Graeme Swann’s retirement seems somehow emblematic of England’s current state. It sounds like he’s been aware of reduced efficacy for a while now, but could put it to the back of his mind so long as England were winning. Now they’re losing and the ensuing clarity has shunted a memorable bloke out of the game.
The four-man attack
Reacting to Swann’s retirement, Darren Lehmann said:
“He’s a big player when they’ve only got four bowlers – or now they’ve got five with Stokes in their side – and you have to try and take one or two of them out of the equation and make their quicks bowl more.”
That’s a pretty good explanation of why Swann has been so important for England. It really is more than the wickets. We wrote about this back in 2009 and used the word ‘linchpin’. That word’s both overused and misused, but it’s entirely appropriate here. England’s entire strategy revolved around Swann and it was also he who ensured the wheels didn’t come off.
Swann simply couldn’t afford to have a bad day. Batsmen get ducks and pace bowlers shoulder a lighter workload when measured in overs. Swann’s performances were therefore disporportionately influential. Even when he wasn’t taking wickets, he had to be able to eat time on unfriendly pitches so that each of the three seamers could rest.
Even without the wickets, runs and catches, Swann was a facilitator. He allowed the pace bowlers to perform at their best and he allowed England to pick a sixth specialist batsman.
The plan outlined by Lehmann is pretty much the same one everyone’s gone with against England for the last five years. It’s the obvious thing to do, and yet England managed to stick with a four-man attack until two Tests ago. In other words, Swann’s been good enough to withstand these assaults until now. Read his retirement statement and it’s clear that will and body have waned in harness and that’s why it’s the right time to go.
Breadth of skills
You need to be a very adaptable player to fulfil the role of spin bowler in a four-man attack and Swann was most definitely that. He had the accuracy and intelligence to constrain on seaming wickets and he could also do the thing that defined him as a Test bowler.
Graeme Swann was not a spinner who gradually eased into a spell. He dismissed Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in his first over in Test cricket and this was in no way aberrative. His first over was always worth watching and this was especially the case when bowling to a left-handed batsman.
One ball to size them up and then a second to dismiss them.
Plus he could catch, plus he could bat – okay, maybe he couldn’t bat, but he could hit fours – and perhaps most importantly of all, he has the priceless and rare ability to cut through the shit.
Ask a stupid question, get a decent answer
Swann’s not a comedian, but he can certainly make you laugh – you know, like normal people do and like sportsmen conspicuously don’t. Interviews were like actual conversations rather than strange set-pieces played out according to constrictive regulations. If he saw an opportunity to say something that might amuse him, he would take it.
For example, how did he break it to Alastair Cook that he would be retiring?
“He is one of my best mates so it should have been a very easy conversation but it actually made it doubly hard, just to sit down over a coffee and blurt it out. It was like one of his team talks – it didn’t make any sense. But I got it out in the end.”
Graeme, you will be missed more than most.19 Appeals
The story of the New Zealand v West Indies series seems to be West Indies’ batting collapses. This is odd, because they’re hardly a new phenomenon. It’s also harsh on Trent Boult, who’s a darn tidy bowler.
It’s perhaps even more unfair on Ross Taylor, who has countered everything thrown at him – or occasionally bowled at him – with disdain. He’s averaging almost 250 in the series after scoring two hundreds and an unbeaten double. Overall, his Test average now stands at 47.49. In New Zealand, where batting tends to be rather tricky, he averages over 60.
It also sounds like he’s a colossal cricket nerd, which isn’t a bad thing. This is how he got away from the pressure of his innings during the lunch break:
“Peter Fulton had the Almanack out and I was answering the questions and it was nice to just get away from it.”
In the evenings, he plays Brian Lara Cricket to unwind. Probably.14 Appeals
Sometimes we really feel for Ishant Sharma. Whenever we see him, he appears to be bowling on a flat pitch in a one-day international with the batsmen going hell-for-leather and fielding restricitions in place. In reality, that isn’t the only time we see him bowl. It just feels like it is.
