Graeme Swann: 'I still come out in goose bumps when I think of the final Ashes wicket'
The People of 2009: In the first of our series on the movers, shakers and history-makers of the past year, Stephen Brenkley talks to Graeme Swann, who had the last word for England at The Oval in August
Monday 21 December 2009
When Graeme Swann was a little boy he imagined bowling the ball which clinched the Ashes for England. His vanquished final adversary was always Allan Border, who was in his pomp for Australia at the time, and after ensnaring him the young Swann would jump for joy in a fit of mock ecstasy.
At The Oval last August the victim was different but the elation was as real as could be. Swann had his friend and former county team-mate Mike Hussey caught at short leg by Alastair Cook, England had won the match by 197 runs and the Ashes. Boyhood dreams do not come any truer.
"That ball bounced a bit, it didn't turn as much as others," he says. "I remember just floating it up. I saw Cook catch it. I know people say they don't remember what happened next but I don't remember what happened next for the next five or 10 minutes.
"I got in the changing room when we got back an hour later and I had blood gushing out of my knee and I had no idea why. I couldn't remember diving in the field. Andrew Strauss said that it happened when I had slid on my knees like a cheap Italian footballer.
"I have seen a video of me being interviewed afterwards and I look as drunk as though I had been drinking for 12 hours. It was a phenomenal moment. I was drunk with joy and it was the first time in my life that I have experienced anything like that, especially through sport, apart from when Newcastle beat Manchester United 5-1 about 15 years ago."
In this description of the unforgettable moment, Swann captures himself perfectly. It is jaunty, unable to resist having a laugh, which places the whole thing in perspective, but somewhere in there is a deadly serious cricketer trying to get out. Swann has joined an exclusive little group of bowlers to take the wicket which clinched the Ashes: George Geary in 1926 and Derek Underwood in 1970-71 among them.
He reflects on the summer and that final week in life-changing terms. It is not simply that England won the Ashes and he played such a key role in it – eight wickets in all and 81 runs in the decisive match itself – but that it was the culmination of a career redeemed. Swann spent the best part of the Noughties trying to find himself as a player and, for large sections in the early part of the decade, failing mightily. From an early age he had been singled out as a potential international cricketer – even as an exponent of the dying art of off-spin – but when he was picked for England's tour of South Africa 10 years ago he made a complete botch of it.
He was ready neither as a player nor as a man and he did not impress the England coach Duncan Fletcher. Once Fletcher was unimpressed it was usually impossible to reconvert him. Regime change saved Swann and, given this second chance, he has prospered.
It has been a pleasure to watch him influence the course of matches and although the cheeky chappy is always there – the day Swann stops talking rivers the world over will run dry – his body language on the field bespeaks a man trying his darndest to win.
By the time the Ashes started, he had replaced his former Northamptonshire team-mate Monty Panesar as England's first-choice spinner. The series is dotted with periods in which Swann played a prominent part.
England got out of Cardiff – just – with a draw in the first Test. Without that the series, the summer, the rest of Swann's life would have been entirely different. In Cardiff, as England clung on desperately, he batted for 80 minutes and faced 63 balls, most of which seemed to hit him in the body as he bobbed, weaved and jumped, trying to avoid a series of brutal short balls.
"It never felt at any point during the series that we were going to get nailed into the ground," he says. "We were so outplayed in Cardiff and yet didn't lose. I felt stupid batting, because Hussey had told them if it pitched short I would have a flap at it.
"My way, if I'm not allowed to play the hook shot, is to try and duck underneath the ball and every time it just thudded into me. It was ridiculous but I always say it didn't actually hurt that much, it's your pride that hurts more than anything. But I actually didn't mind getting hit because I didn't feel as though I was going to get out.
"And then out of nowhere I had one of those moments that have plagued my batting career, a little voice saying, 'imagine if you pull him for six' and I immediately tried to do it to a ball that didn't bounce. I remember walking off feeling a bit sick, I got a text message on my phone from my brother that wasn't very complimentary."
Swann spent the rest of the match watching a replay of a grand prix on the dressing room television – "I was into Jenson [Button]'s next tyre change and how much fuel he had left" – when suddenly he saw Mushtaq Ahmed jumping for joy. He went out to watch the last two balls, the draw secure.
