The last ball bowled by Graeme Swann in Test cricket went sailing into the air as if it would never stop. Its direction was that spot on the field known to professionals as wide long-on and to everyone else as cow corner.
Earlier in the over which was to be his swan song, he had been pummelled for 4, 6 and 6 – 22 runs in all from the vicious, whirring blade of Shane Watson who was wielding the bat like a brutal, but perfectly sane axeman. It was time to bring a distinguished career to an end before things became really silly.
An Ashes tour which had started with such abundant promise for England was left in further disarray by his unprecedented mid-series announcement yesterday. Jonathan Trott, the long-serving No 3, has already departed from the squad with a stress-related illness. Now Swann has retired with two Tests still to play, effectively bludgeoned out of the game and recognising that his powers were too far on the wane to continue.
No-one should be surprised if others in this squad follow him shortly. If England’s management were unsure whether the moment for rebuilding had come they should be certain now that it has. They are fooling themselves if they pursue any other cosmetic course of action. Cracks are appearing and widening.
Swann had already turned his mind to thoughts of retirement before the third Test match at Perth convinced him that it was no longer much fun out there. He had earmarked the home series against India this summer as the perfect point of departure but events in this Ashes series conspired against him.
Seven wickets at 80 runs each do not do justice to a Test career which began later than it ought to have done but went further than anybody thought possible. In five years, Swann became indispensable to England and became the country’s most prodigious off-spinner. His final tally of 255 Test wickets was 62 more than Jim Laker, who operated more than 50 years ago.
Reflecting on it on Sunday, Swann was genuinely nonplussed that he had achieved so much. Since he began spectacularly by taking two wickets in his first over, in Chennai, in December 2008 no-one has taken more than his 255 wickets in Tests.
This was the kid who was first picked for an England tour at the age of 20 in 2000 when he was patently not ready and found in Duncan Fletcher a coach who brooked no nonsense and never forgave his youthful antics. Had Fletcher stayed as England coach a moment longer, Swann might have taken none of those 255 wickets.
“I can scarcely believe it,” Swann said. “If someone could have placed me here back then and said what do you think you would be bowing out with, I’d have said 30 Test wickets and 50 in one-dayers, with a handful more missing the bus tour antics.
“So to sit here and have played 60 Tests and however many one-dayers and taken the wickets I have and been involved in the teams I have, I can scarcely believe it. I feel like a lottery winner, I feel ridiculous. Some people playing the game at the minute have no idea how far up their own backsides they are and it will bite them on the arse one day and when it does I hope they look back and are embarrassed about how they carry on. No names.”
The clutch of reporters listening to him all had a decent stab at who he might mean. There was probably unanimity. Swann was and is a thoroughly contemporary man in his sense of irony but a throwback as a bowler.
As a right-handed finger spinner he was fighting both history and modernity. Although Laker’s 193 wickets had made him one of the great off-spinners, most of the slow bowlers to have taken 100 Test wickets for England were of the slow left arm variety, turning the ball away from the right-handed bat.
In the late 20th and early 21st century off-spinners were becoming defunct. Apart from his natural cunning as a bowler, Swann was helped by two changes: the number of left-handed batsmen in present big cricket and the advent of technology which made it more likely that umpires would uphold lbw appeals. Of his 255 wickets, 70 were lbw, compared to Laker’s 32 from 193, 121 of his victims were left-handers whereas Laker with many fewer of them to bowl at managed only 31 left-handers.
It is one reason why Australia packed their batting order with right-handers in this series and adopted the deliberate policy of coming at Swann hard, hitting him with the spin. They took 20 sixes off him in three Tests.
He found gradually that he had no answer and the feeling must have been dreadful. The old tricks no longer worked and the right elbow which had been subject to several bouts of surgery was no longer functioning properly.
“I took 26 wickets in the Ashes last summer but truth be told I don’t think I bowled that well,” he said. “At the back end of the Trent Bridge Test I could hardly spin a ball on a five-day old pitch. I just knew deep down that I wasn’t the bowler I was a couple of years ago.
“Every game I’d think: ‘Great, it’s back again’ but with more overs and fatigue the elbow would start to let me down. Part of me wishes that I had seen what was coming and quit after the Oval Test match this year but I would never have forgiven myself.”
To go now is still a huge call for him to make and it was no surprise when he revealed that Andy Flower, England’s coach, had tried to persuade him to stay at least until the end of the series. Swann made no apologies for passing on the baton to Monty Panesar, who is three years younger and whose place in the team Swann took. This could be the renaissance of Panesar’s career. Given the punishment Swann was receiving, he might have played at Melbourne in any case.
“To carry on playing would be completely the wrong thing for the team,” Swann said. “If you are playing for the wrong reasons you are not helping anybody. If I played in this Boxing Day Test and the Sydney Test it would be to experience another Boxing Day Test and Sydney Test and go out waving to the Barmy Army as I walked off.
“That sort of player doesn’t deserve to be in the team. You don’t build teams around guys like that. The best thing for this team is to start working out now how they are going to rebuild and win in the future and having me around for two more games is not going to do that.”
Beyond the cheeky chappy persona there was a tough, skilful cricketer who could be harsh with colleagues misfielding his bowling. There were several moments in the last five years when it seemed that batsmen were coming to get him but he always came up with an answer. Until now.
Swann has graced both the game and a superb England team which he helped to win three Ashes series, a Twenty20 World Cup and make the best Test side in the world. It may be sad that it has had to end like this but end it had to sometime soon.
He said: “When I went past Jim Laker, my Mum phoned me up and she was almost in tears as Jim Laker was her Dad’s favourite bowler and I only knew Grandad Les until I was seven or eight. My Mum knew nothing about cricket but she always heard him mention Laker and she could not believe I’d gone past him. I couldn’t believe it either as I didn’t know how many wickets he had taken. I feel very humbled to have done that.
“I went past Brian Statham the other day, and there are stands named after him. Things like that make you pinch yourself and make you wonder how it has all been possible in such a short period of time. I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve achieved. I still think there has been some mystical force that has helped me along the way because surely it is not as easy as that.” If it was never easy, it was usually fun. Swann’s departure is the end of something big.
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