It’s a bit like being a mole in a living room. You’re bloody marvellous at burrowing around underground, but sat there on the carpet, everyone just thinks you’re useless. If they’re generous, they pat their knee for you to come and sit on them, but with your short-arse back legs, you can’t jump up.
They look at you sadly as you blunder around with your crap eyesight, bumping into things, occasionally making a futile attempt to scrabble at the floor. Someone sneers at you and says: “Ugh, look at you with your disgusting extra thumb.”
But put you outside and you’re away. You might have lost all confidence in your ability to dig, but it’s still there. You just need to rediscover it. The dog gets filthy digging a shallow hole; the cat digs an even shallower hole, craps in it and then fills it in again. Suddenly everyone realises that there are certain jobs for which the mole is well suited – it’s just that you’ve just been spending all of your time in the wrong environment.11 Appeals
We’ve done our usual Twitter thing for Cricinfo, but you’ll notice we haven’t mentioned Ryan Harris and his Al Swearengen style whinge about not being let into some casino. Nor have we mentioned Graeme Swann.
If you don’t already know, Swann’s receiving criticism for likening England’s Ashes defeat to being “arse raped”. He has apologised, saying that the comment was ‘crass and thoughtless in the extreme’ which seems a fairly accurate assessment to us.
However, when questioned by the Daily Telegraph, Yvonne Traynor, the chief executive of Rape Crisis, said:
“We are appalled that Graeme Swann equates a cricket match with the devastatingly serious crime of rape. It is the duty of people in the public eye to make sure that their own distorted views are kept to themselves and not shared with the general public. These comments lack compassion and intelligence and he should apologise to anyone who has suffered from this heinous crime.”
This begs a question. Why is it that when Alastair Cook says that Ashes cricket is ‘pretty much a war’ or when David Lloyd suggests that the opposition has been ‘murdered’ no-one sees it as anything other than hyperbole, but when an intelligent cricketer uses the word ‘rape’, some assume him to have ‘distorted views’?
You don’t have to know Graeme Swann particularly well to know that he is not in favour of rape. Chances are, he used the word precisely because it seemed somehow more severe than anything that implied homicide or genocide. Life-taking language has had its power eroded through frequency of use.
Graeme Swann’s crime is perhaps to have forgotten that certain words will be leapt upon, regardless of the true intent behind their usage. The only real difference between what he said and what professional writers say about sport daily is that society isn’t currently numb to the meaning of the word ‘rape’. Maybe he could have tested the water with ‘euthanised’ or ‘executed’ instead to see where we stand with those.39 Appeals
Not sure what organisation or body deems a player to be ‘up and running’. We’re going to try and decree it ourself and hope that it sticks.
But what do we mean by ‘up and running’? Virat Kohli’s just about the best one-day batsman in the world and he’s been around for pure time now. Why are we only now getting around to making this outlandish and hugely controversial statement?
It’s because he’s scored a Test hundred in South Africa and it seems to us that this might represent the final step in his fairly inevitable journey into the top tier of batsmen. Flatelaide and three Indian cricket grounds have seen Kohli Test hundreds previously, but this one’s a different beast. He’s now the batsman you worry about, no matter where you’re playing.
England host India next year. Magic.11 Appeals
You can see him a mile off. Clutch him. CLUTCH HIM!
It’s not so much that he scored a hundred on what was actually a fairly even, true pitch between the cracks. It’s more that he looked unruffled. Any idiot can bat, but hardly anyone can bat in the muggy atmosphere that surrounds a team being battered in an Ashes series.
The wheels don’t just come off when England do badly in Australia. They also explode, maiming bystanders. If any player can hit his own mouth with a sandwich, he’s doing okay right now. Stokes-o hit a hundred.
In a sense, the pressure was off a bit, but it’s pretty good to do this at the age of 22 and it’s pretty handy that he bowls a bit as well.
Rejoice, England fans – not quite everything is shit.34 Appeals
Can we make this ‘a thing’? We’re pretty sure it’s a thing.
