Graeme Swann was more than a quarter of an attack

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Better than Richard Dawson

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.

Until now

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.


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  1. My favourite non-Middlesex cricketer? Probably, favourite English one at any rate. Will miss him.

  2. Much as I admired Swann – he was a real find for England – I always thought the four man attack unnecessarily risky. Not just the risk of one being hit out of the attack, but injuries happen too. Nevertheless for years England proved me wrong about the risk-reward tradeoff.

  3. So, does this qualify as worst tour ever, yet?

    (at least) Three careers over, heading for a whitewash. At least there hasn’t been an Adelaide 2007 style debacle yet.

    1. To pick a nit, Adelaide was just the second test in that series so took place in early December of 06. Still plenty of humiliation in 07 of course!

  4. I like Swann very much, probably my favourite English cricketer. What a shame he’s thrown in the towel.

    Most players are boring when they open their mouths. He never is.

  5. Shall miss him dreadfully. Loved watching him, listening to him plus he’s provided me for the past 5 years with the spiffing displacement activity of photoshopping.

    Really nice article O King

  6. I agree with everything everyone has said about Graeme Swann as a cricketer. But…

    “When I came out on this trip I half expected it to be my last tour for England,” Swann said in Melbourne on Sunday. “I was desperately hoping to win the Ashes out here again like we did in 2010-11 but with the Ashes gone now in those three Test matches, personally I think to stay on and selfishly play just to experience another Boxing Day Test match and another Sydney Test match would be wrong.”

    I think he’s got the definition of selfish confused. If it was going to be a laugh, with wins and plaudits and video diaries and stupid dances, then he was all for it and those other spinners could take a hike. But now that it isn’t fun, now that the heat has been turned up, suddenly it’s magnanimous to put someone else into this furnace-like atmosphere from which, if it doesn’t go well, many careers might not ever recover.

    Bollocks Graeme. Mid-tour retirements, injuries aside, are always wrong. At 3-0 down they are also (and obviously) selfish. Make your choice at the start of the tour, then stick with it.

    1. A fair summary, although the only thing we’d say is that there’s a chance this may have been what is sometimes termed ‘a mutual decision’.

    2. Daisy is with Bert on this one and my supposition is with KC.

      Two things are for sure:

      1) Those of us who like cricketers to have some personality as well as talent will miss Graeme Swann enormously – such players are all too rare these days;

      2) Swann does overuse “the human rear” as his metaphor of choice.

    3. If he was due to be dropped, he has an even bigger responsibility to stay with the squad to the end of the tour. His retirement is his way of saying to the next guy (or at least to the world about the next guy), “You’re only in because I retired”. Plus there are a whole pile of reasons to do with team unity, which he has massively fractured, and showing the newer players what commitment to the England team actually means (nothing, apparently).

      When I heard the news yesterday, my first thought was that he was a selfish arse. The more I think about it, the more offensive my choice of final noun becomes.

    4. Understand that we’re not really arguing against you here – just offering a counterpoint.

      Sometimes, when a senior player is no longer required, the management want to be generous in how he is perceived to have departed the game.

    5. For this series he has lasted just 11 balls at the crease per innings. He has infinitely more talent than Monty with the bat, yet showed only a fraction of the fight.
      I think there is something mutual in this decision because he really should have been dropped before the Perth Test.

  7. “Sometimes, when a senior player is no longer required, the management want to be generous in how he is perceived to have departed the game.”

    I’d agree with that if it was across the board but this management team certainly didn’t give Paul Collingwood that kind of respect!

  8. I agree with Bert.

    I see that Borthwick and Tredwell are flying out now. Three spinners in the party? And whither Kerrigan?

    I guess Monty gets a couple of Tests to claim his place or he’s out on his ear too.

  9. I will miss Swanny dreadfully (although perhaps not as much as Jimmy Anderson). I loved his ability (this series excepted) to take wickets and/or tie up an end whilst the seamers earn their match fees, and also his post-match interviews, which were mercifully free of getting the ball into the right areas/keeping momentum/bowling as a unit generic twaddle.

    Good luck to him in whatever he does next – one thing I’m fairly sure of is that he won’t slide into obscurity.

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