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Interviews

Graeme Swann moulds young England spinners dreaming of another series win in India

The former offspinner talks about his career, coaching, and how his England team would have fared against the Bazball side

Graeme Swann: "I was lucky to be in a very successful England team for a few years. When I look at it, I still think we'd beat any England team. Even the Bazball one"  •  Matt Lewis/ECB/Getty Images

Graeme Swann: "I was lucky to be in a very successful England team for a few years. When I look at it, I still think we'd beat any England team. Even the Bazball one"  •  Matt Lewis/ECB/Getty Images

It is coming up to ten years since Graeme Swann called time on a distinguished England career. Yet even with a CV that boasts three Ashes victories, including in Australia in 2010-11 (a success which led to England's No. 1 Test ranking), a Test victory in India in 2012 and a T20 World Cup, there is one great regret.
"I wish I got a hundred, that's something that really annoys me," he reveals. The highest score of "only" 85 against South Africa in December 2009 grates the offspinner who did manage four first-class centuries.
"I look back now and think, 'Why didn't you just have that extra five minutes here and there in the nets?' Why not listen to the little devil on your left shoulder rather than the one on your right that said, 'Just bat through until tea' rather than 'Imagine hitting this bowler for six right now'? I always listened to that idiot.
"I still dream about cricket. I take slip catches in my sleep. I'm always fielding or batting in my dreams - never bowling. Which probably tells me something - that I was a very frustrated batsman."
At this point, I offer a different perspective. Perhaps Swann does not think about bowling because, well, what more was there to achieve? In the land of the living, 255 Test dismissals put him seventh on England's all-time list, second behind Derek Underwood's 297 as the country's most productive spinner, at an average of 29.96. Impressive numbers through performances that elevated him as one of the best fingerspinners of his era.
"Yes, maybe," replies Swann. "I get your point, 100%. You know, I've never really delved into the dream world. But now I do, and you're absolutely right."
It was on the eve of the Ashes Boxing Day Test in 2013 that Swann called it quits after 60 Tests. A nerve issue in his right elbow, which had been under the knife earlier that year, meant he had lost the feeling in his fingers. With the urn gone after the three matches, he decided that was that.
England eventually succumbed to a 5-0 whitewash, amplifying the sentiment Swann had deserted his team-mates. It was the only time he felt mischaracterised by the media. "But there's no point holding grudges," he says, phlegmatically, before joking: "And the one guy I've got a grudge against, one day I'll push him in the sea."
That the third Test in Perth was his last game of cricket underlines the terminal nature of the injury. Nevertheless, stepping away altogether was tough. "You keep thinking - could I have waited? Could I have seen if my elbow got better? And then I'd see England playing again and get massive pangs of jealousy.
"I'll be honest, I still get it now. I think it'll help when Jimmy Anderson breaks a hip or something by the time he goes. But seeing your mate still doing it and being on the outside, it is hard. It's not enjoyable. I'd love to be a grey-haired, wily old spinner playing for England like him. I don't think I could have kept my fitness up, to be fair.
"That's life. I was dealt an amazing hand for five years, if I bemoan the end of it, it'll take away from how amazing those five years were."
"Being able to get involved and hopefully do something for the good of the team and English cricket, it gets me out of bed with a skip in the morning"
England still have not got over Swann. Beyond the wickets was a level of control, particularly in the first half of matches, which allowed Andy Flower's chart-topping team to operate with him as one of a four-man attack alongside three quicks.
It is a balance England have not replicated since. Since Swann's retirement, debuts have been handed to ten spinners - 12 if you broaden the criteria to include Will Jacks and Liam Livingstone, both selected in Pakistan last winter to pitch in with the slow-bowling load.
Moeen Ali has come closest to stabilising an XI in the manner that Swann did, while Jack Leach has developed a similar attacking verve as the designated Bazball spinner. But it speaks of a lack of depth that Moeen reversed his retirement last summer when Leach was ruled out of the Ashes with a stress fracture. And with Moeen now back in Test retirement, options for the upcoming five-match series in India are looking light on the ground.
Swann was integral to success in 2012-13, with 20 wickets at 24.75 as part of a dual-spin threat with Monty Panesar (17 at 26.82) to secure England's first win in India since 1984-85. Now, as they look to repeat history against the No. 1 side in the world, he has a different part to play.
The 44-year-old is currently out in the UAE with the England Lions, working with the eight spinners among the 20-man squad as an ECB spin consultant, a role he fulfilled last winter. This time around, there is an onus on ensuring potential bolters can deal with being thrust into the bright lights of a Test series in India.
Lancashire left-arm spinner Tom Hartley and Sussex's Jack Carson, an offspinner with Swann-like traits, could receive maiden Test call-ups. With the Lions due to tour alongside the Test series with red-ball matches against India A, others could play themselves into contention. Brendon McCullum and managing director Rob Key will drop in for a portion of the training camp to gauge what options there are before picking their squad for the series.