The story goes like this: England pick Trott, he scores a hundred and they reclaim the Ashes. He then spends the next four years shielding the middle order so that it – and also the lower order – can cash in against weary, dispirited bowling attacks. At the same time, he gives his own side’s seamers nice, long armchair stints. England win quite a lot during this period. Then Trott struggles and England deteriorate. Then he leaves and England lose.
We mention this because today’s play is a good example of how the difference between two teams can widen like the cracks in the Waca pitch as a match progresses. What you see later in the game can be a little deceptive. Despite the tweets appearing on-screen during Sky Sports’ daily review show (who sends those?), we’re not suddenly seeing a dire England team and nor are we seeing an exceptional Australia team.
We’re not saying that England are but a whisker away from winning these matches, but we are saying that Shane Watson is the kind of batsman who’ll score a hundred when his team’s already 300-and-odd ahead and looking to bat for a declaration against four-fifths of a bowling attack that’s absolutely had it.
Australia are the better side in this series, but just as the 3-0 scoreline earlier in the year flattered England, so the individual match results in this series have led to too much opprobrium being heaped upon them. People love to moan – particularly English people – but they should shut up and consider that apparently big changes are often seeded by small things.
So with Trott, England would be winning?
No. We’re really just contriving an example in order to instruct overly-emotional Pommie whingers to bring it down a notch or two.
The simplified explanation of Trott’s influence that we gave at the start of this article depicts a kind of virtuous domino effect where top order solidity enables middle order consolidation which then permits a profitable lower order payout. You could paint it as being 20 more runs from number three allowing 50 more runs from eight, nine and ten – all with the added benefit that the team’s innings is extended in duration, which is great for your bowlers and terrible for those playing for the opposition. It ain’t great for their batsmen either, for that matter. Compound this over the course of a series and suddenly you’re number one in the world.
But it’s not built on much. Matches were won as a result of players cashing in on strong positions and when this happened, those players looked amazing. But those cash-in players have to stand on someone else’s shoulders.
Still not getting what this has to do with this terrible England side?
It’s not directly linked to the Trott thing. In a sense it’s a bad example, precisely because it seems like it should be so pertinent. We’re really just pleading for a sense of proportion; saying that although England are getting battered, they probably don’t deserve to be pilloried.
England have spent the vast majority of this series batting from behind. You can’t write off the second innings performances, but you do have to remember that Australia’s second innings have been played in entirely different circumstances. Same pitch, same weather, an entirely different level of pressure.
Australia’s bowling has also been tighter than a mouse’s ear. England’s fans are hugely focused on England’s players, but the bad shots you see in the highlights are preceded by a hell of a lot of restraint. Patience isn’t a constant quality. It’s something which can be eroded.
And England’s bowling? It’s not been far off. Again, second innings performances are not unimportant, but they are of somewhat diminished importance. You can’t ask Jimmy Anderson to be at his best when an Australian declaration is inevitable. He only has so much to give. First innings wise, England’s bowlers have been close. They’ve tended to dismiss the top five or six before running out of steam. It’s been a bit like watching a Gladiators contender sprinting for the top of the travelator in the final round. Sometimes the difference between reaching the top and ending up in a heap at the bottom is just a fingertip.
England have been second-best
Let’s be clear about this – let’s be utterly, utterly clear about this – but can we try and put the emphasis on ‘second’ rather than considering England to have come last. If nothing else, it’s disrespectful to the opposition to make out like only one team has any influence on the outcome of a cricket match.36 Appeals
Kevin Pietersen can often look a caricature of a batsman. Look at his leave. When he leaves a ball, Jesus Christ it stays left. The ball really knows it hasn’t been hit following KP’s huge, flourishing, circular withdrawal of the bat.
Today, Pietersen batted sensibly and in keeping with this exaggerated depiction of the various aspects of batting, it was painfully sensible. It took him 14 balls to manage his standard hairy single to get off the mark. After 43 balls, he had just four runs.
