Graeme Swann: Joker in pack who was ready to call it quits

His glass is always half full, so it is fascinating to hear about the dark days when he felt like giving up. Now he is in pole position to be England's No 1 spinner. Stephen Brenkley meets... Graeme Swann

When the balloon was going up, Graeme Swann was feeling down. He had taken to his bed. It was a dose of man flu in the guise of the worst New Year's Eve hangover the world had seen. He knew nothing of what was going on.

"The news hit me in the face like a sledgehammer," he said. "I had spent three days feeling as bad as humanlypossible. I turned my phone off and lay in bed feeling sorry for myself, having soup brought up and para-cetamol on the hour. It was magic.

"My girlfriend then came in and said she didn't quite know what was going on but Kevin Pietersen's face was plastered all over the television. So I turned on the set and the question being asked was about who would be the next England captain."

Thus did the cricketer who is in serious, if unexpected, contention to be the Test side's No 1 spinner learn of the sensational developments which for a few heady early-January days threatened to tear English cricket apart and saw the dismissals of the England captain and coach. It was typical that this would be Swann's mode of discovery.

Apart from anything else, it has allowed him to tell what happened next. There were, unsurprisingly, myriad missed calls and text messages on his mobile phone, all either informing him of what had happened or soliciting an opinion. "I thought they were joking at first but then I realised they weren't," he said. "And then I saw I had several more messages and thought that it must be the ECB [England and Wales Cricket Board] desperately trying to get hold of me to give me the stripes of captaincy."

Swann is the joker in the pack, the jack the lad, the rebel, the cock of the walk. He may, just may, be about to have the Test career for which once, a decade ago, he seemed destined and then seemed certain to be denied.

Picked ludicrously early for an England squad at The Oval when he was 20 and had taken a mere 57 first-class wickets, he was swiftly dispatched back to the shires. That winter he went on the England tour of South Africa and failed markedly to impress the new coach, Duncan Fletcher.

"In retrospect it was ridiculous. It was a blessing in disguise that I did not play in that game at The Oval against New Zealand," he said. "But then again it would have saved me from going on tour, making an arse of myself by not playing any cricket and being the most frustrating person on the planet."

Through injury he played one one-day game at the fag end of that tour. He was barely heard of again. Or, that is, he was barely heard of in England terms. A career of high promise was blighted before it had started.

It took many long, turgid years for him to get back. Had Fletcher stayed in office it is doubtful that he would ever have played for England again. When Fletcher took a view on a player, it stayed taken, so to speak. They were fallow years back at Northamptonshire, and nobody knew quite how wretched they were.

He said: "The worst thing I ever did was going back and not learning immediately from that tour because we played on bunsens [turning pitches]at Northampton all the following year. My cricket went into decline. I hated it. There then began not that long after what was a detestable state of affairs at Northampton. It was horrendous. I was probably clinically depressed.

"I remember turning up in the car park one day, putting my head on the steering wheel and thinking, 'How can I go through this again?'. I would have been more than happy to give the game up. If somebody had said come and work on a cruise ship for six months I'd have probably bitten their hand off."

This was astonishing to hear from somebody whose glass is always half full. Swann might have the habit of going on and on so that some people, from his mum down, may get the pip, but he is one of life's happy souls. Life under Kepler Wessels at Northampton, the town in which he was born, became too much. "The club wasn't the one I joined as a boy," says Swann. "Kepler did things in a different way." Fortunately, before the cruise ship came calling, Nottinghamshire did.

It took a little while for everything to fall into place, but gradually it did. He started playing better cricket, much better cricket, and there was a regime change at England. It helped, too, that Peter Moores took over from Fletcher,because Swann had always done pretty well against Sussex when Moores was the coach there.

On 30 September 2007, seven years and 249 days and 175 England one-day matches since his solitary, desultory appearance in South Africa, he was back in the England side. He looked a mature cricketer now, still with that twinkle in his eye which can be construed as alarming or heartening. But now, fairly suddenly, he has been propelled into pole position for the Test side. This is partly to do with Monty Panesar's failure to progress, which has in turn led to a slight decline. Swann, meanwhile, is burgeoning with confidence.

