's most successful offspinner, he sat down in a London hotel for a different sort of interview. This is an abridged version of his meeting with Felix White of British band The Maccabees.

Given to the wild

Felix White: Did you think you'd ever play for England again when you went for so many years without getting a look in?

Graeme Swann: No, I 'd completely written it off. I moved to Notts to play in a better team and was more than happy with my lot.

FW: Did you still think you should have been playing for England during those years out of the side?

GS: Erm, I really hadn't thought about it, because Duncan Fletcher was in charge. If he were still in charge now, I wouldn't be playing for England.

FW: Why's that?

GS: He just hated me from that first tour [to South Africa in 1999-00]. I don't blame him, though. I was a young upstart who was nowhere near good enough. It makes me cringe thinking about it.

FW: What were you doing, just playing up?

GS: Playing up, talking back to everyone, telling jokes when I shouldn't have been. Half the reason was that I was intimidated by people in the changing room. These were my heroes: Alec Stewart, Mike Atherton. And Nasser, who was captain - the angriest captain in the world!

FW: You were 20, right? That's really young. You were basically still a child.

GS: You're not street-smart at all. In some ways that's a brilliant thing, especially in the case of Joe Root. The first time he played Test cricket he was like a wide-eyed kid. It's like with young golfers - they always hit aggressive putts because they haven't missed one that's cost them £5000. By the time they're 30, they've got the yips. Root didn't have a care in the world. To be honest, playing for England back then, I knew I didn't deserve it. I was a complete charlatan on that tour - picked on the back of one good England Under-19 match and a game I played on TV for Northants.


Mixing it with the Aussies

FW: Can I ask you something, and you might not be able to say, but there seems a genuine rivalry between you guys and the Australian players. It's not made up, is it? There's something there?

GS: There's the odd player who has exacerbated the situation. The tension is there because of the fact you're playing in the Ashes - it's a huge series... Obviously with what happened before this summer's Ashes, with David Warner, that just exacerbated everything.

FW: So that was a real thing?

GS: Oh yeah. The thing with Warner is that he is a spiky character. But the fact that he is a good player as well makes him twice as easy to hate, because you know he's more than capable of backing it up. When he doesn't back it up and gets out early, and you see that ejection of raw emotion from the bowler - that's real. When Jimmy got him out at The Oval, that was real. We were very glad to see the back of him. I mean, he picked on Rooty of all people - the nicest kid in the world!

FW: Well, you don't walk up to someone and just punch them, do you? I don't know anyone who actually does that.

GS: I don't know what was actually released in the end, but anyone who knows Rooty knows he's the most angelic kid in the world. That rankled everyone and you almost felt like you had to stick up for your little brother. It added some spice to it. Obviously their coach ramped it up with the whole Broady thing, so it was quite spiky.

FW: Do you think you've been dealt with quite harshly by the media? By the end of the summer even Warner was given the benefit of the doubt with people saying, "Oh, he's actually quite a good character".

GS: The Australians are fairly good at playing the media at the minute. I mean, to lose 3-0 - and it would have been four had the series lasted five minutes longer - and the press are still saying, "Well England are dour" etc, then I think they've been quite clever about it. They've used Shane Warne well.

FW: Darren Lehmann seems to have gone out of his way to do that…

"If Duncan Fletcher were still in charge now, I wouldn't be playing for England. He just hated me from that first tour [to South Africa in 1999-00]. I don't blame him, though"

GS: Yeah, well, Lehmann is one of Warne's best mates. Whatever he says our press lap up, so he uses it very intelligently. What we have to get better at is realising when people are being duped and just ignoring it. If you let it get to you, like the garbage about our over-rates… I mean, our over-rate for the whole series was +13; I don't think we've ever played a series where it has been that far ahead, apart from in India where we were operating with two spinners. It seemed very well spun.

FW: Do you think that's down to our English mentality, that we're uncomfortable with winning?

GS: 100%.

FW: You know what I mean? Like there's something odd about it. There's always got to be a reason why we've just won, and not just because we're a good side.

GS: You only have to look at all the ex-players who are very quick to say, "Yeah you've won the last three Ashes, but the Australians I played against were way better that this lot!"

FW: That's true. The Australians weren't getting told that they were playing a poor England side when they kept winning. It was just "What a great Australian side!"

