In the search for Ashes glory in Perth this week, Graeme Swann will urge England to turn to Chinese proverbs. "He who looks at clouds takes his eye off the plough," said the world's top spin-bowler last night.
Whether of ancient Oriental origin (doubtful) as its purveyor suggested, it is a piquant reminder to England that while they can win the Ashes in the Third Test which starts at the Waca on Thursday, they had better not think about doing so. "One of the problems we had in England last time round, going into the Headingley Test match, was that suddenly people picked up on the fact that we could actually win the Ashes if we won the game."
As it happened, England batted like fools on the first morning of that Fourth Test and lost by an innings. They regrouped in time for The Oval a week later but it was a near thing. They cannot afford a similar mistake again.
"Everything fell into place in 2009 at The Oval, with the wicket, with their selection, with the fact we won the toss," said Swann. "We got very lucky in that first morning. That's not going to happen every time you play. People will argue we got lucky in Adelaide last week because it banged it down with rain 20 minutes after lunch. We're certainly not taking anything for granted. Yes, win in Perth, we win the Ashes, but we're not talking about it."
The caution is understandable but England made most of their own luck to beat Australia by an innings and 71 runs last Monday and take a 1-0 lead in the series. Another win in Perth would see them retain the Ashes as holders since Australia could do no better than draw the series 2-2.
Swann himself stands on the verge of becoming the world's No 1 bowler of all types, with a real chance of overtaking the South African fast bowler Dale Steyn any time in the next fortnight depending on how he bowls. He would be the first England bowler since Steve Harmison and the first English spin bowler since Derek Underwood to stand atop the world. But that is to get ahead of everything, as Swann recognises.
"People bring up stats but I'm not going to compare myself to the greats who came before," he said. "I am forever telling Alastair Cook that I don't believe in stats and rankings but if it's putting me high up I'm going to start believing them a bit more. Actually, I don't give a monkeys; as long as my Mum thinks I'm the best spinner in the world, I'm happy. But if we win the Ashes and I drop to 20 that's fine."
To have taken 5 for 91 in the second innings at Adelaide was exactly what England and Swann required after he took too much time to settle in the First Test at Brisbane. Now a faltering Australian order has doubts about him again and will think twice about attacking him.
It was only two years ago yesterday that Swann made his belated maiden Test appearance against India. Then it was as the second spinner on a turning pitch. Two wickets in his first over and he has hardly looked back. It is not too much of a stretch to say that he has put the dying craft of orthodox finger-spinning back on the map. Of all exponents to take more than 100 wickets in Tests, only Muttiah Mura-litharan has a better strike-rate (a wicket every 55.05 balls compared with 56.09) but with his corkscrew wrist he barely counts as a finger-spinner. Swann has been helped by the increasing number of left-handers in the game, the greater willingness of umpires to give out players to certain strokes, especially the sweep, and the Decision Review System.
Swann has taken 122 Test wickets and 67 of them were left-handers. The highest England wicket-taker as an off-spinner is Jim Laker, and only 31 of his 193 victims were left-handers.
It is to England's assistance if not advantage that they played in Perth earlier in the tour. Swann certainly feels he knows the wind, the camber of the pitch and its pace far more than he might have done.
He is not playing in England's tour match in Melbourne against Victoria, though he had to field yesterday because of a hand injury to Steve Davies. England declared 32 behind after Ian Bell made a fifth successive score above 50. They then reduced Victoria to 176 for 5 before some declaration bowling. Captain Andrew Strauss, who bowls left-arm filth, took the third wicket of his career, the first-innings centurion Michael Hill, dubiously lbw. His other two victims are startlingly illustrious: Kevin Pietersen and Stephen Fleming.Reuse content