Sunday, 22 December 2013

How We Loved Ya?

Click for career stats
There will be no Swann song ... no circuit of the SCG and the adoration of the Barmy Army and the fair minded praise of a crowd which usually is happy to cheer a defeated champion. All we are left with is a jocular press conference from a polished and confident media performer, giving his all to have us believe he is a modern Brutus.

Like Brutus, his own sword drips with his blood ...

Night hangs upon mine eyes; my bones would rest,
That have but labour'd to attain this hour.

... or so the story is written.

I'm not having it.

Graeme Swann is among the more ebullient of all modern cricketers. He belongs to that generalised group of players that former England captain Andrew Strauss referred to as "dressing room characters". Kevin Pietersen is one. Jimmy Anderson another and Matt Prior a third. All players which we might have previously described as having "strong personalities". All immensely successful. All immensely talented. All playing vital roles in England's ride to the top of world cricket. It was Strauss' great gift that he could manage these men, all with their mood swings and robustly presented views on the world often finding their way into social media. In essence, Strauss was a better man manager than batsman; a manipulator who could draw the best from each and do so without letting their characters abrade each other into team disintegration.

England became great under Strauss, just as they were poor under Freddie Flintoff - a great bloke, a great talent, a man of great generosity but a fellow member of the "dressing room characters".

Swann was a talent and deserved, a few years ago, to be considered the best spinner in the world. His best work wasn't how much spin he put on the ball but the disbelief he created in batsmen by ripping a few and bowling the rest more or less straight at off stump, causing an extraordinarily high percentage of his 255 Test wickets (50%) to fall bowled or with the pad intervening.

There are two other stats which make Swann unusual: 30% of his victims were openers or first drop and the number of times he took wickets in the first over of a spell.

He finishes his career second to Derek Underwood as England's leading spinner, although never really in Deadly's class.

Swann was however world class as a slipper, virtually never dropping easy ones and regularly holding screamers. He was Mark Waugh standard at second slip and a better poucher than his captains who stood beside him at first slip.

He was a handy, lower order flogger who played expansive drives or edged to slip and not much else.

Now he has retired, mid series, with the two biggest grounds, two best crowds in world cricket left untouched. Retired from everything. No statements of returning to England and considering other options like most do ... an IPL contract for instance ... just see you later, I'm out of here.

Why?

At not quite 35, Swann claimed that he knew it was time to go in Perth ... no, Adelaide, that's right, half way through Adelaide ... no, it was at the Oval when the last Test of previous Ashes series was finished ... whenever, Swann was trying hard to peddle a trike with a bent front fork. His arm was getting too sore to continue in long form cricket, yet of the bowlers who have taken between 200 and 300 Test wickets, his workload is average, a little more than two and a half thousand overs.

If it were the case that five days was too taxing, why retire from all forms?

His dismissed questions about his Facebook comments after the Perth Test as having influenced his decision. He had commented on his brother's post than he had been "ass-raped in Perth", in reference to the mauling his bowling received at the WACA. Understandably, many groups in communities here and in England found these comments offensive but the reality is his comment represents a certain carelessness and lack of insight rather than arrogance. Besides, cricketers and social media faux paus are common enough company. Have you noticed how inform batsmen rarely fall victim to idle thoughts which they fail to sweep from their mind before tweeting? They spend too much time in the middle.

No one pushed Swann to retire but almost certainly Andy Flower and Alastair Cook have provided the trigger moment. Having listened to the press conference, read Swann's Sun article where he announced his intentions and then absorbed what was being said by those close to and in the team, there can be no other conclusion that Swann was to be dropped for Melbourne. If Swann had been already thinking the end was approaching, there would be no reason for him to continue and his confidence and yes, ego (its not a dirty word remember) left him no other option.

There were small but relevant hints in in the press conference. Swann started with an apology to the assembled media that he wasn't wearing his official cap because "they can't make me wear that anymore." He made mention that Monty Panesar would do a good job in Melbourne when all the talk has been of playing four quicks. How does he know Panesar will play unless the left arm spinner has been chosen in his place?

Andy Flower has distributed a press release which talks of Swann's brilliant career (past tense), that he will be missed in the dressing rooms and wishing him well for the future. It is the sort of thanks and move-on statement management releases when they disregard long term players. Swann talked in his press conference about Flower drilling him about the decision to retire ... was he 100% sure? ... was he 1000% sure? None of which mitigates against the possibility that Swann had been dropped.

Cook has been nowhere to be seen. He has none of the qualities of Strauss and his team has been disintegrating since he took over and without the unique management skills over his "dressing room characters", St George can no longer slay the dragon. He is a better batsman than man manager. Contrast him to Darren Lehmann for the dragons in green caps and the two factors soon become the large gap between the Ashes combatants this summer.

The game will be smaller without Graeme Swann: smaller and less interesting. Guys like Swann don't wait very well, so they make things happen. It doesn't always go in their favour, on or off the field and when it doesn't, it gets messy. Like most major endeavours, cricket is dominated by bean counters and same-ists. These are the type of men who would have stopped Doug Walters career at the U/16's. They espouse convention and excise originality. Yet despite these dour accountants who paint the sport in beige, Swanns and Pietersen's and Priors and Warners and Warnes and Chappellis and Johnsons and Gilmores ... rise spectacularly above them, even if only briefly and give us lesser mortals smiles to carry through the dull years and more importantly, stories to tell. Which would you rather talk about: Bill Lawry's double century in Melbourne or Walters last ball six for a hundred in Perth?

Swann didn't leave on his own terms but at least he left with dignity and in the next best manner. He didn't get, as he said in his press conference, the 10fa and circuit of the ground in his last game that he might have liked, but at least he denied anyone the chance of dropping him ... officially, at least.

Who will be next?

Will Pietersen be next?
Swann says he doesn't know ... but it won't be Anderson. He's talked to Anderson. The omission suggests that Matt Prior and Kevin Pietersen may be next to grab their sword and run on it.

Prior's keeping has been poor and his batting has had none of the aggressive resistance which has stolen Test matches around the world but all to often against Australia but, even so, to sack him for Jonny Bairstow, a stand in keeper at best and a player still well short of the class needed for this level, only signals panic. At 0-3, they are entitled to such reactions but trusting champions seems the better course. There is that adage about the stream and when to change horses.

Likewise, Pietersen has been poor but with not one Englishman having made over 200 runs in the first three Tests, he is hardly the lone wolf in need of banishment. Mind you, if England had a James Taylor in the touring squad, it might be a different story. It's hard to imagine Bairstow or Garry Balance being trusted enough to replace Pietersen. If they do, count on another press conference before Boxing Day but one with less jocularity and warm humour than Swann exuded. If Swann's media persona is pistols at dawn, Pietersen's is Hiroshima.

It has been a sensational summer. The Ashes are regained, Clarke redeemed, Johnson rebooted and the Englishmen, despite being at the seasonally wrong end of the life line, have been hung on the St George's Cross and are being crucified by the same media who taunted Australians with the ignominy to delivered by "their" team come the New Year.

Success really is fragile and timing is everything. Mr Shakespeare, that noted English off spinner, middle order bat and writer of the club newsletter, probably had it right. He was a drinker at Strattford's 'Black Swan', which makes his observation poignant.

"Better three hours too soon than a minute too late." ... from the Merry XI Of Windsor, no less.

Who says irony is just for poets?