Corruption forces Swann to look below the surface

The England spinner talks to Brian Viner

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There is no asterisk next to Graeme Swann's name on the Lord's honours board, nor against those of Jonathan Trott and Stuart Broad, yet England's accomplished and charismatic off-spinner knows his 5 for 62 in the fourth Test against Pakistan last summer, and his team-mates' big hundreds, will be for ever tarnished by the corruption for which three of their opponents are now serving prison sentences. "I know how hard we fought for those personal glories," he says. "It's tough to take."

All the same, Swann assumed the spot-fixing furore was a parochial cricketing matter until Mr Justice Cooke handed down custodial sentences earlier this month. "Until then I freely admit I was in a bit of a fantasy world," he says. "I thought the trial was about the judge banning them from playing cricket. I didn't realise that what was happening mattered enough to be a criminal offence."

Swann sinks back into a plush sofa at a boutique hotel in London, enjoying the welcome end of a long day spent publicising his autobiography. He's happy with the contents, apart from a passage about Kevin Pietersen in which he refers to his occasionally histrionic mode of captaincy.

But back to cricket's hottest topic. Now that he does appreciate how serious were the crimes of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, does he think they deserved to go to jail? "I honestly don't know. I don't think they should ever play cricket again, and I don't buy the theory that an 18-year-old should have more leniency than a 28-year-old. I don't like Salman Butt. There are some people you can't stand, and he's one of them. But that's not because I thought he was corrupt."

In the book, he describes the moment, in the England dressing room, when TV cameras focused on Amir's almost comically unsubtle no-ball to Trott and Paul Collingwood said, jokingly, he had probably been paid to deliver it. There ensued a debate: could such a no-ball be bowled accidentally? The bowlers argued it could. That was that, until the News of the World's revelations showed Collingwood had inadvertently been right. Nonetheless, Swann is convinced corruption in cricket is not and never has been widespread. "This 'tip of the iceberg' stuff, I can't say I agree with it," he says.

At 32, he speaks with the authority that comes with experience, maturity and confidence in his own ability. Yet when he first played for England, 12 years ago, all three were lacking. He bowled five overs for no wickets in a one-day international in South Africa, before being taken off by captain Nasser Hussain, the man who in an Essex v Northants match two years earlier had observed "if that Swann lad is the future of spin bowling in this country, we're f***ed".

Even after his call-up for the South Africa tour, Swann's assessment of his own talent wasn't much more generous than Hussain's. "Truth be told, I was scared stupid," he recalls. "The biggest fear for any cricketer, especially at that age, is being a laughing stock. It kind of suited me I didn't play [in any Tests], because I assumed that Test cricket required an almost unobtainable skill level."

He also came to realise that there was no "golden elixir" needed to play Test cricket on his return in 2007. On the other hand, nor did he anticipate his own rise and rise through the ICC rankings, which now place him as the world's third-best Test bowler (behind Dale Steyn and James Anderson), and second-best ODI bowler.

Swann is good company. "No, I've had two or three fairy-tale years," he continues, "but I don't think I'm a Muralitharan or a Warne. I think I'm good at what I do, and I'm lucky to play in an exceptional team, but at the end of the day I'm an off-spinner."

So, can England remain the world's top-ranked Test outfit? "I think so," he says. "Jimmy [Anderson] is the best seam bowler in world cricket, Broady is phenomenal, Tim Bresnan plays a hell of a supporting role, Steven Finn has shown he can bowl at 95mph and swing it both ways, Chris Tremlett can't even get in the team. And batting-wise you can't see why we won't keep piling on runs. Our top three are the worst to watch in the world – you know you're in trouble when Andrew Strauss is the most aesthetically pleasing of them – but they're all great players. And then you've got Kev, and Ian Bell, and Matty Prior."

'The Breaks Are Off' by Graeme Swann is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20.