Graeme Swann: Swann goes below the surface

The Brian Vinet Interview: The shock of seeing cricketers jailed for corruption has forced the England spinner to look beyond the 'bubble' of his own success

There is no asterisk next to Graeme Swann's name on the Lord's honours board, nor against those of Jonathan Trott and Stuart Broad, yet England's accomplished and charismatic off-spinner knows that his 5 for 62 in the fourth Test against Pakistan last summer, and his team-mates' big hundreds, will be for ever tarnished by the corruption for which three of their opponents are now serving prison sentences. "I know how hard we fought for those personal glories," he says. "It's tough to take."

All the same, Swann assumed that the spot-fixing furore was just a parochial cricketing matter until Mr Justice Cooke handed down custodial sentences earlier this month. "Until then I freely admit I was in a bit of a fantasy world," he says. "I thought the trial was about the judge banning them from playing cricket. But then they were sent to prison and I thought, 'Christ, I didn't see that coming'. It honestly hit me like a brick wall. As a sportsman, I live in a sheltered bubble. I think everything either has a direct correlation to my world or it doesn't matter. I didn't realise that what was happening mattered enough to be a criminal offence."

Swann sinks back into a plush sofa at a boutique hotel in the City of London, enjoying the welcome end of a long day spent publicising his autobiography The Breaks Are Off, which even he thinks is a daft title. He's happy with the contents, though, apart from a passage about Kevin Pietersen that he wishes he'd phrased differently. We'll come back to that, but for now let's stick with cricket's hottest topic. Now that he does appreciate how serious were the crimes of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, does he think they deserved to go to jail?

"I honestly don't know. I'm out of my depth. I'll stick by what I said in the book, which is that I don't think they should ever play cricket again, and I don't buy the theory that an 18-year-old should have more leniency than a 28-year-old. But are custodial sentences right or wrong? I don't know. I don't like Salman Butt. There are some people you can't stand the sight of, and he's one of them. But that's not because I thought he was corrupt. I have some sympathy for them because like me they lived in a bubble. Our world has stepped into the real world, which are steps no cricketer is happy to take. To be honest, it's a bit frightening."

In the book, he describes the moment, in the England dressing room, when the TV cameras focused on Amir's almost comically unsubtle no-ball to Trott and Paul Collingwood remarked, jokingly, that he had probably been paid to deliver it. There ensued a debate: could such a no-ball be bowled accidentally? The bowlers argued that it could, and that was that, until the News of the World's revelations showed that Collingwood had inadvertently been right. Nonetheless, Swann is convinced, whatever the Jeremiahs say, that corruption in cricket is not and never has been widespread.

"This 'tip of the iceberg' stuff, I can't say I agree with it. If it's as rife as people say then I'd have an inkling, but I don't know anyone in the England team who's had a dodgy approach. Even so, I'd like to think that these sentences will act as a massive wake-up call. It might just be a guy buying you a bag of peanuts at the bar and asking whether you'll bat first if you win the toss. But from now on that should set off alarm bells."

The alarm bells are silent, however, in anticipation of England's next Test series. It starts in January, and fate, always a mischief-maker, has picked Pakistan as the opposition. "But I'd be very surprised if it's anything other than a calm series," says Swann. "Neither team has anything to gain from grudges. It would be pathetic and churlish of us to go in with a gripe about it, and I'm sure they'll want to forget it and move on."

At 32, he speaks with the authority that comes with experience, maturity and confidence in his own ability. Yet when he first played for England, 12 years ago, all three were conspicuously lacking. He bowled five overs for no wickets in a one-day international in South Africa, before being taken off by captain Nasser Hussain, the man who in an Essex v Northants match two years earlier had observed that "if that Swann lad is the future of spin bowling in this country, we're fucked".

Even after his call-up for the South Africa tour, Swann's assessment of his own talent wasn't much more generous than Hussain's. "Truth be told, I was scared stupid," he recalls. "The biggest fear for any cricketer, especially at that age, is being a laughing stock. It kind of suited me that I didn't play [in any Test matches], because I assumed that Test cricket required an almost unobtainable skill level."

He also assumed that the England dressing room was by definition riven with cliques, self-interest and hostility to newcomers. Only when he returned to the team in 2007 did he realise it could be otherwise. "It had been a bit shocking, people looking after themselves and sod the results, and at the time I accepted that as the norm. But when I got back in it had changed, and I put a lot of that down to the work Hussain and [Duncan] Fletcher did."

He had also come to realise that there was no "golden elixir" needed to play Test cricket. On the other hand, nor did he anticipate his own rise and rise through the ICC rankings, which currently place him as the world's third-best Test bowler (behind Dale Steyn and James Anderson), and second-best ODI bowler. I ask him whether he takes pleasure in that lofty stature, and he chuckles. "I always said to Alastair Cook, who's one of my best mates in the team, and loves his stats, I always used to say to him: 'It's bollocks, mate, it means nothing'. But as soon as I got to No 1 in the world in one-dayers, I said: 'They're spot on, these rankings'."