He played a prominent part in the historic win the following week at Lord's – in a portent of things to come, taking the last wicket – but Australia eventually levelled matters at Headingley. So outplayed were England that it did not seem possible they could respond in the climactic game.
"In retrospect, although it would have been a brave man to say it at the time, it was the best thing that could have happened to us," says Swann. "I'm convinced that if we had gone into the last Test one up, and no matter what we would have said about being positive, you're never as cut-throat. I seriously think that it made us better. Believe it or not, there are fewer nerves going into a game you know you have to win than one you know you just can't lose. It doesn't even occur to you that you might lose it, you're just thinking how you might win it."
Swann, who likes a bit of drama, spent the week leading up to the match in bed with a severe bout of food poisoning.
He says: "I had a takeaway curry the night after the Headingley Test and woke up the next day and my missus said, 'You're green, what's the matter with you?'
"I was violently ill for the next four or five days. I just lay there thinking that I was wasting away and wondering what would happen. There was no point where I thought I couldn't play because I would have rather collapsed on day one and claimed it was heat stroke than pull out."
The Oval pitch was a turner; Swann was never out of the game. And so to the fourth afternoon. Australia, set 546 to win, were cruising at 217 for 2. Doubts began to creep in on England's march to victory. "For some reason you get that horrible feeling, 'what if...?,'" says Swann. "All I could think was that we would be national pariahs, we'd have our effigies burned in the streets of Towcester [his birth place]. In reality, if they had that total to chase they'd get it once out of 100 times but that doesn't stop you thinking that this could be the time. I suppose it was inevitable that Andrew Flintoff would have some say. He ran out Ricky Ponting and we got another crazy run-out four balls later.
"The atmosphere went from nail-biting tension to joyousness that we were going to do it very soon. With one wicket left I remember standing at slip and willing Steve Harmison to beat the bat but not get a wicket because I wanted to get that last one.
"The euphoria of being in the moment and then the realisation that you are a part of it will stay with me forever, and when I think of it now it still brings me out in goose bumps. During that one-day series just after, when we were losing game after game to Australia, no matter how bad it felt, I was just thinking, 'who cares? I won the Ashes two weeks ago'."
Year of the Swann Why spinner was a winner in 2009
Playing in just his third Test, Swann collects his first five-wicket haul, taking 5-57 against West Indies in the drawn third Test in Antigua. The haul includes the wickets of Ramnaresh Sarwan and Denesh Ramdin in successive balls. Also takes five wickets in the drawn fourth Test in Bridgetown.
Scores first Test half-century, hitting 63 against West Indies at Lord's, including nine fours and a six. Then takes six wickets as England romp home.
Registers 2-28 and helps contain India's batsmen as England edge a World Twenty20 group match by three runs at Lord's. Begins ever-popular Twitter feed, now boasting 28,000 followers. His biography on the site claims: "I play cricket, I'm in a band, and I recently stopped wetting the bed! Oh, and I'm funnier than Jimmy Anderson." The rock band Maximo Park and hotel bills are among those subjects addressed in his tweets.
Enters Ashes campaign as England's premier spinner, and hits 47 and 31 as the hosts salvage a draw at Cardiff. In second Test at Lord's, takes key second-innings wicket of Michael Clarke for 136 and the final wicket of Mitchell Johnson to finish with 4-87 and help England to a first Ashes win at Lord's since 1934.
Scores 62 but fails to take a wicket at Headingley as England fall to an innings defeat. Overcomes food poisoning before the Oval decider to take 4-38 as Aussies bowled out for 160 before hitting a 55-ball 63 in the second innings. Makes vital final-day breakthrough, trapping Simon Katich lbw for a second four-wicket haul of the match. Takes the final wicket as England regain the Ashes.
Takes 5-28 in the seventh ODI to help dismiss Aussies for 176. Named man of the match as England gain consolation victory at Riverside, losing series 6-1.
Fails to take any wickets as England are thrashed by Australia in the Champions Trophy semi-finals in Centurion.
Records his third five-wicket haul, against South Africa at Centurion, before hitting 85 to help England draw.
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