Savouring the spotlight

PICS: AP

What puts Graeme Swann in different terrain from the regular off-spinner who wheels away harmlessly is an undying zest for attack fuelled by a brain which serves as a repository of some fertile cricketing imagination, writes Arun Venugopal.

For myself I am an optimist — it doesn't seem to be much use being anything else.

— Winston Churchill.

Andrew Strauss, the England captain, calls him a buffoon. Even as the ‘ quite a character' label is set to be embossed on him, the ‘buffoon' is in the thick of some not so funny business — winning Test matches for his country and in the process, becoming the number one spinner of this blighted planet. Graeme Swann is indeed an eclectic mix of cockiness and talent. Add dollops of self belief and oodles of exuberance, season with panache and there is an inviting recipe for the opposition's disaster. Something that adversaries from Australia to Bangladesh have found out in the last couple of years.

While imposing images of Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke on the Big Ben have called for ‘ packing the urn', the tweaker from Nottingamshire clearly has raised the stakes for himself and his team. Swann has already “played out the first day in Brisbane in my head” and has bagged nine wickets sealing for England, a victory by an innings. And that's not all. His predictions (Swann would probably term them affirmations) for the series reads thus: “The batters will get 500 every game, I'll get 45 wickets.” The off-spinner's incurable optimism coupled with an ability to wreak havoc on any surface is quite likely to give pre-Ashes nightmares for Punter and his troop. The trio of Simon Katich, Michael Hussey and Marcus North need to strengthen their citadel as Swann has revelled in tormenting southpaws. He averages less than 22 against left-handers and scalps a wicket every 50 balls.

For all his flamboyance and love for the spotlight, Swann remains a simple, uncomplicated twirler. In a world dominated by doosras and carom balls, Swann's quiver is strangely devoid of flashy weaponry or mysterious legerdemain. Even his action isn't something that would qualify as a spectacle. A couple of relaxed strides set the tone for synchronous movement of arms and limbs which culminate into a breezy follow through. Certainly no Murali or Paul Adams at work. What puts him in different terrain from the regular off-spinner who wheels away harmlessly is an undying zest for attack fuelled by a brain which serves as a repository of some fertile cricketing imagination. Swann has certainly got a big heart which works seamlessly in tandem with his big hands that rip the ball with the ferocity of a man taming the beast.

It has certainly enabled him to unleash a buzz in the air and generate prodigious turn off the wicket. Also his natural drift has troubled the most obdurate of batsmen. But his only conspicuous variation remains the straighter one (He is still working on his version of the wrong ‘un). Swann's bowling, yet, is embellished by his loyalty to the subtler niceties of the art. Deceptive changes in pace and trajectory, apart from exploiting the potential of the crease, have aided his rapid ascent to the most feared bowlers' chart. This approach has drawn praise from one of the most illustrious members of his tribe — Shane Warne.

Trump card...As much as England skipper Andrew Strauss (left, in pic) jests about Swann, he would be the first to admit that the man with funky shades is the ace in the hole masquerading as a joker.-

The magician from Melbourne feels that Swann is the “most improved cricketer in the world”. Warne is also most impressed by Swann's inclination to attack without being fettered by changing formats of the game. Swann, who has had a few conversations with Warne about his craft in the past, admits that the spin wizard was a huge influence in his formative years. But for the Aussie who made flight, fizz and guile a ‘go-to' option, Swann might have given up spin bowling. Another leggie Mushtaq Ahmed, the spin bowling coach of England, has been a calming influence on the restless Swann.

What has supplemented the Swann symphony is an almost mystic ability to pick up wickets in his first over. He has, in fact done it 27 times out of his 113 wickets. Swann himself has not been able to put a finger on the phenomenon although he believes that his optimistic disposition at the beginning of a spell has helped create ‘a bit of an aura'. A clear product of positivity, Swann's bubbling zest found pristine expression with his batting pyrotechnics lower down the order. Swann's aggregate in the 2009 Ashes was 249 runs at an average of nearly 36, punctuated by a crucial 63 in the decider at the Oval. A deja vu was set to happen in South Africa as his exploits with the ball were given a lustrous coat by his free, uninhibited batting. The consistent effort duly fetched him the Man of the Series award.

His golden run continued in England's tour of Bangladesh where he became the first English off-spinner since Jim Laker in 1956 to take a 10-wicket haul in a match. Swann's versatility injected a lethal dynamism to English cricket, which has seen a renaissance under the Flower-Strauss regime. The ICC World T20 victory is a case in point. Swann tied a leash on the batsmen besides picking up 10 wickets. His alertness in the slip cordon also aided the team's cause.

In May this year, he was named ECB Cricketer of the Year. Soon after, he was nominated for the ICC Cricketer of the Year award. His name was initially omitted in the list of nominees which West Indian great Clive Lloyd later clarified as a ‘genuine oversight'. Not everything has, however, been hunky-dory for Swann. He was charged with drunk driving in April. Though the situation ought to have brought about some staid reactions, Swann's claim about purchasing screwdrivers to rescue his cat from under the floorboards brought the house down. The rock star in him lapped up the jokes on him and even managed to give a few of those back!

It has been a journey to treasure for the lad from Northants who eventually made the switch to Nottingham — a place where he prospered. With a solitary one-day international yielding five wicketless overs in 2000, Swann didn't wither away. Instead, he chose to back his pulsating confidence and infinite optimism. Ten years down the line, he is ready to battle for the biggest small prize as the piece de resistance of his bowling attack. As much as Strauss jests about Swann, he would be the first man to admit that the man with funky shades is the ace in the hole masquerading as a joker.