England had their first net of their West Indies tour on Friday, and after it he pronounced that for half an hour he had bowled better than he had in his life before. This may be true – he was turning it miles at decent pace – but it is characteristic of Swann that he should be so bouncy.

This mood, upbeat even by his remarkable standards and one to make Winnie the Pooh's pal Tigger seem a positive misery guts, has probably been provoked by what happened in India just before Christmas. Swann almost did not return to India after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, admitting that he was in the top three of doubters. He was worried both about the danger and the morals.

"I did say to myself that if you are going to get a chance to play a Test this is probably as good a time as any," he said. "That was taking all the terrorist and moral issues out of it. That was 95 per cent of the reason I went back, being completely selfish. The second we landed and I saw the euphoria at the airport that greeted us I said, 'Thank God I did go back'. It may have been for the wrong reasons but it was the right thing to do."

After bowling Pietersen twice through the gate in the nets with rippers, he was in the team. After his first over in Test cricket he was in dreamland. He had two wickets, a pair of the biggest in Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid, and India were 37 for 3. In the Second Test, he was clearly favoured by Pietersen ahead of Panesar. He went home utterly unsuspecting of what was to ensue. England may have been spreading too much gloss on it last week, but the players' surprise at the swift and messy turn of events in the new year seems to be blatantly sincere.

"I was so far behind that I spent an hour in front of the TV trying to catch up and I genuinely couldn't make head nor tail of it," said Swann. "I still don't understand what the straw was that broke the camel's back, although I knew Peter and Kevin were not singing from the same song sheet. In the week that followed, the funniest thing was reading in the papers who your mates are.

"It is a strange situation. But there are no factions or rifts. If there is, it is certainly beyond me. There are obviously people you get on better with. There are guys in the team I don't go out to dinner with, not because I don't like them, but because we're not mates. There are guys I spend all my time on tour with because they help get you through it."

In case anybody is minded to think differently, Swann is serious about being a cricketer and being a genuine off-spinning, slip-fielding all-rounder."I don't go along with the idea that finger-spin is a dying art," he said. "If it was, I'd have stopped doing it. It became unfashionable for a while because everyone was searching for wrist-spinners, but there's no two ways about it, if you bowl it properlyand it's doing something, you canget good players out. Things arechanging for finger-spinners again."

Swann's great virtue is that he gives the ball a mighty tweak, and at non-turning Trent Bridge he has begun mastering the rudiments of drift and pace. But it is his ability in other directions that may persuade the selectors that he can be the Ashley Giles of his day.

He gets on with the new captain. Indeed, they were slipping partners in India. Swann likes fielding in the position because there is usually somebody else to chat with and he likes to chat incessantly ("95 per cent of my discussions are me doing the talking") and in Mohali he and Strauss spent an amusing half-hour trying to list the top 10 public schools in England. "He had his list and obviously he went to Radley, which everyone knows is an absolute dump. At one point he said to me, 'Swann, you're just a buffoon', and the very fact that he uses the word buffoon makes you fall in love with him because he's such a public schoolboy, such a toff." Swann could go far in the new regime.

Life and times

Name: Graeme Peter Swann.

Born: 24 March 1979, Northampton.

Height: 6ft.

Nickname: Chin.

First-class career: Played for Northants from 1998 to 2004, then joined Notts in 2005, when they won the County Championship

England vital statistics

2 Test matches:

Inns/NO/Runs/HS/Avge

3/0/11/7/3.66

Overs/Runs/Wkts/BB/Avge

100.3/316/8/3-122/39.50

15 One-Day Internationals:

Inns/NO/Runs/HS/Avge

11/1/146/34/14.60

Overs/Runs/Wkts/BB/Avge

108/511/18/4-34/28.38

Fascinating facts: On England's tour to South Africa in 1999-2000, he missed the team bus after oversleeping, earning the wrath of Duncan Fletcher. His older brother Alec is a batsman who played for Northants and Lancashire.

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