Watching the last two tests of the Ashes has been a surreal experience for fans of spin bowling, or more accurately for those with a persuasion for English spinners. In Melbourne, as England’s fast bowlers did a fantastic job putting Australia on the back foot in the first innings, Monty Panesar ended up bowling only nine overs out of 82, and even more appallingly was entrusted with just eight overs when England were defending a fourth innings target of 231. As I am writing this piece during the first day of the fifth test in Sydney, debutant Scott Borthwick has been thrashed for 49 off seven overs, this after the fasters had reduced the Aussies to 97 for 5.
Oh, what Alastair Cook wouldn’t do to have Graeme Swann in the team? England’s best off spinner since Jim Laker, Swann abruptly retired from the game after the third test in Perth, having a listless series as Australia’s top order aggressively went after him, in the process negating his wicket-taking ability as well as tarnishing his miserly economy. Several good cricket writers have weighed in with their take on the debate about whether Swann’s decision was cowardly or just an act of someone who has always been an independent soul. As far as I am concerned, I feel a sense of loss as the cricketing world has lost a quality bowler who at his best won test matches with excellent off spin, deceiving many of the world’s best batsmen with the classic virtues of spin bowling — tempting flight and elegant drift.
In total, Swann ended up playing only five full years of test cricket, yet finished with amazing figures of 255 wickets at an average of 29.96. I dedicate this piece to Swann’s fantastic talent by remembering five of his best performances in test cricket. It should be noted that Swann delivered several good performances in the shorter forms of the game as well, including playing a key role in helping England win the 2010 World Twenty20 in the Caribbean. Also keep in mind, that the choice of five matches listed in chronological order below are strictly based on my interpretation of how decisive Swann’s contributions were considering the circumstances of the match and series in addition to the calibre of the opposition.
5th Test vs Australia at the Oval, 2009
Swann had match figures of 8-158 and scored 81 runs.
Australia and England came into the decisive fifth test of the 2009 Ashes with the series tied at one apiece. Australia had all the momentum as their four-pronged pace attack destroyed the hosts to win the fourth test by an innings and 80 runs at Headingley.
English captain Andrew Strauss won the toss and chose to bat, and Swann’s first minor albeit important contribution was actually with the bat. Swann came to the crease with England in a precarious position at 268 for 7. In partnership with Stuart Broad, Swann ensured that England crossed 300, with the innings ultimately finishing on 332.
Broad and Swann then teamed up again, this time to great effect with the ball in Australia’s first innings. After a good opening stand of 73 between Simon Katich and Shane Watson, Broad removed Watson, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey in quick succession. Swann then joined the fun, getting rid of southpaws Marcus North and the well-set Katich in the space of four deliveries, deceiving both batsmen with arm balls. He helped clean up the tail, and finished with figures of 4 for 38 from 14 overs.
With Australia now firmly etched on the back foot, Graeme Swann joined debutant Jonathan Trott at the crease in the second innings, with England already 405 runs in the lead. If Australia thought England were going to take it easy, Swann gave the visiting bowlers no respite, thrashing 63 runs of 55 balls, as well as guiding Trott along the nervous nineties to a well-deserved century in his first test match.
Australia were never going to chase 546, but once again Watson and Katich put up a dogged opening stand. With the score on 86, England finally got the breakthrough they craved, as Swann deceived Simon Katich again, who injudiciously left an arm ball to be trapped plumb in front of the wicket. Ponting and Hussey put on a brilliant partnership to delay the inevitable, but once the captain and Michael Clarke got run out in quick succession, Swann removed North for the second time in the match. Hussey and Brad Haddin put on a fighting partnership of 91, before Swann induced the latter to play a rash shot. Steve Harmison made short work of the Australian tail, before Swann took the final wicket of Hussey to seal the match and return the Urn to England after the legendary 5-0 humiliation suffered in Australia.
2nd Test vs South Africa at Kingsmead, 2009
Swann had match figures of 9-164
England came into the second test after saving defeat by the skin of their teeth in the first test at Centurion as Graham Onions survived 3.1 overs as last man in the company of Paul Collingwood, depriving South Africa of the lead in the series.
After losing two quick wickets on the first morning, Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis built a serene partnership of 150 for the third wicket. Just as it started to look like England were not going to get another wicket, Swann spun one way from Kallis to take his edge and provide the team with a much-needed breakthrough. Swann took the lower order wickets of Mark Boucher, Morne Morkel and Paul Harris, with South Africa only crossing 300 due to a ferocious onslaught of hitting from Dale Steyn.