Our laughter resounds around the hotel lounge; not altogether unexpectedly, Swann is sparklingly good company. "No, I've had two or three fairy-tale years," he continues, "but I don't think I'm a Muralitharan or a Warne. I think I'm good at what I do, and I'm lucky to play in an exceptional team that allows me to do it, but at the end of the day I'm an off-spinner. There's not a great deal of variation, everything I do has to be subtle. People said when I got to 100 wickets, that I'd done it as quickly as Shane Warne. But I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, partly because of the way the England team came together, and also because technology favoured me. The DRS [decision review] system meant that all of a sudden I was getting a lot of lbws that for years spinners hadn't been given."

Imagine, then, the wickets Jim Laker might have taken with recourse to DRS. Actually, Swann has. He cheerfully admits that modern-day cricket is the last thing he'll watch on television – "That's why I'd be a dreadful coach, I've not got the passion for it that good coaches have" – but give him a DVD of Botham's Ashes or even old newsreel footage of Laker's 19 for 90 and he's hooked. "It's strange. Most players now say there's no way the game was as good then, but I'm the exception, I think it was. That idea that your average county player now is better than a Test player 50 years ago, it's bollocks. If Bradman played today he'd be the best in the world. If Brian Lara had played 100 years ago, he would have been the best."

Lara, he adds, is the finest batsman he's ever bowled at, better than Sachin Tendulkar. And, notwithstanding his appreciation of bygone eras, he thinks that Warne is not only the greatest spin bowler who ever lived, but the greatest bowler. "Leg-spin is the hardest possible thing to master, but he never got the yips, he never went through a period of double bouncers or beamers. I try to talk to him as often as I can when he's here during the English summer, obviously not about the intricacies of off-spin, but about field placings, pace, deteriorating pitches. Because if I can pick his brain, why wouldn't I?"

Indeed, although his huge admiration does not extend to any desire to match Ferntree Gully's finest for longevity. "As long as I feel I can win games for England, you'll have to drag the ball out of my hand," he says. "But I won't cling on. I won't be a good 12th man, because I hate the job with a passion. The truth is that I feel I plateaued two or three years ago in terms of my skill level. After that it's about finding pockets of form."

He manifestly failed to locate them during the recent one-day whitewash by India, in which he claimed just two wickets. But even as a man whose overall one-day record is splendid, Swann considers Test cricket to be the untouchably supreme form of the game. "You get a true feeling of worth from winning a Test match that you just don't get from one-dayers," he says. "And great though it was to win the World Twenty20, compared to winning the Ashes it was an empty feeling. After it people were just saying: 'Well done, saw that, good lad'. There were no goosebump moments, whereas the Ashes, both times, was just an all-consuming joy. For days afterwards people were stopping their cars, beeping their horns."

So, can this England team, the world's top-ranked Test outfit, continue to get us beeping our horns? "I think so," he says. "Jimmy [Anderson] is the best seam bowler in world cricket, Broady is phenomenal, Tim Bresnan plays a hell of a supporting role, Steven Finn has shown he can bowl at 95mph and swing it both ways, Chris Tremlett can't even get in the team. And batting-wise you can't see why we won't keep piling on runs. Our top three are the worst to watch in the world – you know you're in trouble when Strauss is the most aesthetically pleasing of them – but they're all great players. And then you've got Kev, and Ian Bell, and Matty Prior... in fact, if I was picking a world XI I'd put Matty in at No 6 and work outwards from there. I love the way he bats, and as a keeper, standing back especially, he's unrivalled."

The coach-captain combination, he adds, completes a near-perfect package. Which nobody could have said of the Peter Moores-Kevin Pietersen combination that preceded it, not even Pietersen and Moores. In his book, Swann refers to Pietersen's occasionally histrionic mode of captaincy and tells me that he regrets the wording.

"It wasn't meant to assassinate Kevin, it was trying to emphasise the high esteem I feel for Straussy. When I say Kev is not a natural leader, I don't think anyone is, apart from two men I've played with: Stephen Fleming and Andrew Strauss. I don't think Alastair Cook is yet, I don't think I am. Some guys are born to it. They have an aura that can't be grown. And Straussy is the perfect foil for Andy Flower, who is very emotional, always bubbling just under the surface. Men like Straussy need emotion sometimes, and the guy ready to boil over needs someone to calm him down. They're a superb pairing."

A volatile character himself, how has he benefited from Strauss's man-management skills? He smiles. "In the World Cup I was ready to pull out a stump and take on the umpire in armed combat. But Straussy had a word with me and in 30 seconds I went from being enraged to appeased, standing at slip feeling like a naughty schoolboy. Not even my mum and dad can do that. But somehow, and I can't even remember what he said, Strauss can."

'The Breaks Are Off' by Graeme Swann is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20.

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