Graeme Swann: 'If we expect the spinner to win the series, we're screwed'
England star tells Stephen Brenkley that hoping for a repeat of his career-sparking success in India could be risky
In a single over in India four years ago, Graeme Swann's life changed forever. It was the first he had bowled in Test cricket and by its end he had taken two wickets.
Swann was exultant. A career that might have gone down the tubes was resurrected fully in those moments in Chennai when Gautam Gambhir fatally shouldered arms to a straight one and Rahul Dravid was beaten by a sharply turning ball.
"It all started for me there and I can't quite believe it has come round again so quickly," said Swann as he prepared to pack his bags for another tour of India, exultant once more (and tired) a week after the birth of his second child. "It all seems like a dream when I think about the start of it. I remember the smells that were wafting over the ground when I took the ball. It's all very romantic when I think back.
"The rose-tinted glasses are removed of course because of the fact that we had 360-odd chased down at a canter by Mr Tendulkar. But it's got fond memories for me personally because I did well. To realise that you can compete at a level that you have always had a sneaking suspicion that you weren't good enough for is one of the greatest weights ever to be lifted off your shoulders. I will be indebted to those first two Test matches for making me realise it was just another game of cricket."
England lost that match because, as Swann almost correctly recalled, Sachin Tendulkar scored a resplendently paced 103 not out as India chased down an improbable target of 387 to win the match. It was one of the most resonant innings of all, taking place as it did in the shadow of the terrorist attack on Mumbai in which 174 people died.
The 2008 tour had been briefly suspended with the team returning home but there was a determination that it should resume. Barely a fortnight later England went back and the magnificent conclusion to the opening Test, engineered by Tendulkar, Mumbai's most famous son, could hardly have been more uplifting.
It is curious to reflect that England's captain then was Kevin Pietersen. A few weeks later he was deposed after an irrevocable breakdown in his relationship with the coach Peter Moores, who was also sacked. Like Swann, Pietersen is returning for this tour but it was, as the world knows, a near thing.
Swann was one of those senior players who took part in Pietersen's "process of reintegration" last week, which was necessary after his latest dispute, this time with, more or less, the entire team and its management. Although it has consumed English cricket for more than two months, apparent resolution has brought an unwillingness to dwell on the causes and the effects. Swann, invariably the most sunnily engaging of characters when fielders are not making mistakes off his bowling, was a trifle testy in discussing the issue.
"More than anything it is a good thing it is done and dusted," said Swann. "A line has been drawn under it and the actual cricket can go back to doing the talking rather than off-field antics. I am sure it can get back to how it was. I think a lot depended on Kevin. He seems in a place now where he is happy to play again, he has committed himself to the team and that's good moving forward.
"I think that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet now. I think there has been a bit of honesty and a bit of contriteness from certain parties. I think everybody is fed up with it and that's why we just want to play cricket."
It was difficult to imagine four years ago that Swann would be playing cricket in such a high-powered fashion. His career which, after rich early promise, had seemed destined to be restricted to county respectability, had already been partially redeemed by elevation under Moores to the England one-day side.
Going to India as the second spinner he supplanted Monty Panesar in the West Indies a couple of months later. There is no magic ball in his armoury, no doosra or carrom, but there is a welter of old-fashioned virtues, plenty of turn, drift, changes of pace, use of the crease.
During the first Test in Ahmedabad, Swann should become England's most prodigious off spinner, needing two wickets finally to overtake Jim Laker's record of 193 which has stood for 53 years.
A novice four years ago, this, in essence, has to be Swann's tour if and only if the batsmen can make enough runs to offer him the necessary platform. He recognises what he has to do but is also wary of expecting too much of himself.
"As a spinner it stands to reason when you go to the subcontinent people are going to look to you and how you bowl," he said. "But if we do turn up just expecting the spinner to win the series for us then we're screwed.
"The key to Test cricket is that the more you play the more confident you get and the more confident you get ergo you bowl more consistently. Having looked at the schedule I know two of the pitches might turn, in Kolkata and Mumbai. I am not sure about the other two. I have been reliably informed that Nagpur is the flattest wicket ever devised by groundsmen but that was Cooky who got a hundred there on his debut."
Cooky naturally is Alastair Cook, England's new Test captain after Andrew Strauss's retirement and good friend of Swann. It will be intriguing to see if their relationship (and others) changes. A captain has different responsibilities, altered perspectives. The whole team becomes his family, not simply sections of it.
"Strauss is a hard act to follow but such is the nature of becoming England captain," said Swann. "You either get it in controversial circumstances when a guy has just been given the boot or when a guy goes out on his own terms who is invariably a very good leader and therefore a very hard man to follow. I think Cook will do a very fine job.
"He's not an Andrew Strauss and he never will be, he would be the first to admit that. Cook has got a very good cricket brain, he is very analytical, he goes through things, he doesn't rush to snap decisions and everything has got a lot of thought behind it.
"I don't think there has to be any shift in our relationship. If you have to change because you go into a different position then you're going away from what you do best. I am certainly not going to change and if he does I shall be extremely disappointed and bogwash him at the earliest opportunity. If he drops me I'll never speak to him again." For those seeking to promote a potential rift it should be swiftly pointed out this was spoken jokingly and affectionately – banter of which the England dressing room will need plenty in the coming weeks.
Swann left home with a heavy heart on Thursday. Like many of this side, probably like all maturing sports teams, he has become a father during his England career. His wife, Sarah, gave birth to Charlotte, brother to Wilf, last week.
"It would be very easy to feel sorry for yourself, go into a corner and just survive until you see them again," said Swann. "You just have got to tell yourself, look I've got the best job in the world, thousands of people would give their left arm to do what I'm doing. I think a player has to compartmentalise his life. If you allow outside values to start messing with cricket then you're in trouble.
"At the end of the day it's tough shit, I chose to play cricket, I chose to get married, I chose to have a family. It is very, very hard leaving the kids. It certainly makes you appreciate the tours you had as a youngster, as a single man when you didn't have a care in the world.
"You would get back to your rented flat somewhere with the dust an inch thick and items in the fridge that you weren't sure what they started as and were now just lumps of mould. I sometimes envy those days. But this is the best thing in the world and having a family with Sarah is without a doubt the greatest achievement of my life."
Swann the court jester is a thoughtful man underneath it all. And he is an outstanding bowler whose defining months could be at hand.
Swann’s record in Tests played in Asia:
Swann’s record in Home Tests
Graeme Swann is an ambassador for Rubicon Exotic Juice Drinks. See him in action at www.RubiconExotic.com/LoveCricket
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