Thus, players having such ready access to Swann is a boost. And high on the list of frequently asked questions is what Test cricket is actually like.
"A lot of them are just worried about what it's like in Test cricket; do you have to bowl magic balls or do anything different? You actually don't - the pressure of Test cricket is felt by the batsmen, just as much, if not more than the bowler.
"I was exactly the same back in the day. I thought you had to be absolutely better than you've ever been every time you bowl in Test cricket. You actually don't. You have to be yourself and be very consistent. That's probably what I try to get over the most - they've all got the balls in their locker to take wickets in Test cricket already."
Much of what Swann imparts is on the mental side. Performance director Mo Bobat noted how beneficial it had been for all players to tap into his tactical nous. It was a characteristic that was perhaps lost in his enthusiastic, at times class-clown persona, but was a vital part of the whole package, underpinning his skills, and a reason why he would often pick up wickets early in his spells. Notably in the first over on Test debut in Chennai back in December 2008 when he picked up both Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid.
"I still dream about cricket. I take slip catches in my sleep. I'm always fielding or batting in my dreams - never bowling. Which probably tells me something - that I was a very frustrated batsman"
"It comes with experience and age, which these lads haven't got at the minute. But I definitely think as a bowler, you should know how to get a guy out as he's walking to the crease, just by the way he holds his bat, the way his pads are on…"
Pads?
"Oh you can gauge so much. If his back knee is dirty, he's a sweeper. If the bottom of his pads are loose, they tend to be light-footed and like going down the wicket. If they've got a very heavy grip, they're more likely to be a bat-pad candidate. If they grip it very high up, they're going to look to hit you over the top. Things like that.
"You can pick up all these little clues before you've even bowled a ball. You don't want to be giving him ten balls to work him out. If you're trying to settle into a spell, you miss out on the best opportunity to get them out. You should have worked him out before he even gets to the crease."
All of this was developed over time. Beyond a solitary ODI cap in January 2000 in South Africa, where he irked head coach Duncan Fletcher enough to not feature again under his tenure, Swann's introduction to Test cricket came at the age of 29.
Made at Wantage Road, then refined at Trent Bridge after moving from Northamptonshire to Nottinghamshire, ability grew with maturity. While the county career arc of moving from a smaller county to a Test match ground is nothing out of the ordinary, Swann feels modern domestic spinners lack the opportunity and guidance he was afforded.
"A lot of these spinners when they play [for England], they are 21-22. I was very lucky in the end the way my career panned out. By that stage you've got so much more knowledge and experience under your belt that it's a lot easier to adapt.
"I had brilliant captains. Growing up in Northampton on dust bowls, we always had attacking fields. Then Chris Read and Stephen Fleming at Notts just left me to do it myself, provided I could justify why I wanted fields for a positive reason.
"I think that's what Ben Stokes does and why he is getting so much out of Jack [Leach]. You do have to try and take wickets every ball, you can't just be that guy who lands it on the spot and waits for a mistake."
Swann hopes Stokes' influence will ensure more captains take a punt on their spinners, particularly earlier in the season when the convention is to leave them out. He also appreciates his job as a consultant means he must use his contact time with the young spinners wisely.
That he is even coaching at all is a change of tack. "I didn't ever think I'd enjoy coaching, or get as much out of it," he says. He regards himself as a freelancer, balancing work with the ECB and Trent Rockets men under his former coach, Andy Flower, with commentary gigs.
He expects news on whether he has made the cut to commentate on the Test tour of India will come at the last minute, which could eat into his availability for the Lions. But it is clear the pull of moulding the next generation of English cricketers - maybe even finding the next Graeme Swann - has a unique appeal. Even a sense of duty.
"As a bowler, you should know how to get a guy out as he's walking to the crease, just by the way he holds his bat, the way his pads are on"
"I enjoy the commentary, it's great. But like Rob Key said when he started doing the [ECB managing director] job, whatever you say on TV, it doesn't actually affect anything. It's just your opinion.
"Being able to get involved and hopefully do something for the good of the team and English cricket, that's a different feeling altogether. It gets me out of bed with a skip in the morning rather than dragging myself out, moping after the dog in the park.
"Nothing gets close to playing, I can tell you that. But that happens; you play and experience the best years of your life and I was lucky to be in a very successful England team for a few years. When I look at it, I still think we'd beat any England team. Even the Bazball one - we'd beat them. I don't mind going at five an over if I get five-fer, it's like playing against Pakistan!
"But you're always chasing, you're always trying to get that feeling back. If you're born into cricket, and raised playing cricket, you just want to be involved. After a while, you're itching to get back out there. And I've loved every minute of it so far."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo