The Ashes are almost upon us. For the next six weeks – and probably for the four months beyond that – they will never leave. Anybody who doubts the effect and status of this great sporting contest should have heard Graeme Swann on Monday, 48 hours before the start of the 327th Test match between England and Australia.
“If we do well in six weeks’ time and you get swept up in the euphoria and you might end up with MBEs,” he said. “No hang on, half our team have got MBEs already, knighthoods let us say, let’s dream big. Yeah, why not, we win 5-0, I take 50 wickets I get knighted, PM in five years’ time.”
Swann was perhaps veering crazily into the wilder shores of what might happen in the first of the two back-to back Ashes series that will be played by early January. But he was slightly more restrained in assessing what it means to a player who has already appeared in two Ashes-winning series. Do not imagine that it palls.
“If anything it means more,” he said. “The more cricket you play that isn’t Ashes cricket, the more you yearn for Ashes cricket. Test cricket for England anywhere in the world is magnificent but there’s just something special about the Ashes.
“We were never banned from talking about it or thinking about it but we were encouraged to put it on the back-burner and wait till this week but I have been thinking about this for months now. I was lying in my bedroom in America after the elbow operation there two months ago and all I was thinking was that this had better be right and firing in time for the first Test match at Trent Bridge.”
England have rarely been more firmly favoured to win an Ashes series than this one, though it is always worth bearing in mind what happened in 1958-59 and 1989 when they were heavily fancied and crushed 4-0 on both occasions. The weight of expectation is something they must resist at all costs, Swann reflected. “It can bite you on the backside fairly quickly this game,” he said.
“We’re not going into this game viewing the Australians as anything other than a very difficult team to beat despite recent results in India. Despite what they might say we’re not viewing them as a pushover at all.”
Swann is expected to be a significant factor throughout and dry conditions, exacerbated by modern drainage, for the first Test of the series may encourage spin earlier than usual. However, he has had a quiet time of it at Trent Bridge both for England and Nottinghamshire.
In 37 first-class matches at the ground, he has never taken more than four wickets in an innings and his three Test matches there have yielded three wickets for 195 runs. Of the 33 grounds on which he has now played Test cricket it is his second least productive. Somewhere has to occupy that place in the list but it is not usually a player’s home turf.
Despite the reluctance of pitches at Trent Bridge to turn he is mildly optimistic that the dry conditions will help. But, for others, there is clearly some concern about the state of the pitch with the hover cover remaining in place above the business area on Monday to try to preserve what moisture may still be there.
The presence of Mitchell Starc, the Australia left-arm fast bowler, also offers Swann some hope that the resultant rough, “or whoever can kick up a bit of dust,” may also provide encouragement. But Swann has played 15 first-class matches at Trent Bridge with the former England left-arm swing bowler Ryan Sidebottom and taken 24 wickets at almost 40 runs each. Swann pointed out that he had never taken a wicket at Headingley until playing against New Zealand there recently when he took 10 for 132 in the match. “So I don’t really think ‘Christ I’ve not done well here before’. I’ve bowled well here for Notts.”
The nation, of course, is now expecting an England triumph in the wake of the success of the British and Irish Lions in Sydney and Andy Murray at Wimbledon and the feelgood factor was discernible around the ground yesterday, at least among onlookers.
Swann, having made a tilt to be premier, was more grounded. “Someone asked me earlier whether that makes it more important that we win this game, as if we wouldn’t have bothered trying if Andy Murray had got knocked out yesterday,” he said. “We will be desperate to win this Ashes. As a supporter I am a huge fan of everything England or Britain does. If I wasn’t playing in this series I would be standing in a pub come Wednesday afternoon for six weeks solid cheering on England. Hopefully we can provide a lot of people with a lot of reasons to get very drunk.”