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'I'll never take playing for England for granted'

The missed opportunities early in his career have made the England offspinner determined to make the most of the rest of it

Interview by George Dobell
"I treat every game as if it's going to be my last. I play with a bit of <i>joie de vivre</i> and that seems to work for me"&nbsp;&nbsp;&bull;&nbsp;&nbsp;Getty Images

"I treat every game as if it's going to be my last. I play with a bit of joie de vivre and that seems to work for me"  •  Getty Images

How had the England dressing room changed from your first experience of it in 1999 to your return eight or nine years later?
It had changed massively. We are much more together now. Back then there was quite an insular, selfish feel to the team. There were cliques. It wasn't 11 guys playing for one another. It was six or seven guys playing that way and four or five playing for themselves. Look, I could be wrong. I was hardly in the dressing room back then. I was an outsider and I'm just giving you my impression. But I was quite surprised by it at the time.
I came back in eight years later and it felt different. It's hard to put your finger on what has changed. Central contracts have made a big difference. So has the policy of continuity of selection, as guys aren't looking over their shoulder all the time. But one way or another, things feel much more united now. The sad thing is that many of those guys playing in 1999 would probably have performed really well if they had come into this set-up. They'd have found it a much better environment.
I don't know if you recall, but I was asked to write your tour diary in 1999-2000. What would we have put in it?
Ha! It would have been like Paul Merson's How Not to Be a Professional Footballer, wouldn't it? Yeah, we could have called it How Not to Be a Pro Cricketer.
Murali has said England missed out on not selecting you in those intervening years. But had you changed, too, or was it just that the England environment had changed to welcome characters like you?
Oh, there are myriad reasons. It was probably a bit of both. But I had improved by the time I was recalled. It's only natural that you evolve as you play more. I know I had improved as a bowler, but it's hard to say to what extent. I just felt I knew what I was doing more. But it's true that the environment had changed too.
Was the turning point in your own career moving from Northants to Notts at the end of 2004?
Yes, probably. It was a case of moving or giving up cricket. I wasn't enjoying it at all, and it had got to the stage where I was dreading going to work in the morning. I didn't have a plan to do anything else, but I couldn't have gone on like that. Then Mick Newell [Notts' director of cricket] came along. He just asked me to come to Trent Bridge and enjoy my cricket again. He said he wanted me to play with a smile on my face and be myself. As those were qualities that were actively discouraged at Northants at the time, it was a chance I leapt at. It was lovely.
How do you feel about Northants now?
I'm still very fond of Northants. I check on their results and I still want to see them do well. It's the club where I grew up and that I supported as a kid. I'm really happy to see they have started the season so well and I hope they go up. I know that will surprise a few of the people who gave me a hard time when I left, but hopefully they now understand there was a problem there and the reasons behind my decision. At the time, I seem to remember some of them calling me a quitter. Looking back, I still can't believe that Northants didn't win more trophies. They had some amazing players.
I have a theory that young cricketers would benefit if, alongside going warm-weather training in South Africa or playing grade cricket in Australia, they spent a few weeks each winter working in a call centre or the club office so they realise how good they have it and to focus their minds on the alternatives. What do you think?
I love it! It's a great idea. But don't let them work in the club offices; that's too soft. Young cricketers should be made to do National Service. Or labouring. Look, we have got the best job in the world. It's brilliant. We travel around the world, staying in great hotels, and we play cricket. Occasionally I hear someone moaning about another flight and I just remind them that we could be collecting bins or laying bricks on a cold morning in England. We're very lucky and we shouldn't forget that. Millions of people would kill to swap places with us.
So, yes, I think giving young players a bit of that fear factor - showing them what they will be doing if they don't make it in cricket - wouldn't do any harm at all. It would give them a good kick up the arse.
Have those years out of the international game given you a greater appreciation of your current position?
Yeah, I think there might be something in that. I love touring. Absolutely love it. You're travelling around with your best mates - and that really is how it feels most of the time - and you're being paid to do something you love. Obviously you miss your family and there are times when it's tiring, but generally it's a fantastic life and I love every moment of it. Look, one winter I helped out in Ian Poulter's golf shop. It was the worst time of my life. I was bored out of my mind. So I'll never take playing for England for granted.
"You wouldn't ask Usain Bolt why he doesn't run marathons, would you? I'm a traditional offspinner. I can bowl the carrom ball, but it's just not me. It's just not what I do. My action is so different when I do it that there's no point"
So you won't be asking to miss the odd tour so you can have a break?
No, no. I have missed enough international cricket. I want to play every game I can. In 2009, just before the Ashes, I knew I was going to get picked. It was all I had ever wanted. I was finally in the position that I wanted to be in. So I treat every game as if it's going to be my last. I play with a bit of joie de vivre, and that seems to work for me.