England batted beautifully to reach 574, and on a wearing pitch Swann proved unplayable as he captured 5 for 54 including three lbw’s and a fantastic ball to bowl Hashim Amla through the gate. Swann’s mastery helped England win by an innings in Durban, a victory which ultimately helped them draw a series in which South Africa thoroughly outplayed the visitors in the other three test matches.
2nd Test vs Australia at Adelaide, 2010
Swann had match figures of 7-161
After drawing the first test in Brisbane despite being behind for three and a half days, England came to Adelaide — the venue of one of their most disappointing defeats to Australia — for the second Ashes test. Australia won the toss and chose to bat on a beautiful batting pitch at the Adelaide Oval.
James Anderson bowled brilliantly on the first morning to reduce Australia to 2 for 3 and then 96 for 4. After Michael Hussey led another recovery, Swann removed Mr. Cricket and Ryan Harris in successive balls, spinning one away followed by a straight one. The quick wickets ensured Australia were scuttled out for 245.
England amassed 620 for 5, on the back of a brilliant double century by Kevin Pietersen. Australia were facing a losing battle to survive, but once again managed a good opening partnership, before Swann dismissed Simon Katich yet again, followed quickly by the crucial wicket of Ricky Ponting. Swann cleaned up the tail, bowling Xavier Doherty and Peter Siddle to end up with five wickets in a massive innings win. The win in Adelaide set the tone for the series, as England had a series lead in Australia for the first time in 20 odd years. Swann continued to play an important role in the series, as England had two other innings wins in Melbourne and Sydney to retain the Ashes.
2nd Test vs Sri Lanka at Colombo, 2012
Swann had match figures of 10-181
After being dismantled by Saeed Ajmal in the UAE, England’s trial by spin had a new tormentor in Sri Lanka as Rangana Herath took 12 wickets to lead the hosts to a 75-run win in the first test at Galle. Swann himself took 6 for 82, but it turned out to be a futile effort in light of the English batsmen’s struggles against spin.
The odds weren’t good for England when Sri Lanka won the toss and chose to bat first in the second test at Colombo. After James Anderson bowled another fantastic new ball spell to take three early wickets, Mahela Jayawardene, Thilan Samaraweera and Angelo Mathews helped Sri Lanka recover. Just when it seemed as the game was running away from England, Swann dismissed Jayawardene with a ball that turned in sharply, before getting rid of the dangerous Matthews along with a few quick wickets in the tail to dismiss Sri Lanka for 275.
Kevin Pietersen then played another memorable innings stroking 151 of 165 balls on a spinning pitch. England finished their innings with a lead of 185, and Sri Lanka would have to face a trial of spin on their own patch. Despite the Sri Lankan batsmen playing with patience, they had no solution against Swann who reverted to bowling around the wicket consistently bamboozling some of the finest players of spin in the subcontinent with his drift. Swann took six wickets consistently pinning the Sri Lankans on the back foot, as England won the test by eight wickets to square the series. The win was crucial in giving England the belief to win in the subcontinent, and was to be a harbinger of things to come for another trial by spin later that year in India.
2nd Test vs India at Mumbai, 2012
Swann had match figures of 8-113
After suffering a nine-wicket thrashing in the first test match of the series in Ahmedabad, the doom-mongers were predicting the worst for England in India. MS Dhoni wanted a raging turner in Mumbai, and duly got his wish as he won the toss and India batted first.
Swann’s spin partner Monty Panesar caused most of the early damage by dismissing Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli. Swann then delivered a beauty to bowl Yuvraj Singh. India recovered from their mid-innings wobble primarily due to the efforts of the indefatigable Cheteshwar Pujara, who scored a magnificent century. India were looking to push on at 315 for 7 with Harbhajan Singh on the rampage, before Swann took the wickets of Bhajji, Pujara and Zaheer Khan in the space of eight deliveries to dismiss India for a total of 327.
Considering England’s travails against spin, India still had the advantage with their score. When Nick Compton and Jonathan Trott departed in quick succession to leave England dangling at 68 for 2, India were clearly in the drivers seat. However, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen put on a great partnership, with the latter playing one of the great match-winning innings — a sumptuous 186 of 233 runs.
So much has been written about Pietersen and Swann not being the best of friends in the dressing room, but two of England’s most eccentric and unique individuals often contributed simultaneously in England’s most significant wins. This occasion was to be no different. England had what many considered a modest lead of 85, but with Panesar and Swann in tandem on a raging turner, the spinning duo made it a match-winning lead. Panesar got 6 wickets, but crucially Swann got the wickets of Pujara and Kohli, as well as the last wicket of Gautam Gambhir who top scored with 65. India became victims in their own trap, falling for a paltry 142, as Cook and Compton ensured England romped home when chasing 57. India never recovered, as England won the next test in Kolkata and subsequently their first series win in India in nearly three decades.