West Indies v England, 3rd Test, Antigua, 3rd day February 17, 2009

Swann seizes his opportunity

'In nets I've always tried to bowl as well as you can at the captain and luckily for me [our] captain is a left-hander and West Indies are full of them' © AFP

Sir Allen Stanford never had much time for Test cricket and readily admitted as much during his involvement with the game. So it was fitting that as his name hit the headlines again, an old fashioned hard day's action unfolded on an old fashioned ground. Graeme Swann, a conventional offspinner, was England's star with an art form that often feels from another era in a generation of doosras and carrom balls, but England's powerful position has been earned in a traditional style.

Swann must have been looking great in the nets because six days ago at North Sound he wasn't in the starting eleven. But after the hasty switch of venues it was decided his style was better suited to the conditions. Andrew Strauss cited West Indies' left handers as a contributing factor, perhaps swayed by Swann's performances in the lead-up to the Test. "In nets I've always tried to bowl as well as you can at the captain and luckily for me [our] captain is a left-hander and West Indies are full of them," Swann said. "I suppose that played into my hands a little.

"I was warned the night before that I had a good chance of playing and then I was given the nod," he added. "When you are on tour you have the same amount of preparation as everyone else so you're all ready to go. If I'd been back in England I'd probably have been slumped in some bar somewhere."

Swann was unlucky not to start the series in possession of the spinners' spot after two impressive Tests in India where he comfortably out-bowled Monty Panesar. However, he wasn't helped by drawing the short straw in England's warm-up matches when he had to play against a strong West Indies A batting line-up on a featherbed in St Kitts, while Panesar had picked up seven against the locals in the game before. Now, with each wicket Swann snaffled, Panesar's chances of playing any part in the near future were fading and his Ashes prospects look increasingly slim.

Swann has a confident character which plays a huge part as a spinner, not that his bubbly nature helped him on a premature maiden tour to South Africa in 1999. It's a trait that comes through in press conferences when he is happy to joke, whereas Panesar is the ultimate straight man. His debut also gave him experience in dealing with pressurised call-ups. England had returned to India following the Mumbai attacks late last year and Swann was pitched in against Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and company.

He responded with two wickets in his first over, and although England lost the Test to Tendulkar's fourth-innings masterclass Swann was far from disgraced. It made him believe he could succeed at the top level and this haul confirmed that fact with a huge rubber stamp. "I came off the field to get a blister [on his foot] looked at after I got four wickets and lied through my back teeth that five-fers and hundreds don't really bother me," he said. "I genuinely believed that until I took the wicket and it felt like Chennai all over again, running around like an idiot."

And it wasn't even meant to be Swann's day. Overnight the ridge back-of-a-length from the Factory Road End had been talked about enough to make a geological research paper. England were happy talk it up - "It's right on Freddie's length" - while West Indies had to convince themselves that most deliveries wouldn't hit the mark.

For a while, though, the tricks were in England's minds as they became obsessed with trying to pound the line. During the morning warm-up the bowlers had run in on a practice pitch with a blue marker showing them the spot. Sometimes you can train the mind too much, and for the first hour England missed more than they hit. It's a shame Panesar isn't playing, because he'd have known all about hitting the right areas.

"Maybe that played into my hands," Swann said. "Everyone was expecting the half-way line to play havoc with the game, but I think only one ball has done anything stupid - the one to Freddie - or at least got a wicket. Maybe people have been a little preoccupied with that."

If Swann had targeted the ridge he would have spent the day bowling long-hops, so instead he focussed on tossing the ball up. Spin bowling is all about give and take, unless the bowler is lucky enough to be a Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan who can float the ball on a string. Often their best chance of taking wickets is to buy them and the currency is boundaries. Swann had the luxury of bowling with a total of 566 behind him - that won't always be the case - but would Panesar have tried as much variation?

A number of his wickets - Devon Smith's swipe, Ramnaresh Sarwan's club to midwicket and Denesh Ramdin's aberration against a full toss - were batsman-error, but Swann had deserved them for trying to make things happen. "Sarwan getting out was a great wicket for me. He was looking so comfortable and I didn't really know where to bowl at him," he said. "I'd decided I was going to give him a single and bowl at the other guy. Then he decided to try and hit a six and I couldn't be happier to see it go to Fred."

The smile grew wider still when he trapped Sulieman Benn for his fifth wicket, meaning it was the first five-wicket haul by an England offspinner since Peter Such took 5 for 81 against Australia, at Sydney, in 1999. That's a long time between drinks, but Swann has the ability to ensure it won't be another ten-year wait for the next one.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo