Sachin Tendulkar remains an exception in our time and despite his unassuming claims to the contrary we assume that he is larger than the game. Elsewhere there are greats but not immortal stars and in those places cricket remains, and fortunately, a team game. One team that has impressed me over the last several months with their test cricket is the England cricket team in whites currently skippered by Allistair Cook in Bangladesh and otherwise led by an able and rather coldly efficient – perhaps even ugly – if not inspirational Andrew Strauss. In recent memory, they have gone onto take back the Ashes and levelled a series in South Africa (within a space of a half year); saved three test matches with the last wicket standing; and played as a unit and shown more than just belying promise we are used to from England teams of the nineties and the oughties. What’s more this has been a time when their best batsman Kevin Pietersen has suffered from an oddly extended form slump. But in someone else, England has found an unlikely hero and his contributions run through won and saved causes.
Cricinfo gives a rather funny nickname to the man who is a character: “chin” – and he is not a quickie who sends thunderbolts to batsmen at day and terrorises them in their dreams at night. In fact, he belongs to the group of them bowlers who Geoffrey Boycott may call ‘dibbly dobbly’ or ‘lollypop’ depending on his mood which chooses his slang. The last of its kind in England was an eternally old-looking man from Glamorgan who tried his best but never lived to be a match-winner, Robert Croft. Off-spinner he was, and if you want to look at a match-winning one England have had, you should go back to the Illingworths. Not that England has had a great deal of recent success from spinners anyway and god knows they have had a humungous pipeline of left-arm finger spinners; Phil Tufnell promised and briefly delivered before he walked into the sunset; Ashley Giles was reduced to bowling outside the leg stump to Tendulkar and the cheers Monty Panesar used to receive have gradually faded and so perhaps – temporarily one hopes – as his craft. And that’s when Graeme Swann chose to have fun. And how well he has had it!
At 79 wickets in seventeen tests, the now Nottinghamshire (former Northamptonshire) thirty-one year old has probably the second best wickets per match tally behind talented quicks Mitchell Johnson and Dale Steyn both of whom have well over 100 wickets. His fifth and sixth five wicket hauls in the recently concluded test against Bangladesh have taken him to second in the ICC ranking of test bowlers. And in case you were wondering Swann is some Fairytale illusion England has found, here’s more: he is also third in the list of all-rounders and with close to six hundred runs at thirty-three per innings Swann who bats number 8 or 9 for England deserves every bit the ratings he has received.
Yet for Swann – fondly called by a journalist as a bit of a joker in the pack – the numbers do not tell the entire story and it therefore becomes significant to study his performances in the context of the two difficult series through which he has plied his trade as an off-spinner and lower order bat. Swann’s consistent wicket hauls, crucial runs and most importantly big heart in the Ashes and during the series in South Africa speak much about their significance. If you isolate Swann’s performances against the two finest teams of his time in recent times, you will see that he has picked up almost four wickets per match, which is good by a spinner’s standards especially in non-helpful conditions, and his batting average is still in the low thirties close to his career average indicating, if anything, that he has not been intimidated by the opposition. Further if Swann’s first innings 85 – his highest test score to-date and the highest in the England batting order for that innings – in Centurion perhaps helped England save the test later with Ashes heroes Panesar and Anderson at it again, Swann was himself ‘on the bridge’ unbeaten when Onions and he pulled another last over draw out of the hat a match and victory later at Newlands, Capetown. If his bat which had no extended business denied victories which were rightfully in the opposition’s to grasp, his simple mastery with the ball ensured England arguably two of their most famous victories in the last five years – the Ashes one at Lord's, England’s first against Australia at the HQ of cricket in over seventy years and an innings-and-ninety-something thrashing of South Africa at the bouncy Protean backyard Durban as Swann returned with nine sticks in the match.
Having been sorted out aptly by Surrey’s Ally Brown who hit young Swann’s loopy off-spinners for sixer after sixer during the latter’s debut for Northamptonshire in 1998, Swann has come a long way. Thankfully, he has not tinkered with his craft too much and not tried to imitate the more sophisticated and reputed off-spinners of his time. Instead with traditional flight, slower pace and a bit of guile – which probably has also to do with his tinsel town boy image as well as opposed to that of a sportsman – he has allowed the ball to spin and fooled batsmen memorably into playing the wrong shot or leaving ample daylight between bat and pad for the ball to spin through. How can we forget the ball with which he got rid off Ponting at the Oval?
Any off-spinner would be proud to have dismissals of that kind in his bagful of batsman’s scalps!
After an initial hiding in international cricket, Swann’s second coming has been nothing short of extraordinary for him and England. Let alone the fact that Swann now shares with legendary Jim Laker the record for the most number of times a bowler has taken a wicket in the first over of a new spell, Swann has probably done enough to be England’s frontline spinner in the years to come and to be considered a rare “match-spinning” bowler they have had in years. With the England team possessed with a more assured batting line-up and variety in the pace department, Swann may just be the sort of foil England will continue to appreciate as they try to win more matches against the better teams. And at 31, Swann is perhaps taking one day at a time. And why not? Perhaps the light-hearted blonde man from Nottingham may facetiously tell his grandkids: Sachin and I both had our second comings at the same time and our teams benefitted immensely. Joke or not, most people would not be able to find fault with that. And the way Swann is going, England will hope he would collect more on-field lore for posterity before he hangs up his boots.