By Bharath Ramaraj
In the last decade, there have been very few finger spinners who have survived the harsh reality of bowling to a slew of power-packed club of big and strong muscular batsmen using willows that don’t seem to have edges attached to it, to rain sixes and fours. However, England off-spinner Graeme Swann with a jaunty smile and a jovial attitude towards life was able to withstand the pressure of bowling to modern day batsmen and fulfill a sportsman’s beautiful dreams. When he left the entire cricketing world in a state of complete shock by announcing his retirement, he had left behind a trail of sunshine of glory with some top notch performances.
It was back in 1998 when Northamptonshire took everyone by surprise by plumping for the 18-year-old spinner Graeme Swann for the county game against Surrey. Such was the immense faith shown by the think-tank that Swann was picked as the lone spinner for the game.
By then he had already been a part of England Under-19 squad that had touched glorious heights by winning the Under-19 World Cup under the captaincy of Owais Shah and was earmarked for success. From there on, it was a rapid rise to fame for the Northampton born off-spinner. In 2000, with England in a rebuilding phase, Swann was picked to play against South Africa.
Duncan Fletcher, who was at the helm of affairs then as the coach, seemed to have a few problems with Swann’s attitude. So, for the next eight years of his career, his international experience was restricted to a solitary One-Day International (ODI) he played at Bloemfontein against South Africa.
While he toiled, toiled and toiled even more in County Cricket with a smile there was inkling that he was nothing more than a bits-and-pieces cricketer. The tracks at Northampton did offer spinners plenty of encouragement but Swann wafted from being excellent to mediocre.
It was only when he moved over to Nottinghamshire in 2004-05 that Swann seemed to lift himself from the wallow of troubled waters. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that he suddenly started to take a slew of wickets, but in Mick Newell, Nottinghamshire’s coach, he found a mentor who showed him the path of success. Swann was soon picked to tour Sri Lanka with the England A squad. A few years later, on tracks that weren’t exactly suited to spinners at Trent Bridge, he showcased a rare ability to take wickets with flight and deception. It was his rich haul of 32 wickets in 2008 on unhelpful tracks at Trent Bridge that paved the way for his selection into the national team.
It also has to be mentioned that with Fletcher resigning as England coach, it opened the flood-gates for Swann to make it onto the side.
Since then, Swann rode on the wings of sheer brilliance. In his first Test match itself, he picked up two wickets in a single over against India. It was a Test that India went on to win. However, Swann showcased that uncanny ability to generate plenty of revolutions on the ball on a turning track.
The year 2010 turned out to be the year when Swann left opposition batsmen in a state of daze. In particular, him bamboozling Imran Farhat with the one that was tossed up and dipped more on the leg stump, before turning sharply past the lunging batsman, to shatter his timber was a sight to behold. Farhat trudged slowly back to the pavilion and cut a forlorn figure in the third Test match of the series at Edgbaston, Birmingham.
In Australia in 2010-11 though, he wasn’t able to run through their batting line-up on most occasions, he kept their batsmen on a tight leash by bowling from around the wicket to both left-handed and sometimes even right-handed batsmen. The way he tied Michael Clarke in knots at Melbourne by bowling from around the wicket with a short mid-wicket in place would have made any off-spinner proud.
A few years later in Sri Lanka, when England were in touching distance of levelling the series 1-1 at Colombo’s P Sara Oval, Swann with indomitable belief scythed through Sri Lanka’s batting line-up on the final day. Swann’s stunning performance made Sri Lanka’s key spinner, Suraj Randiv ask for a few tips. How many times have we seen a subcontinental spinner ask for a few tips from an English spinner?
England next travelled to play a Test series in India, where no one gave them even an iota of a chance to win a series for the first time in 28 years. However, spin twins Monty Panesar and Swann combined together to outbowl the opposition spinners, and even the famed Indian batting line-up, known for playing spin, was mesmerised and left utterly clueless by his flight and guile. Every time India had a sneak peek towards giving England a run for their money, Swann closed the door by taking crucial wickets.
There have been many outstanding spinners who have come over to subcontinent and struggled to be a wicket-taking threat. However, Swann made his mark against subcontinental teams which won him a tidal wave of appreciation from cricket pundits.
All good things though, have to come to an end. By the time England team touched the shores of Australia in 2013-14, the bite in Swann’s bowling had gone missing. Constant trouble with the elbow had taken its toll and the Australian batting line-up more often than not tore apart Swann. When Shane Watson reduced him to virtually a club-level bowler at Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA) Ground, it was crystal clear that Swann’s end is near. No wonder, he announced his retirement right after the completion of the third Test.
Swann’s modus operandi was simple and straightforward. He didn’t have fancy doosras or teesras in his armour. He thrived on spinning it hard and generating bounce. He could generate more than 2,000 revolutions per minute constantly, and they are astonishing numbers indeed. He also bowled with great control against left-handed batsmen from around the wicket, using the under-cutter that skidded and went like a flying saucer after pitching, to killing effect.
In the annals of cricket history, Graeme Swann would be remembered as your quintessential off-spinner who made a name for himself in an era of bazooka bats, shorter boundaries and lifeless tracks.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)
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