After a packed winter-schedule, which started with England retaining the Ashes in Australia and culminated in a 10-wicket defeat in the quarter-final of the ICC Cricket World Cup, to eventual losing finalists Sri Lanka, the squad finally made it home for some much needed rest before the start of the domestic summer. After their heroics down-under, England will come up against two established Test sides, as they look to show that their displays in the last 12 months are an indication of a side growing in stature, rather than a flash in the pan. One man who has grown in stature over the last couple of years is England’s Graeme Swann. Last week, Sport.co.uk caught up with the second best bowler in Test cricket to talk about his ascension, the Ashes and Andrew Strauss...
“I felt like I’d slept for a month after my solid five hours last night – it was incredible!” Graeme Swann leans back on his extended arms and smiles, looking off into the distance as he reflects on his 3 month old son, Wilfred, and his first full night’s sleep. “He’s on fire the little fella; every day is a new voyage of discovery with him.” Two-time Ashes winner, Twenty20 World Cup champion, ICC Cricketer of the Year nominee, musician, serial-tweeter and, now, father; for the class clown, it’s not a bad report card.
“If you drop a catch off me then I wish ill on you and all your family”
But for so long, Graeme Swann was dismissed as just that; someone more interested in getting laughs than wickets. Easily distracted, disruptive and a nuisance; it hardly defies belief that he didn’t endear himself to former England coach Duncan Fletcher. His first call up to the national squad came in the summer of 1999 for a Test match against New Zealand at The Oval, aged only 20. Despite missing out on the final XI, he made it onto a tour of South Africa, playing a solitary game at the end of the tour where his other notable moment was oversleeping and missing the team bus. Fletcher was not amused, and it would take Swann seven years to break back into the international fold, courtesy of Peter Moores.
Swanny challenges Amy Williams to table tennis
“I spent a fair few years just sat on the sidelines,” says Swann. “Back then my only hope was that I would get another chance and you focus all your energy on getting that chance, and then your hope is that you’ll do your best when it comes about.”
As it stands, Swann has 128 wickets in 29 Tests, 72 in 51 ODIs and 32 in 22 T20Is at an average of 28.10, 24.81 and 15.43 respectively. “OK I didn’t expect it to go as well as it has done for the last couple of years; I’ve been delighted by what has happened so far.” He does well to downplay his achievements, but it has been quite the turnaround from a player who had been very close to giving the game up altogether.
Disillusioned with cricket during his seven-year stint in international cricket exile - better known at the time as the county championship- Swann decided to swap the home comforts of Northants for Nottinghamshire, and his cricket started to move in the right direction. Many pointed to a change of mind-set; a more professional approach from someone who was starting to become aware of his potential.
“People seem to think my approach to cricket has become more serious but it’s just the case that I’m enjoying it more than I ever have done,” he says. “I love pissing about off the field and having a laugh, but I’m ultra-competitive when I’m on it. I’m the world’s worst person to mis-field off because I will hate your guts. If you drop a catch off me then I wish ill on you and all your family! It’s a heat of the moment thing, and I’m desperate to win every game of cricket I play.”
Those watching England’s World Cup group-stage loss to Bangladesh witnessed an example of such heat of the moment desperation. Frustrated by his inability to effectively grip a dew soaked ball, his temper boiled over as he encountered similar difficulties with the second new ball, during the second innings of the match in Chittagong. Swann was involved in a heated exchange with umpire Darryl Harper, only to apologise an over later after calming down. While the apology was accepted, the spinner was fined 10% of his match fee.
“Players can suffer from being over exerted by a relentless schedule.”
Perhaps it was an indication of mental fatigue catching up with him. After spending three months in Australia for the 2010/2011 Ashes series and the seven ODIs that followed, the majority of England players had only two days back home, before flying off to the World Cup in the sub-continent. Swann was given an extended leave to be by his wife’s side for the birth of his child, but still feels that the recuperation period was inadequate.
“The gap between the Ashes and the World Cup wasn’t big enough for both England and Australia,” says the 31 year old. “It is imperative that there is more of a gap for rest and recuperation before going into another big tournament. The standard of cricket will suffer if the schedule doesn’t change, and luckily it looks like they are considering it, what with the next Ashes in Australia being moved a year forward. You only need to look at Stuart Broad to see how players can suffer from being over exerted by a relentless schedule.”
Talk moves on to the Ashes and Swann sits up, as a wry smile comes across his face. “I’m still a bit surprised at just how well we played.”
Touted as the major difference between the two sides, Swann returned modest figures (by his standards) of 15 wickets at an average of 39.80 but played an important part in England’s victory in Adelaide with a match-winning five-wicket haul and then held up an end at Melbourne as England’s seamers finished the Australians off. A historic 3-1 Ashes away win seems a distant memory given the amount of cricket that has been played since Andrew Strauss’ men iced the cake with victory in Sydney on 7th January.
“It would have been nice if we had flown home for a couple of weeks after that Ashes win, had a break and actually savoured that win, but that’s just how it is these days,” reflects Swann. “But for all the players who were there, I don’t think you could take anything away from any of them. A first Ashes away win in 20-odd years; it is hard to comprehend, even now that the dust has settled. I think some of the gloss may have been taken off the win for some people after the ODIs and the World Cup. But not in my head.”
“Andrew Strauss is the best captain in England.”
This domestic summer sees England play host to Sri Lanka and India, with the 1st Test against Sri Lanka taking place on 26th May. While Andrew Strauss will be leading his side out in Cardiff, there is a possibility that it may be the only format that he does so. Following England’s haphazard scrambling to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, speculation has been rife about Strauss’ future as one day captain, with sections of the media calling for a change of direction. However Swann feels a change would be a mistake.
Showing great technique...
“Andrew Strauss is the best captain in England,” he says. “His form has gone through the roof since he has been captain, in both forms of the game. He is a great asset to the side and I find it strange that people question his leadership when they have seen how things have been under him and Andy Flower in the last 18 months. ‘Straussy’ was born to lead and he has the respect of everyone in the changing room.”
Current favourites for future ODI captain include one-time occupant Kevin Pietersen, as well as fellow nationalised South African Jonathan Trott. Given his pseudo captaincy-apprenticeship, the smart money may be on Alistair Cook to take the reins of the one day side as the ECB build up his credentials to eventually step into the role of Test captain. But what about Graeme Swann?
“It’s not something I have ever thought about; people have asked me a couple of times if I would consider doing it,” he says. “That being said, of course I would do it if I was asked. I’ll be honest; I would be incredibly surprised if anyone did ask me. I think I’m seen as a good team-player to have – someone who can provide jollity and banter to the side. But I am not sure I’m viewed as someone who has the right attitude to lead the national side. Probably a bit too light-hearted!
“You never know, though. I’m a natural leader; someone from the army told me that one time. That’s a glowing endorsement!”
Few can question Swann’s commitment to the cause; even fewer can question his ability. Sure, he’s an outsider, but he has proved in the past, with his bowling and field placings, that he is both tactically astute and pro-active; the latter in particular being something he has over Strauss. Though it is hard not to agree with Swann’s own sentiment that he may be a tad too jovial to be entrusted with captaincy, despite his willingness to do the job if called upon, and referee from the Sandhurst, of course.
That being said this is a man who, when asked by Duncan Fletcher, in one of their first interactions, where he saw himself in five years time, replied, "I am going to be the best spin bowler in the world."
Who’s laughing now?
Sport.co.uk caught up with Graeme Swann at the Kinect Sports Superstars interactive game for Xbox 360 event in London. For further information please visit www.xbox.com/kinectsports