I have been lucky with my coaches, too. If I bowl rubbish, Mushy [Mushtaq Ahmed, England's spin bowling coach] just says to me, "Don't worry, Mr Swanny. Everything is still okay. The sun will still shine tomorrow." It helps you relax and not get too intense about it all.
Sometimes when someone misfields off your bowling your reaction is pretty ferocious. Does that ever cause a problem?
When people misfield off my bowling, it makes me hate them. Really. I'm not joking. I want to do them and their family ill. I want to hunt them down and do them harm. That feeling doesn't last long, which is probably just as well, but it's there for a moment. It's funny, the three of us who were the most grumpy with England - me, Broady and Sid [Ryan Sidebottom] - were all from Nottinghamshire. I don't know why that should be. Look, we all make mistakes in the field. The best thing you can do is acknowledge it, say sorry and get on with it. There's never been any problem afterwards. We all care a lot and we all understand that passion to do well.
During all those years when you weren't playing international cricket, did you ever think of learning to bowl the doosra or any other type of variation?
You wouldn't ask Usain Bolt why he doesn't run marathons, would you? Well, it the same thing, really. I'm a traditional offspinner. I can bowl the carrom ball, but it's just not me. It's just not what I do. My action is so different when I do it that there's no point. I might as well tell the batsman what I'm going to bowl next.
Had you given up on an England recall?
I absolutely thought that any chance I had of playing for England had gone. And I had accepted it. I was happy with life. I was loving playing at Notts and England wasn't even something I thought about. It really didn't bother me as it didn't even seem like it was an option. I didn't even bother to check the touring parties when they were announced, as I just knew it wasn't anything to do with me. Well, I say that: I sometimes had a peek and thought, "He shouldn't be in there". But no, I wasn't thinking about England.
A couple of years before your England return, you became a much higher-profile figure in the media. Was that a deliberate plot to gain some support in an attempt to convince the England selectors to pick you?
No, not at all. You are right that it didn't harm my profile, but it wasn't about playing for England. It was more about thinking about life after cricket. I was just trying to open some doors for a future career in the media.
You seem to relish that part of your job. Much more so than some of your team-mates.
Yeah, that's probably right. I think I understand the media. I don't mind if they criticise - that's their job, isn't it? - and I'm not afraid of it. Look, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy being the centre of attention. An interview like this, where I'm asked to talk about myself, well, that's fine: it's my favourite subject. I think some of the guys do fear the media, but there isn't much need. If you approach it as something that can be fun and you just relax and be yourself, then there really isn't a big problem.
Your Twelfth Man diaries were a great success. Why have you stopped them?
We haven't stopped them. They are for winter tours. We'll still be doing them, but we wanted to keep them special. Hopefully you'll see them again this winter. That's as long as Barney Douglas, who is the guy behind the camera, hasn't gone off to be a rock star by then. His band, The Sunbeat Revival, have just released their first EP. It's brilliant, euphoric stuff.
It was Peter Moores who recalled you to the England side. Does he get the credit he deserves for his role as England coach? I think Andy Flower would be the first to praise him.
And so he should be. Peter Moores hasn't had the credit he deserves. He's an exceptional coach and it wouldn't surprise me at all if he was coaching an international team again sooner rather than later. He was brilliant when I was selected. He said, "We picked you to be you. We want to see the same cricketer we saw when you were playing county cricket: just be you." I feel really lucky to have had him as coach when I came back into the side.
There has been quite a lot of nonsense talked about him, but as far as I'm concerned, he did a lot of good things and he's definitely part of the reason behind the England team's revival.
You have opened the batting with some success in limited-overs cricket at county level. Would you like to do it at international level?
Ha! I'd love to have a crack at it, yes. I'm not sure it would work so well at that level, but I'd love to have a go. I love batting. It's the best thing about cricket. I get quite bored in the field sometimes.
You weren't interviewed for the captaincy. Why was that?
I didn't put myself forward for the job. Captaincy just isn't on my agenda. I love my role in the side and I don't want to change it. I just want to bat and bowl for England and I don't think I could still be the light-hearted, piss-taking guy if I was in a position of authority.
Presumably you are a big fan of the DRS?
I am. I was a bit sceptical at first, as I wasn't sure about the technology, but now I think it's brilliant. It's meant that we are now giving guys out who should be given out. For years batsmen were getting away with it.
What went wrong at the World Cup?
Weariness was a factor, but we can't use that as an excuse. It's not as if we were not fit enough to get through a schedule like that, and we went there to try and win it. But if we are honest I think we would have to admit that the World Cup was our secondary aim of the winter. Our primary aim was to win the Ashes and we put a huge amount into that. Maybe mentally we were a bit jaded. But as I say, that's not an excuse. I thought we were exceptional in some games and very average in some others.
Graeme Swann is a brand ambassador for Kingfisher beer

George Dobell is chief cricket writer of Spin Cricket Magazine, where this interview was first published