It's not often that you find an Englishman of all people, a spinner no less, find himself in an unchartered perch of being the finest exponent of his art, amongst his peers. Quite obviously, times have changed, and Graeme Swann's emergence demonstrates that very fact.
Every single time, Andrew Strauss and England are going through a dry patch, an eventless session where the on-crease batsmen seem to have their way, comfortably perched, settled and making their bucks, the captain throws the ball to his trump card, and almost unfailingly, Swann strikes. And this story of arguably the world's best spinner going around today, a story, which is quite a healthy departure from a Victorian fable that has come to define English sport over the years, but a story which cricket, in times of growing professionalism deserves to be told - the just triumph of a character with colossal self-belief, sturdily backed only by a refreshing smack of self-assuredness in one's own ability and talent.
To place Graeme Swann's gradual emergence to a context is rather important, in this case, given that spinners haven't been an integral part of England's cricketing narrative over the years, barring the Jim Lakers, the Ray Illingworths and the Derek Underwoods of the eras gone by, and somehow, that one spinner, largely anonymous who would turn up for England, would carry quality first-class credentials, but never could bridge the gap between his level and demands of international cricket.
No wonder, the Wisden in 1998 wrote this of a teenaged Swann, then a member of England's Under-19 World Cup winning squad, "The 19-year-old Swann was a refreshing presence, exuding breezy confidence while others around him appeared careworn." To his credit, he was born into a cricketing family of Northampton, the father turning up for Bedfordshire and Northumberland, while elder brother Alec, serving two counties (Northamptonshire and Lancashire) over nine years as an opening bat himself, before retiring in 2004.
And as Alec confirms to me, he wasn't the accidental spinner of the 90s, a talented batsman lost to spin-bowling, not because he loved it, but something to find your way into the setup. "Graeme was a natural spinner. Our dad used to take us to the nets, and we'd always carry our bats and balls along, and that's where he started bowling spin bowling," Alec says. That prodigious ability soon helped Graeme win a place in the age-group setup at Northants and England, and at 19, he made a rather bland entry into first-class cricket in 1998 versus Surrey, with figures of 13-1-91-1. Rather surprisingly, in a match that summer vs Leicestershire at Grace Road, batting at no.8, Graeme would score a 92 and 111 respectively to make an early name for himself. That was that, 22 wickets in his debut season at Wantage Road, and an England A call-up for the winter-tours of Zimbabwe and South Africa.
The late 90s at Wantage Road went through an interesting phase where the wicket favoured spin-bowlers, giving Graeme a handy venue to further his apprenticeship. And even historically, Northamptonshire has been home to some of cricket's best spinners - the likes of Bishen Bedi and Anil Kumble to name a few. Almost instantly, Graeme overcame the "second-season syndrome" by picking 57 wickets that would guarantee him a place in the squad for the fourth Test against the touring Kiwis, and later a ticket to South Africa, a tour which in many ways was both forgettable and important in the development of the young Swann.
In hindsight, as Alec says, "The tour (to SA) was too early for him. But importantly, it gave him a first-hand view, an eye-opener of sorts to understand the levels he had to improve to make it big at international level." So, a one-day debut later that tour and back to the rigours of county cricket it was, where the challenge-levels changed from being a one-trade bowler to picking wickets consistently and thereby assisting his natural metamorphosis. One more England A tour to West Indies and 4 seasons post-that, Swann was 175 wickets older, but not yet the complete package, the nuances of spin-bowling missing.
Alec says, "He was a pretty attacking bowler at Northamptonshire, trying to take wicket-taking deliveries all the time at the expense of control and patience." Alec Swann's observation has been seconded recently by Graeme's ex-Northants team-mate in Michael Hussey, when he was quoted saying, "He's definitely improved out of sight since I played with him at Northamptonshire. I remember he'd bowl these amazing deliveries, and then just let the pressure off with one or two bad balls an over." And sadly, his career at Northamptonshire came to an abrupt end with irrevocable differences with the then coach Kepler Wessels, known for his more straightforward approach to coaching, and it is reported, Swann almost went into clinical depression then. He quit Northamptonshire for Nottinghamshire, a move which today seems like one which turned around his career, for good.
Circa 2005. Exit Wantage Road. Enter Trent Bridge, a Test-match ground, with an atmosphere of its own, home to the Bill Voces and the Harold Larwoods of English cricket. For Graeme Swann, this was more or less, a test by itself - quite easily out of his comfort zone, given Trent Bridge's reputation as a ground traditionally assisting seamers. Mick Newell, Notts coach (then and current) tells me it was a calculated decision to rope in Swann in 2005, "We had Stuart MacGill who played for us in 2004 and the following season, we picked Stephen Fleming as our captain, and we had to then pick an English spinner, and Graeme was easily the best known spinner then." It wasn't an easy change for Graeme, much like a Championship footballer moving to a Premiership club with higher expectations and unnatural conditions.
Newell says, "Our bowling attack was easily the next closest to a Test match attack. And Graeme had a role to play for us. Bowl tightly, keep one end up, go at 2/3 runs an over on Day 1 (two wickets were a bonus) while our three seamers do the damage and come into play on Day 3/4 when the pitch suited him. " Today, this is exactly what Swann does for England, and it took the genius and the astuteness in Stephen Fleming to bring this side of Swann out at Notts. "Stephen played a big part in Swann's transformation," says Newell, before adding, "in the sense that he reined him in and brought out the defensive side to his bowling. Graeme benefitted immensely from Fleming as he learnt the art of patience and the importance of control." Two good seasons at Trent Bridge, and an England-recall from eight years of wilderness was almost inevitable. A Monty Panesar, tailing with his form for England and out of limited-overs reckoning meant Swann had a decent shot at it.
Exit Duncan Fletcher, Enter Peter Moores, and a ticket to Sri Lanka with the one-day setup. His second shot at international cricket was enough to convince himself, selectors and the Barmies at large that he belonged, returning a much mature cricketer, a much complete cricket, a well-harnessed cricketer, knowing his art in and out. A dream Test debut at Chennai ensued the following year, and I say a dream debut because of the two wickets he picked in his first over in Test cricket - Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid, both leg-before. The rest, as they say is history.
As I study Graeme Swann's career, I ask myself a pertinent question - as to what different does Swann bring to the table as compared to his peers, say Harbhajan Singh for example. The answer is pretty simple. There's no apparent magic in his bowling, no wizardry and almost reassuringly, no mystery. There's a good mix of an aggressive field setting, provided by Andrew Strauss, almost telling his ace spinner to pick wickets regardless of the runs he might concede in the process, immaculate control, the classical flight, loop and the deceiving dip, which in simple words is what spin bowling is about. Variations, yes (with no fancy sub-continental/Aussie nomenclatures) but only in speed, length and line - the bare essentials of spin-bowling. And finally, the mental strategem, whereby a spinner knows when to attack, when to retreat and when to do a job for his side, contributing to a bowler we might call a "complete spinner".
Of course, add a dash of commitment, competitiveness, confidence and belief, you get a world-class cricketer to say the least. However, his critics might walk up and say, "He's not bowled at the Sinhalese Sports Club or the Motera Stadium," a valid, pointed line of questioning, and I think, that's where his biggest challenges lie, not the least when India and Sri Lanka come visiting to England next summer. Before that, an impactful World Cup might just cut the noise for a while.
Most of us have come to know the other, rather jovial shade of Graeme Swann's character, the lovable joker-like personality coming through his twitter timeline (@swannyg66) and video-blogs from Australia. His attempt at the typical dry English humour is admirable and somewhere post-his days in whites and blue, there's a character ready to walk into Britain's rather lucrative reality television shows, a match made in heaven you'd think. If he continues his form in the Ashes and pouches a healthy haul of wickets before leaving Australian shores (something Laker failed to achieve), England would have gotten a new sporting hero. And that's that.