These are harrowing times for Graeme Swann. He officially left the England team today, his tour of New Zealand cut short by a chronic elbow injury which worsened dramatically almost overnight. There is no certainty that he will return.
The sanctioned prognosis is optimistic. Swann, the most prodigious of all English off-spin bowlers, will have surgery in the US shortly and is expected to return to cricket early in the summer. It is intended that he play in the Champions Trophy in England in June and, if not, then in the two Ashes series which follow in this epic year for English cricket. He was bullish enough to suggest that he might, who knows, make the home Test series against New Zealand, since they are one of only two countries against which he has not played a Test, the other being Zimbabwe.
Swann, indeed, was in characteristic mood in describing the injury, the surgery and the rehabilitation. After the opening day of England's Test series against New Zealand was washed out without a ball bowled, he talked of being confined to the attic at home like some latter-day Bertha Rochester and not allowed out until the whole thing was done, with his two-year-old Wilf running about downstairs.
But between the lines there was plenty worrying him, above all that his career, which burgeoned late and then entered the stratosphere where it has remained for four years, may be over. It would be damnably cruel for him and English cricket and maybe its dreams of a triumphant march to glory in 2013. Swann has already had one operation on the elbow soon after he broke into the England team.
Since then, as he revealed: "I have struggled intermittently with the elbow for about four years, but it never really manifested itself into a dire predicament for me. Then at Queenstown the other day just before the game I was starting to feel an unusual pain that I hadn't felt since before the last operation. That just rapidly got worse during that game."
The results of scans he had when the squad reached Dunedin were sent to Professor Shawn W O'Driscoll at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and he immediately advised further surgery. This seems to be of a routine nature. Swann talked of the elbow being cleaned out, with floating bone fragments removed as if it were a carpet being cleaned.
But the fact that O'Driscoll, acknowledged as the world's leading authority on dodgy elbows and shoulders in athletes from javelin throwers to baseball pitchers, advised immediate surgery implies that the sort of stuff floating about near the surface of Swann's elbow is more often seen in the murky depths of oceans.
Swann is a deeply reluctant visitor to the surgeon's table. He had hoped, he said, to go through the rest of his career without going under the knife again. "I will be relieved once it is done but I am a bit apprehensive at the minute because I don't like general anaesthetics," he said.
England chose not to divulge how serious the pain was, which may show how serious it is. On the eve of the match, their captain, Alastair Cook, had said he expected to pick the side from a full squad. But by then Swann had already been examined and O'Driscoll was called in.
Only at the toss this morning – which Cook lost, allowing the Kiwis to choose to bowl – did it emerge that Swann would not play any part in the match or the series. Monty Panesar replaced him in the starting XI for the match and James Tredwell of Kent is flying out to join the squad.
Swann at least has complete trust in O'Driscoll, a Canadian who studied in Wales for three years in the early 1970s. O'Driscoll carried out the recent surgery on the England fast bowler Tim Bresnan's troublesome elbow.
"It doesn't seem anywhere near as dire as the last time round when it was like a bomb had gone off in there," said Swann. "I'm not going to say I will be back but I am very buoyed by the success of the last operation I had and I've got every faith in the surgeon because he's the world leader in it."
Swann has taken 208 Test wickets for England since making a belated debut four months short of his 30th birthday. Never was he better than in India late last year when he took 20 wickets in the four-match series at 24.75 runs each and displayed craftiness, guile and the ability to spin the ball. The snap, he said, dramatically disappeared in Queenstown last weekend, which is mildly ironic since it is the adventure sports capital of the world.
Swann will be 34 in a few days and he will spend his birthday and the weeks beyond wondering if the snap will ever return.