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Time for Swann to turn on the style

England's premier slow bowler is relishing his battle with Saeed Ajmal and confident he can spin his side to glory

In so many ways, Graeme Swann has achieved all that he could have expected. He has already played 36 Tests when he might easily have played none, he has taken 153 wickets – behind only Jim Laker among English off-spinners – and he has been ranked as the world's leading spin bowler for more than a year.

Yet the year ahead might tell us a little more about Swann's place in the great scheme of things. At the end of it, comparisons with Laker might seem more valid, and if matters go really well he might be in pursuit of Derek Underwood's tally of 297 Test wickets, still the highest by an English spinner.

Swann had a quiet summer on pitches designed for England's fast men. The ball barely turned until he reached The Oval and did the business by bowling out India in the second innings. It was a matter for relief as much as exultation.

But now his time has come again. Apart from the series against Pakistan, which starts on Tuesday, England have Tests to play this year in Sri Lanka and India. Swann's services will not only be required, if England are to prevail he must deliver. Swann, as his laddish wont, made light of the challenge yesterday.

"Yes it's a big year coming up, but like I said in the summer it's nice to have a holiday in the home summer when Jimmy Anderson is bowling like he did last year," said Swann. "You start to feel a bit hollow when the victories have taken place and you have had no real part of them.

"You know me, I like to be the centre of attention and like the plaudits, so any time I am playing and the ball is going to turn it makes me a lot more excited. If I know I have to do a holding role for five days I'm happy to do that. Let's face it, if you are a racing driver you want to win the race, you don't want to help your team-mate do it."

It would be risible to be too harsh on Swann's role last summer. When the pitch was in his favour he did what was required, as those nine wickets at The Oval demonstrated. But there was just the suspicion, albeit on unhelpful surfaces, that he was not the bowler who burst on to the international scene with such captivating style. India, when they batted atall, came at him in three of the Tests. Swann seems to relish the responsibility that is about to be his.

"That is your lot as a spinner," he said. "If as a spin bowler you get worried about bowling last you are probably doing the wrong thing. That is the time to enjoy yourself, because more often than not you are on a pitch that is going to help you."

He is content to be over the injury scare that briefly affected him last week, when he felt tightness in his quadriceps. "I am 32 and feeling it," he said. "I was all doom and gloom after the first warm-up game. I ruptured it playing rugby back in my Corinthian days and there was a lot of scar tissue. When I went for the MRI scan I saw this whole mess and my diagnosis wasn't the same as the doctor's, who said it was fairly normal."

The big issue in the next three weeks, and Swann can hardly dodge it, is his clash with Saeed Ajmal, the Pakistani off-spinner. Whoever wins it may well win the series for his side. Swann remains the leading spinner in the ICC rankings, but Ajmal had a splendid 2011, taking 50 wickets at 23.86 in eight matches, more than anyone else in the world, and looked like a bowler coming into his own. The talk all last week was of how many varieties of ball he now has. Swann will not be lured down that line.

"The fact that he has had a very good 12 months for Pakistan and I have had a good couple of years for England is an obvious line to go down," he said. "I think it's going to be important to the outcome of the series but I don't think it's going to be a major factor – it's a nice sideshow. I will go back to what I said before the Ashes – the team that gets 450-500 and allows the off-spinner to do his role will do well, and I'm pretty confident we are going to do that."

But then there is always the matter of Ajmal's apparently lethal variations, now buttressed by a new mystery ball, the "teesra". To which Swann said: "I always get on with the opposition spinners and Ajmal is no different – he's a good fellow.

"He is different to me in that he manages to get one to go the other way – by hook or by crook. He is a canny lad and we spoke yesterday and had a laugh about his mystery ball. It was only going to be a matter of time before someone took on Shane Warne's mantle. I'm looking forward to seeing it, as I'm sure he is!"

England can retain the title of the world's top side even in defeat by Pakistan. But that is not their intention, and it is not Swann's. "Obviously the hunters have become the hunted now and I think it's an interesting challenge," he said. It's something that we've got to relish because we've worked so hard to be No 1 we can't just go, 'Oh shit I wish we were No 2 again', the pressure would be off then. We've got to revel in being No 1 and try and stay there for a decade or so. So people will believe us in 20 years' time." Believing them in three weeks' time will be a good start.