GS: To be honest, I don't think it's just the press. I think it's the whole nation. We're very pessimistic. We always fear the worst and I think it permeates through the whole of society. We're not comfortable with winning. Look at America; they love winning teams over there and anyone associated with winning teams is immortalised forever. They've got countless "Halls of Fame". In England we have to go back to 1966 to find sport stars that were really revered. Bobby Moore was probably the last great hero.

FW: Yeah, that would be really claustrophobic to me - that kind of pressure. But it must spur on a team?

GS: I think we got very defensive this summer, with the whole Root thing and Broady being called a cheat and vilified for not walking. I think the best thing about that was the Australian team turned around and said, "Hang on a minute, none of us walked - you don't walk unless the umpire gives you out." The Aussie players didn't have a problem but their reaction was overlooked because there was a spark. Broady was unfairly chastised about it; he didn't do anything different than 90% of cricketers around the world would do.


Media management

FW: When you do interviews, there's a bit of "Gallagher" about you, isn't there? You don't really do interviews like a cricketer - you do them like a musician…

GS: (Laughs) For me, because I got back in to the England side a bit later, I don't really care about the consequences as much.

FW: Can you say what you want, knowing you're not going to get dropped?

GS: Well, I don't know about that! It's certainly easier when you're older and when worst comes to the worst, you know that you've played a bit and taken some wickets... I feel sorrier for the young lads because they have to be media-trained.

FW: What is media training?

GS: It's basically practising what questions you're likely to be asked.

FW: So they train you with the right answers?

GS: Yeah - you protect the brand image of English cricket. It's very carefully doctored…

FW: I thought that was a joke when people say, "Oh, he's been media-trained."

GS: It's so you don't put your foot in it and get the unwanted attention of saying the wrong thing by accident.

FW: Ain't that a shame though?

GS: It is. That's the thing about musicians and actors - there are no rules. You can do and say what you want. I like to be cheeky and express a bit of character in my interviews... I'm a massive believer that, you know, it's tomorrow's fish-and-chip paper. Once you're playing well, it's fine. We mentioned David Warner earlier - by the end of the series this summer, when he was playing well, he was almost seen as a hero. And that was on the back of batting really well at Durham. It's similar to KP over the years.

FW: I think the way it's played out with KP has been great - he's a great character. He says the right things and I like him for it.

GS: If he doesn't score runs for a while, the press gang up on him and they hate him and they vilify him. Then he scores 150, in a way that only he can, and he's a great hero again. It proves runs and wickets trump anything else.

FW: Have they tried to media-train you?

GS: Yeah, we've all had it... Part of the training is how to be media-savvy, not necessarily telling you what to say.

FW: Well, it's the press' fault as well then, surely? Didn't cricketers used to hang out with the press not so long ago?

GS: They did, but I think that's just a change in society. Now with 24-hour tabloid television and Sky Sports News everything's a story.

FW: That must be horrible - like somebody's out to get you at all times.

GS: It is a little bit, but I've always thought there's no point being antagonistic, because they'll crucify you. And even if you feel you're being harshly judged, like we did over the summer, there's no point in me suddenly snubbing the press and giving one-word answers, because you'd get ripped to shreds. I've always viewed the press just as blokes. Especially when you see them on tour, they're nice blokes; to a man, you'd happily sit there and have a beer with them. If I do an interview I talk as if I'm having a beer with them. There are one or two that have written things about me that I do harbour grudges about deep down, but I'm not letting you know who they are. Or them for that matter!


The future

FW: Are you going to retire after the tour of Australia?

GS: Me? I don't know. I hope not, because I hope I can carry on. I'm taking it month-by-month really, especially injury-wise. My elbow doesn't like playing cricket anymore. After a one-day game recently I honestly felt like I'd been set upon by a gang of thugs.

FW: Does it hurt while you're playing?

GS: Yeah. I hope I get through the winter fine, and I'd like to break Derek Underwood's record (number of Test wickets for an England spinner) as well - I think I'm about 50 off. For that I'd need another year or so of Test cricket. I don't know, I'll wait and see. Retirement wouldn't be so bad though. I'd like to see my band go global!

FW: Honestly, would you want to do that? What do you reckon you'll do after cricket?

GS: I'd like to think I'd do a lot of things - you only live once, don't you? It's been a good life and I think cricket will always play a part in it, but I hope it's not the be-all and end-all. You see sportsmen go on about their kids so much - that's because once you have kids you realise cricket isn't everything. My two kids are much more important to me than bowling or whatever. I'd like to think that whatever I end up doing, it'll be good crack.

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of All Out Cricket magazine. To read Mark Butcher's England Blueprint, go here