The 49th ball he faced was from Mitchell Johnson and he edged it for four. The 52nd was a bad ball from which he gathered four runs in more deliberate fashion. He hadn’t changed gear – at least not deliberately – but maybe he thought he had, because at this point he became a caricature of Kevin Pietersen the domineering freewheeler.
He tried to pull his 53rd ball (still from Johnson) for four and mishit it. It lofted in the air. He was lucky to survive. Unfazed, he drove at his 55th delivery, from Siddle, which was wide and a good length and only threatening if you for some reason chose to try and drive it. It found the edge, but fortunately for Pietersen, the inside edge. To his 59th ball, he spooned a short one and was out.
What an idiot
Apologies for the preceding paragraphs being a bit ball-by-ball, but we’re about to make a wider point. Because Pietersen is a caricature, everything he does looks better or worse than his team-mates. However, the thinking and behaviour we can so easily see in him is often there in the other batsmen too – it’s just not quite as obvious.
Pietersen was frustrated and when KP’s frustrated, he plays the most ludicrous shots. This is not because he gets more frustrated and more irresponsible than the others. It’s just that what we call ‘ludicrous shots’ are just ‘shots’ to him. You can’t have the good ludicrous without the bad ludicrous because the difference between the two is nothing but a matter of timing. It’s no different to Alastair Cook either edging or missing a forward defensive stroke.
An arid spell
Pietersen got himself out, but Australia got him to get himself out. For all the talk of Johnson’s pace, the home team have bowled dry extremely well this series. It’s why batsmen have so often been dismissed when there’s been a bowling change. They’re looking for an end to the pressure. In fact, they look too hard for an end to the pressure and think they’ve found it when they haven’t.
“Oh good, Lyon’s on.”
A good bowling attack is an adaptable attack. Bowling dry isn’t always the answer. Fierce pace isn’t always the answer. Spin isn’t always the answer, swing isn’t always the answer, seam isn’t always the answer. However, the more bases you’ve got covered, the more consistently you can threaten batsmen – and the more consistently you can threaten them, the harder it is for them to score.
And so the pressure builds.
England ended the second day on 180-4. Ian Bell is on nine off 62 balls.30 Appeals
Bowlers win you matches, but batsmen lose them. Is there really much point weighing up day one of the third Test when England’s batsmen might render all that preceded it almost entirely irrelevant?
May as well go through the motions, just in case.
A growing theme of this series is ‘five down’. Australia have frequently been five down for not a lot, but Brad Haddin keeps forming one half of a big stand. England have frequently been five down for not a lot and have then been obliterated by Mitchell Johnson. If anything, that’s where fortunes have diverged – and they have diverged massively.
Clearly, Brad Haddin has played well. He’s an odd sort of a batsmen, in that he often plays the kinds of shots that a five-year-old might play, particularly early in his innings. The great thing about him though, is that he’s utterly, utterly shameless. When he does something monumentally stupid and gets away with it, he’s not in the least bit weighed down by embarrassment. A few overs later, you realise that was the last of the idiocy and now he’s up and running.
Tremlett, Stokes, Bresnan…
But how much have Haddin’s large returns been down to him and how much have they been down to England’s weak third seamer? Obviously, a batsman has to face more than one bowler over the course of an innings, but it seems that while Australia have enough bowling to keep attacking England when they’re five down, the tourists run out of steam at around this point when they’re in the field.
It’s not that they’ve bowled badly. It’s just that the third seamer – whoever it’s been – has been kind of insipid. As we said the other day, James Anderson effectively becomes a support bowler when there’s no swing, so it’s doubly important that there’s some sort of threat from elsewhere.
Once again, we find ourself looking at a bowling attack which seems a little fast-medium. Height, pace, swing, demented mind games – it just lacks pep.16 Appeals
England picked the ganglesome trio of Steven Finn, Boyd Rankin and Chris Tremlett for this Ashes tour specifically in order to exploit hard, bouncy Australian pitches. Perth is the hardest, bounciest pitch of all and it seems reasonably likely that none of these bowlers will play.
Assuming they don’t, what is the point of their being in Australia and how culpable are management and selectors for this situation having come about?12 Appeals