Monday, 23 December 2013

Swann Song

So Graeme Swann is gone from both these Ashes and the game, with only the timing of his decision much of a surprise to anyone who knows much at all about cricket and the toll that it takes on international players. Not that it's stopped the accusatory fingers from wagging, of course. "Selfish" said most of them, disregarding all of the personal sacrifices that go along with the healthy pay cheques. George Dobell was probably closest to the mark, in my mind anyway, when he said, "if he knew his form had dipped, if he knew he was no longer quite capable of reaching the standards he once did, if he knew the light had gone out, he is right to go." 

Mine is a very distant view obviously, but I don't think there is any doubt that Swann lacked the overwhelming competitive urge to continue on such a grueling tour. In that sense his decision was straightforward. He's done the yeoman's work on other tours of this kind without much complaint. The series is lost and he has the opportunity to return home for Christmas and be with his family, something he hinted at rather artlessly earlier in the week. It's a decision that no-one other than his teammates are entitled to feel let-down by. He doesn't owe the game anything at this point.

I will concede the knockers one point though; it could be argued that like Jonathan Trott (though for completely different reasons), Swann maybe shouldn't have toured in the first place. It's pretty hard to extinguish that flame though. He's an England cricketer and touring is merely what England cricketers do. Any doubts he had before England departed clearly weren't enough to bring those wheels of perpetual motion to a halt. After all, what is an English cricketer if not playing cricket for England? 

Otherwise, not many accounts so far have taken into consideration the impact of his elbow injury, which has been a constant source of frustration and set-backs and whose true impact on his bowling is probably known by few. In the wake of England's home series win it had been suggested the injury would keep him out of this series anyway. Would there have been this same sense of abandonment if he'd pulled up stumps in November? 

Swann is clearly worn out and I found one comment, his expression of pride at having represented England "for the best part of a decade," quite telling. In actual fact his stint was only six years (at Test level anyway), but rather than an inflation of his own importance, I think it says a lot about the grind of modern professional cricket and the intensity of the England program in Swann's time at the top. It probably felt like fifteen, in actual fact.

If for nothing else, Swann should be applauded for thriving at the top level of the game in one of its toughest and least-forgiving disciplines, off-spin bowling. Not many have done so for such sustained periods of excellence and with a smile on their face. For most of us, Swann's life as a cricketer is defined primarily by what he did in the international game over the last six years. What that discounts is the years of toil, heartbreak and personal crises that come with bowling spin.

Most of us outside of England didn't see much of the decade of County cricket that preceded his Test call-up. He started out with a more exuberant, bouncy, almost camp bowling action. Over time that became leaner and more focused, enabling him to attack, defend and have even the best of the world's batsmen thinking twice. 

Very few off-spin bowlers make it to international level and even fewer still make a decent fist of it. They're slogged out of the attack in club games, slogged out of nets at training and have to develop the skills of control and variation in the face of constant assault from disdainful batsmen. That Swann could be thought of as weak for retiring now pays a disservice to the courage it takes to even pursue his craft in the first place. That his success came so late is also instructive and a small lesson to selectors and fans. Patience is a virtue and spinners who can hold their nerve are worth their weight in LBWs.

It's fair to say that not every Australian "got" Swann. His dry and very British sense of humour rubbed some up the wrong way; the upturned collar and the wraparound shades as he bowled hinted at the kind of arrogance they would, ironically, applaud in one of their own; the delight he took in ribbing Aussies, which was part of his appeal. The word "character" is thrown around lightly these days, but it sums him up pretty well.

No Australian should ever forgive Swann for that fist pump when he caught Ashton Agar for 98 at Trent Bridge though. That really was awful.


  1. Good piece, Russell. People who haven't bowled offspin would find it hard to understand how someone charging at even very good balls and dispatching them back over your head can feel. Merely the chance of it, the threat that it could happen again, weighs on you before each delivery. The cumulative effect over Swann's years of toil against the best must have been profound (as it happens, he suffered this violence to his bowling perhaps more in the last three Tests than ever before).

    That said, he didn't seem to be bowling especially badly. His figures were bad, to be sure, and Panesar outbowled him at times in Adelaide, but he could still give it a rip. With more runs and longer innings from the batsmen, he might have made some potent cameos, much as Warne did in '06-07.

    1. Yeah, you're right - even when he bowled "badly" it just seemed like guys had gotten after him a bit. That last over in Test cricket wasn't a great way to go but I'm sure he's rapt with his place in the pecking order of England's bowlers.

      The developments since I wrote this post early this morning are interesting, mind you.

    2. His comments were peculiar. Despite his reputation for candour, laying into teammates just before a match doesn't seem his go.

      As an aside, it's ironic that perhaps the leading offie in the game over the last decade not to bend his elbow to some degree has retired because of a chronic elbow injury.

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