Swann ready to fly again after his crash course

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For three or four fascinating seasons some sound judges in English cricket have held their breath, wondering if they were witnessing the phenom-enon of a Swann becoming an ugly duckling. It has occasionally been a painful process to observe, but evidence is now mounting that it has been happily reversed.

There should be an early chance to see how much in the seasonal curtain-raiser at Lord's between MCC and the champions, Warwickshire, on Friday.

Graeme Swann, who is in the MCC squad, glided on to the professional scene. He was smooth, confident, gifted and handsomely appointed as both a swashbuckling batsman and an off-spin bowler who gave it a rip. He also knew, in an engagingly positive manner, how good he was. At 20 he was picked in an England Test squad against New Zealand at The Oval, and though he was left out on the morning of the match, he went on tour to South Africa.

The following winter he had a reasonably successful England A tour as a replacement, and the winter after that he was among the first intake at the National Academy.

And since then, not much. He has scored a few runs and taken a few wickets for Northamptonshire, but not many, not enough.

Figures are not everything, which is just as well, since Swann's have barely made a ripple on the pond. But there was still something there, a brio about the way he played, the ability to turn a match. The people who matter thankfully did not forget. Maybe they were looking for signs of growing maturity as a player and in his character. He was picked again for a revamped Academy last autumn.

"You know when you are being watched, and I had that inescapable feeling last summer," Swann said. "I also put in a couple of good displays in televised matches, which never does any harm, and then it emerged that they were changing the criteria for the Academy slightly. Instead of selecting just promising young players, as they did when I was first in, they were now going for players who were a bit more experienced, more an A squad. I saw the Academy again as a route into the England side."

He performed adequately in Sri Lanka these past few weeks. He bowled England to victory with 5 for 79 in the second innings of the first A Test, and almost batted them to it in the second with a dashing 71 in the second innings. When he miscued to cover with the hard work done, the remorse was genuine.

Since Swann is an off-break bowler, and as finger spinners are having a rough time in international cricket that may be interminable, he may not fulfil the early forecasts that he would play in 40 Test matches. But a substantial one-day career should not be ruled out. He has now left Northamptonshire, which had perhaps become something of a comfort zone, for Nottinghamshire. A big season looms.

Swann is certainly testimony to the fact that cricketers need time to mature as professionals. This has been seen lately with Ian Bell, the captain of the recent A tour, who was deliberately and sensibly not fast-tracked into international cricket despite the clamour. It was also witnessed in Sri Lanka with Owais Shah, another wonder kid who had found the adult going tough.

Shah, who had a good summer in 2004, played immaculately on Sri Lanka's slow, turning pitches. His footwork was assured, his shot-making inventive. He joined the heartening queue of batsmen looking for a middle-order place in the full England team, and with the spinning pitches of Pakistan and India beckoning next winter he might not be searching for other work.

John Emburey, the former England spinner and Middlesex coach, has worked extensively with Swann, whom he coached at the Bombay spin clinic in the winter, and Shah.

"Graeme is a bloody good cricketer who has had time to mature," he said. "Playing on the flatter pitches at Trent Bridge should help him. He has the control, he knows what he wants to do with the ball, and if he can string a few scores together he has every chance of going further. He's also the sort of character you want in a dressing room.

"As for Owais, he also knows his game better. He is a match-winner, and England really have to look at finding him a place in the one-day side. He will be a better player still by the 2007 World Cup. In the case of both they've gathered experience. They know their game better and how to work out the opposition."

Swann has hardly had a chance to bed in at Nottingham yet. "It's a big season, no question, and my aim is to get on the tour to Pakistan and India, where they'll need spinners," he said. "I like the feel of Nottinghamshire and I was immediately impressed with what Mick Newell, the coach, had to say. They're a big club."

There is a certain irony, given these sincere words and the fact that he has moved into the flat vacated by Kevin Pietersen, who patently did not see Nottinghamshire as a big club and took himself off to Hampshire.

Swann claims not to have consciously changed his character or his approach to the game. He thinks he has just naturally matured, as people have to if they wish to get on. But he will remain gregarious and therefore, to some more austere coaches, maddening.

His view on cricket is invigorating. "I want to play for England, I really do, and if I don't do everything possible within my power to do so I will regret it. But I will also play because it's fun to play, laughing at myself and having a laugh with others. It is a game, after all." He could still be a very fine Swann indeed.