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By Partab Ramchand
I can never get enough of watching Graeme Swann in action. As an admirer of his pure, unadulterated bowling skills ever since I saw him make his debut against India at Chennai in December 2008 I am delighted at the manner in which he is picking up wickets regularly in all formats of the game. In just under two years the England off spinner has made rapid strides and his best is surely yet to come. At 31 he’s been a late bloomer but seems to be making up for lost time.
Off spin has hardly ever been England’s traditional strength even though ironically they have produced arguably the greatest purveyor of this subtle art in Jim (19 for 90) Laker. The finest and most successful England bowlers have been those who hurtle them down at fearsome pace or swing the ball prodigiously. Even when it comes to spin bowling the best have been left armers like Hedley Verity, Tony Lock and Derek Underwood. After Laker there have been off spinners like David Allen, Fred Titmus, Ray Illingworth and John Emburey but none of them are in the outstanding category. Swann however I venture to forecast will emerge as a great. Interestingly enough his ten-wicket haul against Bangladesh at Chittagong in March was the first by an England off spinner since Laker took his record haul against the Australians at Old Trafford in 1956.
Swann is already a very fine bowler as his tally of 113 wickets from 24 Tests clearly indicates. The average (26.55) is impressive while the economy rate (just under three) and the strike rate (54) are admirable. The point to note is that the figures are getting better with every match. More than the impressive figures however it is the manner of his bowling that has caught the connoisseur’s attention. For all their remarkable feats Muthiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh thanks to the controversy surrounding their actions are not classical off spinners. Swann belongs to the traditional and orthodox school. Right from his action to the way he deceives the batsmen in the air and off the pitch he revives memories of the great off spinners of the past. The cynics might say that his ultimate test comes when he comes up against the Indians, reputedly the best players of spin bowling in the game but the fact remains that he has got the better of some of the greatest contemporary batsmen from West Indies, Australia, Pakistan and South Africa. Two successive man-of-the-match awards in South Africa last season certified Swann’s stature as a match winning bowler.
Swann made an immediate impression on his debut when he took two wickets those of Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in his first over - only the second time this has happened in Test cricket. Criticism for not being able to bowl out India in the fourth innings as the hosts raced to a famous victory was tempered by the fact that this was his first Test. Since then Swann has shrugged off the challenge from Monty Panesar to become England’s leading spin bowler. His impeccable line and length, immense variety and the ability to keep his spirits up even in alien conditions has seen him make giant strides in this subtle art. His lusty lower order hitting that has got him four half centuries, a highest score of 85, an average of 25 and a strike rate that is over 82 is a bonus but there is little doubt that it is his bowling that brought him 54 wickets in 2009 putting him second behind Mitchell Johnson that is going to garner most attention. It was the first time that an England spin bowler had taken over 50 wickets in a year. The string of notable performances has seen Swann leap to No 3 in the world, the highest ranking for an England spinner in decades.
It has not been easy for Swann to make it to the top. In a pace oriented attack there can be place for only one spinner and Panesar for some time had that slot sewn up. But then Swann is made of sterner stuff. Fighting his way into the squad he produced a total of three four-wicket hauls in the two England victories in the Ashes series at Lord's and The Oval last year. He also had the honour of taking the decisive wicket of the series of Michael Hussey on the final day of the fifth Test.
Swann’s confidence borders on arrogance according to some and he can be over emotional. But he is also a fighter who is prepared to brave adverse situations or conditions. The great thing about him is that he bowls classical off spin whether it is Tests, ODIs or Twenty20. He eschews tactics like pushing them through quickly or bowling flatter. Even in the shorter versions of the game he bamboozles the best of batsmen through age old skills and shuns the defensive approach. This has stood him in good stead as figures of 50 wickets from 39 ODIs and 30 from 20 Twenty20 games will testify.