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Graeme Swann: An illustrious career comes to a premature end

Graeme Swann's international probably deserved a longer run than the player himself thought so © Getty Images
Graeme Swann probably deserved a longer run than the player himself thought so © Getty Images

Graeme Swann announced retirement all of a sudden mid-Ashes. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at an illustrious career that probably came to a premature end.

Kevin Pietersen might not be a happy soul. All of a sudden he had found himself as the oldest active English player: he had ‘usurped’ the dubious distinction held by Graeme Swann, arguably the greatest spinner since the retirement of the ‘Big Three’ (Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, and Muttiah Muralitharan) from the scenario.

It is hard to believe that Swann had been playing Tests for a shade over five years. Him replacing Monty Panesar from the English spinner’s slot seems to be ages back: on his debut in the historic Test at Cheapauk (where India had famously chased down 387) he had taken out Gautam Gambhir (third ball) and Rahul Dravid (sixth ball) in his first over: could there have been a more sensational first over?

India had lost four wickets in the second innings: Swann had taken out two of them (Virender Sehwag – the Man of the Match – and VVS Laxman). Sachin Tendulkar was still left to be conquered: he fell to Swann in the first innings of the next Test at Mohali. Swann had passed the ultimate Test for a spinner – a debut in India – in flying colours. His eight wickets had cost him 39.50 apiece, but all of them were those of the five men mentioned above. He had the most wickets among Englishmen as well.

For the next five years, there was no stopping Swann. 255 Test wickets from 60 Tests at 29.96 (233 wickets at 27.83 outside Australia) are excellent numbers for any spinner, more so because 32 of these were played on the unhelpful tracks of England. A better performer at home, these Tests fetched him 120 wickets at 28.94.

Swann was, in fact, a part of the post-2007 era. This means that before the current series, he had been a part of three Ashes contests, and England had never lost a single one of them, winning eight Tests and losing only two (it reads as 8-5 even if the ongoing series is included). For English cricketers from the 1990s and the early 2000s, these are unthinkable numbers.

But Swann’s success story goes beyond that. It would not be an exaggeration to call him one of the greatest spinners of the 2000s and one of the greatest English spinners of all time. Mind you, unlike a lot of the great English spinners, Swann did not play in an era of uncovered wickets: instead, he had to bowl when quality bats, bigger hits, shorter boundaries, and Twenty20s (T20s) have all combined together to kill the art of classical bowling, especially traditional off-breaks.

The doosra or the carrom ball were never among Swann’s strengths: he believed in the old-fashioned method of tossing the ball outside the off-stump and trying to beat the batsman in flight; the most vicious balls made their way through the ‘gate’; some others hit the pads; some others found an inside edge onto the pads and flew to the waiting forward short-leg. In both cases a scream would emit, turning Swann’s face into the brightest of crimson till the telltale finger was raised.

He also had the topspin and the floater which found the outside edge and went to the first slip; if the batsman was not good enough to edge it, he probed, waiting for the off-break that never happened; and more often than not he was made to look like a fool.

General minor injuries and niggling elbow issues have plagued Swann throughout his career, but he still managed to play for 60 Tests as well as 79 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and 39 T20Is, leading England in three matches in the shortest format.

Almost always at the thick of things, Swann had never been away from controversy for long. When charged with drunk-driving in 2010, he claimed he had been out to buy a screwdriver because his cat Max had been trapped inside the floorboards from ASDA in his Porsche Cayenne. He had managed to get away.

On their tour to Sri Lanka in 2011-12, Swann had accused Dilruwan Perera (he had refused to leave after Andrew Strauss had confirmed that he had taken a catch cleanly) of cheating during a warm-up match. Mere mortals would have remained quiet at that, but not Swann: “I wanted to kill the batsman [Perera] because he was cheating. He was stood right next to me with a smug look on his face,” he later confessed.

In the 2012 home series against South Africa, he had run into controversy after ‘allegedly’ playing a role in Pietersen’s axing following the Headingley Test. He had also criticised Pietersen’s captaincy in his rather intelligently named autobiography The Covers Are Off.

Even as recently as last week Swann ran into controversy when he commented on his brother Alec’s Facebook page that he would rather be back home attending a concert with the latter than being out there “a**e-raped in Perth”. He had to apologise three days back for the controversial comment.

Picture courtesy: Daily Mail

How good a bowler was Swann?

Let us put the easiest bit of information out of the way first: during the five years that Swann played (December 11, 2008 to December 17, 2013) he had taken the most wickets in Test cricket.. Even if England has played more Tests than any other nation, Swann pips his teammates in terms of wickets per match; over four wickets per Tests is quite creditable given that he had almost always had to share his wickets with the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad throughout his career.

Top wicket-takers during Swann’s career

M W Ave SR 5WI 10WM W/M
Graeme Swann

60

255

29.96

60.1

17

3

4.25

James Anderson

61

232

28.99

60.5

10

2

3.80

Stuart Broad

56

207

28.73

55.9

11

2

3.70

Dale Steyn

40

204

22.64

44.0

12

3

5.10

Peter Siddle

48

174

28.33

58.2

8

3.63

If one considers all spinners who have taken 250 or more wickets in the 21st century, Swann has done better than almost anybody barring Muralitharan and Kumble.

