Joker Swann proves his serious talent
For a long time it appeared that the five overs Graeme Swann bowled in a one-day international against South Africa, at Bloemfontein, on the 1999-2000 tour might be the sum total of his England career. Another player picked too young, discarded back to county cricket and never picked again. But a second chance eventually came, firstly in ODIs in 2007 and then, finally, late last year in Test cricket. He hasn't looked back.
When he trapped Dale Steyn lbw to seal a crushing innings-and-98-run victory over South Africa, at Durban, it was his 54th wicket for the year, putting him second behind Australia's Mitchell Johnson. That scalp also completed career-best match figures of 9 for 164 and sealed consecutive Man-of-the-Match awards.
To think Swann was left out of England's side at the start of the West Indies tour in February. He didn't play in Jamaica and was again omitted for the abandoned Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium. Perhaps he'd impressed Andrew Strauss with his sandcastles in the underprepared outfield, because two days later at the ARG he was back in the fold, took 5 for 57, and hasn't stopped taking wickets since.
"Two man-of-the-match awards in two games, I'll take that to finish off the year quite nicely," he said. "Straussy left me out in Jamaica, so I thought 'right, I've got to show him what a mistake he's made here'.
"It's been magnificent for me. It started in the West Indies where, although we didn't end up winning the series, personally for me it was a breakthrough series. Then there was the Ashes which is seven weeks that I'll never forget. I'm certainly going to look back on 2009 with a fair bit of fondness."
Swann is one of the chirpiest cricketers around even after a tough day the field - which is why he is often wheeled out to discuss England's less-flattering efforts - so it was no surprise that he wore a permanent smile as he sat beside Strauss. When Strauss was asked about Swann's efforts this year he said it was difficult to discuss them with his team-mate sat beside him. Swann just put his hand on Strauss's shoulder as if to say 'it's okay skip, I can take.'
"He's had a massive impact on our side in the last 12 months," Strauss said. "He's always been a very attacking spinner, never one that settles at going for two an over; he's always given it a rip and bowled an attacking line. In Test cricket, with the extra pressure that batsmen are under, that can be invaluable. On the field, he's been exceptional and he has off the field as well."
Swann was just 21 when he was first thrown into international cricket by Duncan Fletcher and has long-since become the only member of the team still playing for England. Only two others from the XI - Vikram Solanki and Chris Read - still play first-class cricket and are unlikely to get another chance.
"I don't think he's changed a huge amount in that time," Strauss said. "That was very early in his career, and he was picked probably before he knew his game 100%. Now, he knows how to bowl people out and he's a very clever spin bowler and his batting has been a massive plus for us as well.
"As an opposition captain, there's nothing worse than a guy who really has no fear of getting out and plays outrageous shots. It's hard to stop that. He's more mature, but he still hasn't lost that sense of enthusiasm and fun which is important."
Swann's form has been the key reason why England's four-man attack policy has worked because he has been able to wheel away at one end, while also playing an attacking role. His latest success, which follows 5 for 110 in the first innings at Centurion, came on a day where Test cricket showed offspin is still very much alive.
Over in Melbourne, a few hours before Swann finished off South Africa, Nathan Hauritz claimed his maiden first-class five-for as he took 5 for 101 to help Australia to victory against Pakistan. Despite the development of the doosra and carom-ball, Swann was confident the conventional style of his art still had a future.
"Deep down, yes I did," he said. "But I'm quite shy and retiring, never one to voice my opinions. The game goes in circles. In three or four years' time, we'll be completely out of vogue again so I'll just enjoy the fairground ride while I can. It will come back round, sooner or later, that a brilliant mystery spinner will arrive and I'll be defunct."
Swann doesn't have to worry about becoming defunct any time soon. Shane Warne often says spinners only start coming into their prime at 30, and Swann is now that age, so there should be many years ahead. It was a long wait, but well worth it.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo