Swann at ease with expectation
Session by session, over by over, Graeme Swann has been finding his range in this series. In the first innings at Brisbane he was badly off the pace - at least by the exactingly high standards that he has set for himself this past year - as Michael Hussey in particular climbed into his exploratory lengths, and pulled him through midwicket with a certainty cultivated by years of cross-batted strokeplay at the WACA.
But with every subsequent day that England have spent in the field, Swann has edged that little bit closer to the fore. It helped that, at Adelaide, he was allowed to attack from the outset after Australia's top-order collapsed to 3 for 2, but with the decisive fifth day looming and Australia's hopes of salvation rocked by the final-ball loss of Michael Clarke, Swann knows that the click of his fingers could decide the destiny of this match.
"I don't feel any extra pressure, it's my job as a spinner," said Swann, whose record as a Tests matchwinner stands up to the highest scrutiny. Of the 119 wickets that he's claimed in his career to date, 65 of those have come in 12 England victories, at the world-class average of 19.95. So far in this final innings he's claimed 2 for 72 in 34 probing overs, but the sight of Kevin Pietersen ducking in to extract Clarke on the stroke of stumps has changed the dynamic of the game.
"It's a massive bonus for us," said Swann. "It was tough going for us in the last session, with their two best players against spin at crease, both playing well. Sometimes you need a bit of inspiration and who else but KP to come on and give you it. We're confident, we've played some very good cricket since day four in Brisbane, we've been a very good side. If we can turn up tomorrow and continue in that vein then I think we are in the box seat."
On Tuesday, Swann will resume with two familiar left-handers in his sights. Marcus North was Swann's first wicket of the series at the Gabba, where his teasing line and subtle turn proved too good for a nervous poke to slip, but his former Northamptonshire team-mate Hussey has been a far more formidable foe. He won the first round hands-down with a career-saving 195 up in Brisbane, and followed that up with a doughty 93 on Friday's first day at Adelaide. But Swann ended his stay on that occasion with a well-flighted tweaker, and the confidence that is the hallmark of his game is starting to make itself count.
"It was very satisfying, and the ball felt great coming out of my hand today," said Swann. "It wasn't a very enjoyable last session after the rain because the ball gets wet and my fingers get sore, but that's one of the beauties of being a spinner, you have to put up with that. It was very pleasing on the whole for the day. In an ideal world we probably would have them eight or nine down but it's not an ideal world and we're facing a very resilient Australian team."
The first signs that Swann would be a threat in this game came on the third afternoon when North entered the attack to bowl the 72nd over of England's innings, and instantly extracted sharp spin from a perfect offspinner's length - a prospect that had been aided in no small part by the footholes left by Doug Bollinger's left-arm followthrough.
Swann claimed not to have noticed that initial delivery - or any of the others that exploded out of the footholes - as he was having a kip in the dressing-room at the time. However, in a mock South African accent, he recalled the excitement with which Pietersen had returned to the dressing room at the close - "It's turning square out there, it's impossible to bat" - and ironically enough, KP went on to prove his own point with a ball that spat at Clarke's bat to deflect to Alastair Cook at short leg.
Though Swann jokingly reminded everyone that he's the "only spinner" in the England team, he was more than happy for the wicket-taking burden to be shared, even if Pietersen needed just eight balls to break through compared to the 11 overs that Swann wheeled his way through before Simon Katich snicked him to the keeper. "Personally I couldn't give a monkey's who takes the wickets," he said. "I'm so glad KP got that one in the last over. Clarke's their best player of spin and to get him out like that was magic.
"It is sod's law but I love sod's law sometimes," he added. "Sometimes a bit of inspiration just works in your favour. It was one of those sessions where I felt the world was against me. I changed my field for two balls and the ball went straight to the leg slip that I'd just moved. Sometimes the best captains in the world's are the ones who just say 'take a break mate.' I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed to be taken off but it's great when Kev can come on and do that."
Hussey, who has watched Swann's game develop from his earliest days as a professional in the Northamptonshire dressing-room, is 44 not out at the close, and braced for another tussle with a player whom he admitted had "improved out of sight" over the course of the past decade. "I remember playing with him at Wantage Road, he'd be able to keep the pressure and bowl these amazing deliveries, then he'd just let it off with one or two bad balls an over," he said. "Now he's on the money all the time, he hardly bowls a loose ball and he keeps the pressure on the batsmen all the time."
Hussey also believed that the Adelaide wicket, combined with the fact that England are now far more comfortable with the series situation, would make Swann a far greater threat than had been the case at the Gabba. "Obviously the conditions are a little more conducive for his style of bowling here than up in Brisbane," he said. "There's a very small margin for error on that pitch up in Brisbane, it was obviously pretty flat by the end of the match, whereas here there's a lot more in his favour.
"There's a bit more variable bounce, there's obviously some footmarks for him to work in, and I'm sure everyone was really nervous in that first Test," he added. "Now everyone can relax and focus more on their own game. Yeah, he's bowling well, no question."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.