In the great Ashes countdown one man is now mentioned above all if England really are to win. Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for Graeme Swann. It is not yet two years since he first played a Test match but he has become the world's No 1 spin bowler, not only in the official rankings but where it truly counts, in the batsmen's minds. He is also a Jack the Lad (less so, he insists, since getting married earlier this year) and king of Twitter. Indeed he tweets as much as he spins.
Swann likes to act the goat, an amusing man and cheeky chappy, but it would be a grave mistake to underestimate him. He is the class joker and a class act, as he reminded us again in England's opening match of this seminal tour.
There was little in the pitch for him at the Waca in Perth, a hard surface, which might as well have been glass, and no turn. But Swann, through intriguing variation and patience, took five wickets in the match against Western Australia including four in the second innings.
It merely raised his stock some more. Despite the poor history of off-spin bowlers in Australia, not least of the English variety, the Aussies suspect now that he is coming to get them. He appears to be at ease with his elevated status and the weight of expectation.
"I think there probably is a heightened sense of expectation but I am quite happy with that because I like to be a central figure in anything I do, and it shows the fact I have bowled well for a couple of years," he said yesterday as England prepared to leave for Adelaide.
"I don't want to be a bit-part player and I am happy to be where I am. As with any Ashes there is a certain amount of hype and media build-up and because I have taken wickets the last two years I read that I am the key to the Ashes, we cannot win unless I get 40 wickets. I think it's tripe personally.
"The most important thing is that we get big runs because we're going to play on five fantastic wickets, or four anyway, and one we don't know about. If we don't get big runs we could have Shane Warne, Malcolm Marshall and Glenn McGrath bowling for us and we won't win. It's a tired old cliché but if we don't perform well as a team then we haven't got a prayer."
He is right, of course. If England do not score sufficient runs – and that means regular totals above 400 – Swann will not have anything to aim at. It was the same when Warne was strutting his stuff for Australia for 15 years. Generally he was able to do so because there was a mountain of runs in the other column which imposed additional stress on batsmen who could not simply survive.
It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that, as Warne and Abdul Qadir together revived the art of leg-spin bowling, Swann has resuscitated finger-spin bowling. True, there have been quasi-purveyors like Muttiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh but the truth is they fall into a category of their own (ie a bleedin' mystery).
The breed of the conventional off-spinner was all but extinct at international level and England had, as a general rule, frequently preferred left-arm finger spinners down the years. Before Swann annexed the spinner's place in the side, Monty Panesar had played 39 Tests, and before him it was Ashley Giles for 54.
There has not been a regular off-breaker like Swann since John Emburey. Only five in English cricket history have taken more wickets than Swann's 113 and only the great Jim Laker, who is the leader of that particular pack with 197, and took a wicket every 62 balls, comes anywhere near Swann's wonderful career strike rate of a wicket every 54 balls.
Swann has undoubtedly been helped by the essential change in the interpretation of the lbw law. For a century and more, umpires were notoriously difficult to satisfy. Batsmen could play on the front, sweep, get away with murder and be quite safe.
Not now. There has been both a change in the umpiring mindset, the advent of sophisticated slow motion replay and the umpire review system, at last adopted more or less uniformly. What came first, the chicken or the egg, hardly matters.
"The review system has changed things," said Swann. "I think it has been the biggest single factor in spin's rise over the last couple of years because it used to be so easy for left-handers to stick their leg down the middle, get rapped on the pad and get away with it. Indeed, it seems it still is that easy if you don't have the review system working; so I am very happy that it is around in the Ashes – they have a few left-handers – if it brings a few genuine dismissals that were turned down years ago."
The upshot is that of Swann's 113 Test victims 38, or 34 per cent, have come from lbw decisions. Compare that to Laker's 32 or 17 per cent. But do not suppose these are cheap wickets. Swann works out batsmen and circumstances quickly. He knows when to attack and defend and his lines are constant.
In Australia he will need all his nous because many an English finger spinner, arriving on a paean of praise, has been buried here. Only Geoff Miller, the present chairman of selectors who performed admirably against a weakened Australia in 1978-79 and Fred Titmus, who bowled well in 1965-66, have taken more than 20 wickets in a series.