Spinners with over 250+ wickets in the 21st century

M W Ave SR 5WI 10WM W/M
Muttiah Muralitharan

75

498

21.23

51.0

43

17

6.64

Harbhajan Singh

93

392

32.04

67.8

25

5

4.22

Anil Kumble

71

343

30.98

63.3

19

5

4.83

Shane Warne

61

342

24.82

50.3

21

6

5.61

Danish Kaneria

59

257

34.49

66.7

15

2

4.36

Graeme Swann

60

255

29.96

60.1

17

3

4.25

Daniel Vettori

81

254

35.17

80.2

15

2

3.14

Of course, Swann finished as the sixth-highest wicket-taker in the history of England, and the second-highest among English spinners, bettered only by Derek Underwood.

Top English wicket-takers

M W Ave SR 5WI 10WM W/M
Ian Botham

102

383

28.40

56.9

27

4

3.75

James Anderson

90

336

30.70

59.3

15

2

3.73

Bob Willis

90

325

25.20

53.4

16

3.61

Fred Trueman

67

307

21.57

49.4

17

3

4.58

Derek Underwood

86

297

25.83

73.6

17

6

3.45

Graeme Swann

60

255

29.96

60.1

17

3

4.25

The most successful foreign spinners on Indian soil are Richie Benaud, Ashley Mallett, Lance Gibbs, Underwood, and Fred Titmus: however, almost all of them had played cricket in an era when ODIs were in their nascent stages, and the Indian dominance of spin at home had not yet begun.

If we put 1995 as the cut-off, Swann not only rules over the others, he is head and shoulders above them. He had also spun Alastair Cook’s side to a series victory, making them the first English side to win a series in India after 28 years.

Foreign spinners with 25+ wickets in India, post-1995

M W Ave SR 5WI 10WM W/M
Graeme Swann

6

28

28.96

61.3

1

4.67

Monty Panesar

8

28

38.25

81.4

2

1

3.50

Danish Kaneria

6

31

39.58

71.1

2

5.17

Shane Warne

9

34

43.11

81.0

1

3.78

Daniel Vettori

8

31

44.77

102.7

2

3.88

Muttiah Muralitharan

11

40

45.45

86.2

2

3.64

Swann played only two Tests in Sri Lanka, picking up 16 wickets at 22.18 and a strike rate of 45.4. This is probably too small a sample, but other than Warne (48 wickets from nine Tests at 20.45 and 39.6) nobody with over 25 wickets has bettered Swann’s tally.

South Africa, on the other hand, has been the graveyard of many a spinner: of course, they have submitted to quality spinners till World War II. Johnny Briggs, for example, had 21 wickets at 4.80 (no typo there); Clarrie Grimmett had 44 at 14.59 and Bill O’Reilly 27 at 17.03.

In the post-War era, however, things have not been that easy for the tourist spinners. Only seven spinners have claimed over 20 wickets in South Africa, and Swann is one of them. He has not done too badly, either. It had a lot to do with his marathon haul of five for 110 at Centurion, followed by match figures of nine for 164 in the innings victory at Kingsmead in 2009-10. England won the contest 2-0.

Foreign spinners with 20+ wickets in South Africa

M W Ave SR 5WI 10WM W/M
Johnny Wardle

4

26

13.80

43.0

3

1

6.50

Richie Benaud

5

30

21.93

64.5

4

6.00

Shane Warne

12

61

24.31

60.3

2

5.08

Muttiah Muralitharan

6

35

26.02

60.5

3

1

5.83

Jack Alabaster

5

22

28.04

65.6

1

4.40

Graeme Swann

4

21

31.38

60.0

2

5.25

Anil Kumble

12

45

32.02

84.7

1

3.75

Of course, Australian grounds have always been his Achilles’ heel. Even then, he had a role to play in the Adelaide Test of 2010-11. With the first Test at The Gabba drawn, Australia needed to score 375 to save the innings defeat. Swann bowled them out for 304 with figures of five for 91 on an absolutely true pitch. England took the lead, won the rubber 3-1, and The Ashes were retained.

A year-and-a-half before the Adelaide performance, Swann had produced what was possibly the best ball of his career: the ball was tossed up outside the off-stump; Ricky Ponting was sucked in to front foot; the ball spun through the gate to an extent that would have made even Murali jealous, and crashed into the wickets. The classical off-spinner’s dismissal.

One of the overlooked aspects of Swann’s career is his batting: never orthodox or willing to grind it out, Swann had his own way of taking the attack to the opposition: 1,370 runs at 22.09 with five fifties is far too good for anyone who has batted at number nine for most of his career.

In fact, only eight men have scored over a thousand runs from batting at positions nine or below, and of them, Swann has the best batting average.

Batsmen with 1,000+ runs, positions 9 – 11

R Ave

100

50

Graeme Swann

1,220

24.40

5

Daniel Vettori

1,275

21.98

1

5

Brett Lee

1,122

21.16

4

Shane Warne

1,003

15.67

Harbhajan Singh

1,037

14.81

4

Curtly Ambrose

1,288

12.88

1

Zaheer Khan

1,140

12.00

3

Muttiah Muralitharan

1,261

11.67

1

His catching, often at slip, was more efficient than spectacular. If one excludes Garry Sobers (on the ground that his bowling was often mixed-bag), he is one of only six spinners to have achieved the 1,000 runs-200 wickets-50 catches treble, the other five being Benaud, Kumble, Warne, Muralitharan, and Vettori.

 (Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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