Of all the players that took England to No. 1 in the Test rankings and their first global silverware, Graeme Swann might prove the hardest to replace.

Swann did not possess the talent of Kevin Pietersen and does not finish his career with the records of Alastair Cook, but he was the man that balanced the England side. As a spinner good enough to demand respect in the first innings and threaten in the second, his involvement allowed England to field a four-man attack while his excellent catching and aggressive lower-order batting gave him an edge over all his rivals for the role. England have nothing close to a replacement.

He probably deserved a better send-off. He probably deserved better than seeing his final over in Test cricket thrashed for 22 and the side he had done so much to improve humbled in the series about which he cared most.

But sport doesn't work like that. For the vast majority it ends in tears. And Swann, reflecting the experience of this England team, arrived in Australia in high spirits only to leave broken and disappointed a few weeks later. It really is always later than we think.

"It's easy to wish you'd gone out taking 10-for in your last game and been hoisted on to people's shoulders as you walk off," he said. "But I look back and I don't regret a single day I've had for England. They're all part and parcel of the magnificent journey I've been on."

There had been increasing signs, as well as rumours, that his right elbow - twice operated upon - was bothering him again in recent weeks. It was not that he was bowling poorly - he seldom did - just that he couldn't bowl as well for as long. When Australia's batsmen, confident and playing on fine wickets, attacked he had no longer had the answer.

There will be those who accuse him of selfishness for retiring mid-series. But if he knew his form had dipped, if he knew he was no longer quite capable of reaching the standards he once did, if he knew the light had gone out, he is right to go.

Personal records and landmarks are fine, but they are never and should never be what a team sport is about. Besides, if Swann waited for England to uncover a replacement, he might be playing until he was 60. There are decent young spinners in county cricket - Yorkshire's Azeem Rafiq and Nottinghamshire's Sam Wood stick out, though Swann backed Monty Panesar to take his place in the short-term and Durham's leg-spinning allrounder Scott Borthwick in the longer - but there is no-one anywhere near Swann's class.

"I knew more or less that the time was coming up," he said. "At the end of the Oval Test, I think 'why didn't I just stop then?' But then I'd never have forgive myself if I hadn't come out here and given it a crack - we had the chance to potentially win four Ashes series on the bounce. When I came out on this trip, I half expected it to be my last tour for England.

"It was probably halfway through the Perth game [that I made the decision]. My body doesn't like playing long forms of cricket. My arm doesn't cope very well with bowling 30-40 overs in the first innings and then repeating it in the second innings a day later. I could feel my performances tapering off towards the back end of games and I wasn't happy with that. I'm not willing just to hang on and get by being a bit-part player. I want to be a guy who wants to win matches for England and I don't feel I was doing that in the second innings any more. As a result, it is time to go."

The ending should not obscure the achievements. Swann will be remembered as England's finest spinner since Derek Underwood and their finest offspinner since Jim Laker. The fact that he had a bowling average of 22 in the Tests he won - 30 of the 60 he played - underlines his colossal value to the side. Bearing in mind the era in which he played, with shorter boundaries, better bats and covered pitches offering little, a Test bowling average a fraction under 30 is deeply impressive. He reached 250 Test wickets in just his 58th Test, becoming the quickest finger-spinner to the landmark in Test history.

Some feel that Swann revived the art of traditional off-spin, but it is hard to see many following in his footsteps. It is more likely that Swann simply provided a coda to the life of the traditional off-spinner. It really is possible that his like - sans 'doosra' - will not be seen again excelling at the top level.

Certainly Swann was something of a throwback. With an unimpeachable action, relied on weapons that were thought to be obsolete before he started: a bow and arrow in the age of the gun. But his ability to get the ball to dip sharply remained dangerous until the end - he dismissed Michael Clarke, perhaps the best player of spin in the world, in such fashion in the first innings in Perth - while his sharp turn, unusually good arm-ball and excellent control rendered him valuable on good wickets and deadly on those offering assistance. It was a package good enough to see him rated, for a while, No. 1 in the ODI and T20 bowling rankings and No. 2 in Tests.

Quite when he made the transition in perception from honest journeyman enjoying a few days in the sun to a highly-respected, key player is hard to say. It wasn't when he dismissed Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in his first over of Test cricket in 2008; it wasn't when he bowled England to Ashes victory at The Oval in 2009 - the moment he described on Sunday as the greatest in his career - and it wasn't when he bowled England to victory in Durban later the same year. But somewhere, as he claimed five-wicket hauls in the Caribbean, in Bangladesh, in India, in Australia, in South Africa, in Sri Lanka, in the UAE and in England, it became apparent that Swann's success was not fleeting and fortunate. He had developed into a high-class bowler.

He will remembered, too, for playing the game with a smile. Of course there were frustrating days where that smile was hidden for a while, but Swann - having only broken into the Test side in his late 20s - never lost sight of how fortunate he was to play cricket for a living and represent his country in the process.

The salary may have increased, the pressures too, but Swann remained, at heart, the enthusiastic boy who used to watch his father, Ray, playing minor counties cricket, and emerged as a likeable larrikin while he developed through the Northamptonshire system with his brother, Alec. Later, when he moved on to Nottinghamshire, he embraced the fitness and lifestyle choices that hoped him maximise his talent, but the sense of job never ebbed. Family, club and county can take much pride in his success.

"I hope my legacy is someone who always enjoyed it," Swann said. "Someone who always played with a smile on his face.

"But since I got back in the England team, I've treated every day like a lottery win. That's what it is. I've been privileged to play international cricket. It really annoys me when people take it for granted and get above their station; they shouldn't.

"It's the most privileged thing any man can do. I hope people will look back and say 'Yeah, he did always play with a smile on his face and enjoyed himself ... and he walked as well, when he nicked it'."

Swann's departure, Jonathan Trott's absence and the loss of the Ashes all point to the same conclusion: the foundations of England's success have crumbled and they have now entered a rebuilding phase. It could well contain some very uncomfortable moments. And, as England struggle to regain former ground, Swann's immense contribution could well win greater recognition and respect.