"I think it is going to be very similar bowling here to South Africa last year," said Swann. "It is obviously going to be very different from England because the pitches and conditions are so different and the ball is so different. I am more than happy to bowl in a defensive role. I'm going to have to in the first innings because on a good wicket unless you have got 11 clowns against you you're not able to get everyone round the bat and attack as you might like.
"You have to find your optimum pace on any pitch and that's the trick when you get to any ground to discover that as quickly as possible."
Good judges, of whom Warne can be considered one, have all been queueing up to note how effective Swann is. Warne indeed likened him to David Hasselhof, once the beefcake star of the TV series Baywatch, in which he showed his pecs and Pamela Anderson flaunted other parts of her body. The comparison appears to have bemused even Swann.
"You certainly haven't seen me with my top off," he said with that lovely sardonic air he has. "Maybe it's that when I put my orange bathers on and walk along the beach I am surrounded by a plethora of hot women, but those days are behind me now because I am happily married."
He seems relaxed about the serious prospect that Australia will target him as the sole slow bowler on what will mostly be lovely batting pitches. There is a quiet belief (at odds with his outgoing personality) that he will cope.
"We've got pretty dense files on how they all bat and how they all bowl and backroom staff to do all that for us," he said. "I have certainly got a plan A, B and C for all of their players. You know exactly where certain players are going to try to hit you and when they'll try to hit you."
Fame has come easily to him because he spent 10 years developing as a cricketer after his first tour as a 20-year-old, when he left the then coach Duncan Fletcher distinctly unimpressed. Fletcher likes to be a loyal friend but he is an equally fervent enemy.
Swann ain't about to muck it up. But he has a sense of perspective about it too. No sooner had he said yesterday that he liked being recognised at airports when two years ago it was the other players. Yet two hours later he tweeted: "Walking through Perth airport, everyone staring at me. Only when i got to the lounge did I realise why. Flies wide open, the goods on show." And then added: "Good job I had some reg grundies on."
But Swann the cricketer is different from Swann the knockabout. "There is only a danger if you're daft enough to play up to it. I know exactly how I am going to behave on a cricket field because there is a method I discovered about five years ago for getting through a day's fielding. It's made cricket a hell of a lot more enjoyable so I won't be changing it."
Swann has matured, not changed, and there is a difference. England should not change him for the world.
How Swann compares
Test matches, since 1 January 2009:
G P Swann (England) 105
M G Johnson (Australia) 92
J M Anderson (England) 80
S C J Broad (England) 71
D W Steyn (South Africa) 61
Spinners: most wickets
G P Swann 105
Harbhajan Singh (India) 55
N M Hauritz (Australia) 50
Shakib Al Hasan (Bangladesh) 45
DL Vettori (New Zealand) 45
G P Swann 25.57
Shakib Al Hasan 33
Rangana Herath (Sri Lanka) 36.34
Saeed Ajmal (Pakistan) 37.13
NM Hauritz 37.34
Best strike rate
G P Swann 52.5
Danish Kaneria (Pakistan) 65.9
Shakib al Hasan 67.7
Nathan Hauritz 69.6
Rangana Herath 70.8
Five-wickets in an innings
G P Swann 9
Rangana Herath 4
SJ Benn (West Indies) 3
Danish Kaneria 3
Shakib al Hasan 3
Best economy rate
D L Vettori 2.62
S J Benn 2.8
Harbhajan Singh 2.8
Saeed Ajmal 2.81
PP Ojha (India) 2.83
PL Harris (South Africa) 2.85
Shakib Al Hasan 2.92
G P Swann 2.92
Average wickets per Test
G P Swann 4.77
Shakib al Hasan 4.50
Rangana Herath 4.38
Danish Kaneria 4.10
Harbhajan Singh 3.93
Countdown to the Ashes
16 The highest number of wickets taken by an Australian in an Ashes Test match. Seam bowler Robert "Bob" Massie took 16 for 137 on his debut at Lord's in 1972 as Australia won by eight wickets; the tour itself ended with two wins apiece.Reuse content