West Indies v England, 4th Test, Barbados February 24, 2009

Swann lives for the present


Graeme Swann will postpone surgery on his elbow until after England's tour of West Indies © Getty Images
 

This tour doesn't get any easier for England. No sooner had Graeme Swann burst back into the Test team with a maiden five-wicket haul in Antigua than a long-standing elbow problem flared up again, while Steve Harmison has been sent for a scan after reporting back stiffness to give the management and selectors another concern.

Harmison's scan gave the all-clear - "normal wear-and-tear" was the diagnosis - and Swann should also be fit for the crucial fourth Test in Barbados on Thursday, but it is hardly ideal preparation for what is a must-win match. They will have to try and level the series with a four-man attack after losing Andrew Flintoff and Matt Prior over the last few days, and cannot afford anyone to go lame once they are named in the side.

Not that Harmison is screaming out for selection having taken just four wickets in the series. Since his much-heralded return against South Africa, at The Oval in August, he has managed nine wickets at 41, which are hardly the numbers of a strike bowler. However, with Ryan Sidebottom also a risky proposition due to his Achilles problem Harmison is unlikely to be challenged. The other option would be Amjad Khan but, despite his 5 for 79 in the warm-up match, the selectors are unlikely to gamble on a debutant in a four-man attack

With plenty of issues surrounding the quick bowlers Swann's position becomes ever more important. He woke up on the fourth morning in Antigua and could barely move his right arm, but thanks to plenty of physio and a couple of painkilling injections managed to send down 39 overs in the second innings. It was almost enough to clinch England a vital victory, only to be denied by West Indies' final pair.

"It was frustrating when the clouds got in the way and when the umpires offered the light it was quite a debilitating feeling because we'd controlled the game for five days. It was gutting really," he said. "I don't look back on it with dismay, it's happened and there's no point crying over spilt milk."

Swann's injury flairs up randomly - it once happened carrying a basket in Tesco's - and at some stage he will need an operation, but it will be difficult to find the time now he is England's No. 1 spinner in both Test and one-day cricket. His 5 for 57 in the first innings in Antigua were England's best bowling figures of the winter, showing the harsh reality of the struggling attack.

"There are bits in there that shouldn't be and they need taking out at some stage, but finding time to do it is a bit tricky these days," Swann said. "Three years ago we tried to get it sorted out and I had an operation, but it didn't quite do the trick and more bits have fragmented off. It's probably something I will have for the rest of my career and it's annoying and frustrating as it is indiscriminate."

He hopes he can manage the problem for the rest of this tour, but he won't want to be out of action during the summer with a World Twenty20 and the Ashes series looming. "With the intensive physio and doctor treatment you get with the England team it's easier to manage," he said. "We can pump it full of whatever it needs over the next two weeks, potentially three or four weeks, to get through the West Indies trip."

What makes the timing even worse for Swann is that he now has the chance to cement himself as the frontline spinner after taking Monty Panesar's place in Antigua. It is an opportunity he has waited a decade for after first touring with England in 1999. Although he retains his jovial personality he is a far more mature cricketer these days and now trusts his game.

"I've been bowling well for the last 18 months," he said. "I will always be pigeon-holed as a one-day spinner even though my record is probably better in first-class cricket. I was bowling well enough to warrant a place on tour and in India and I was delighted to be picked in Antigua.

"I certainly didn't go out saying 'right I've got to show what I can do now'. I was quite surprised I got five wickets in the first innings because it wasn't doing much, but every dog has his day and I was more than happy. It's a nice feeling to know that, if you are fit, you are going to get into the team for the next game."

As Panesar found, being the top spinner comes with plenty of pressure but Swann is confident he can deal with the expectation. "Some people might put pressure on themselves, but it's undue pressure and you don't need to be thinking that the whole country is expecting," he said. "My mum has been telling me I'm the No. 1 spinner in England for the last 10 years so that's enough pressure."

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo