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The Return of the Cheeky Chappie

24 March 2010.

England’s spin sensation plays like a man eager for a scrap and bowls like one expecting to take wickets. Long may his tribe last.

Like all countries of any age, England has endured its share of caricatures. Basil Fawlty, Captain Mainwaring, Richard the Lionheart, Robin Hood, Jonathan Ross, Beau Nash, George Formby, the Carry On films – it’s a strange mixture of fact and fiction and all pointing towards an image that is at once an amusement and an aspiration.

Naturally it’s the same in English cricket, for a game is in part an expression of a wider psyche. Was anyone surprised that the Germans prevailed in the semi-finals of the World Cup hockey? If not, why not? The response is informative and raises an issue many are reluctant to address: the notion that nations have cultures that are constantly but slowly evolving around an inner core. Of course, the same applies to families and schools and teams and companies and so forth.

Graeme Swann

Graeme Swann bowling against Sri Lanka at Lord’s in June 2011.
Photo ©: rayand, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Luckily England has a history calculated to inspire, and a cricketing tradition able to uplift. If the 1981 and 2005 series cannot instill ambition then the game is up. Over the years English cricket had had its share of archetypal characters. Most especially, it has unfurled the unyielding aristocrat, sent to cold boarding schools by parents serving overseas, the red-cheeked toff, the pragmatic professional, the betrayed working-class fast bowler, the nuggety opener, the wide boy from south of the river, the overwhelmed country lad, the canny northerner.

And they have played in the same team. Cricket’s greatest triumph has been its ability to hold all sorts together. When other English games were torn apart by social considerations preventing working man and upper classes playing in the same team, cricket found ways and means of avoiding a split. Outsiders look askance at the different gates and dressing rooms and hotels and names and trains used by professionals and amateurs in the first half of the 20th century and conclude that cricket was the most class-ridden of all English sports. At best it is an oversimplification. Rugby, tennis, soccer, cycling and athletics divided along class lines. Cricket used various devices to remain intact – such as matches between Gentlemen and Players and so forth. A more interesting question is why that happened. Only the complacent will put it down entirely to love of the game. Shortages of bowlers might have had a part to play, and the fact that from the start the game was played in villages and public schools. It had a foot in both camps. That was not as true of rugby or soccer.

Of course, nowadays archetypes are not so easily outlined. Much can be told from the comedies shown on television and the novels appearing in bookshops. England has become a far more cosmopolitan society. Nationalists argue that the diversity is the very cause of the decline. Patriots suggest it is a deterioration, the inevitable result of the tiredness caused by social upheaval, world wars and a long period of high achievement and attendant pressure. Optimists like your correspondent are convinced that the fightback will be led by these new communities who arrive seeking opportunity and ready to roll up their sleeves. Already they are playing an enormous part on the cricket field. The question is not why imports like Chris Kieswetter and Jonathan Trott thrive; the issue is why Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior made the grade and not a hundred thousand other young cricketers from Hull to Highgate.

Nowadays it is true the team is more geographic than previously and seems to consist mostly of South Africans, Durhamites and sons of past players, a point that the more thoughtful of the English scribes are starting to address. Indeed, it seemed for a time that archetypes were a thing of the past as the team became ever broader. And then came Graeme Swann to brighten things up.

Actually he is more duck than swan. Inescapably he belongs to the great English tradition of the cheeky chappie. It is a revival that raises hopes of resurgence in the team and the country. Here is a young man of no particular brilliance prepared to mix it with brazen Australians and superb Indians. Here is a cricketer who fancies his chances, a player drawn by love, fuelled by audacity, driven by fighting spirit, sustained by ambition.

About the only surprise in his story is that he was born in Northampton, a Midlands city known mostly for its red bricks and shoes. It’s as daft as David Gower turning out for Leicestershire not Kent. Recovering from this early setback, Swann has built a career founded as much on attitude as skill. Optimism has played a huge part in his rise. He plays cricket like a man eager for a scrap and not too bothered about the niceties. He bowls like a man expecting to take wickets and unaware that fingerspin had been consigned to the dustbin (at any rate unless it was backed up by a mystery ball or curious conveyance and bewildering progress). Swann had no such weapon at his disposal and still rose to the top. In some respects he resembles Ian Botham, another man unwilling to give the game second best.

In part, Swann has been lucky with his timing. After all, he is an offspinner in an age of left-handers. Not the least significant change in the game over the last few years has been the emergence of so many lefties, many of them stronger in the right hand. Before long coaches will be obliged to throw away the manuals and change their way of thinking. S Rajesh, Cricinfo’s indefatigable statistician, recently revealed that Swann averages 22 against left-handers and 40 against the right-handed brigade. No wonder offies are popping up all over the place – even in Australia.

Nor has the change been limited to batting. Swann has also been helped by the number of left-arm speedsters running around. Towards the end of matches he is able to aim at the footmarks left by the operators, friendly and hostile, and can still expect to hit the wickets. Even the most accomplished batsmen have found themselves groping at him, trying to cover the ball turning back sharply from the rough, and thus vulnerable to the delivery that goes straight along. It’s no accident that good bowlers take wickets with straight balls. Batsmen are set up.

But it has not merely been a matter of right place at the right time. Swann has dared to attack. For years English spinners, especially, were more inclined to defend. John Emburey was an expert practitioner who bowled stump to stump, keeping a tight line, probing away, returning tidy figures, waiting for a mistake. Ashley Giles tried to frustrate batsmen, once directing his attentions a foot outside Sachin Tendulkar’s leg stump (and securing praise from the more craven commentators). In cricket parlance it is called a dry line. In reality it is dull cricket. Monty Panesar adopted the same strategy. In the end it has not been quite enough. Too many batsmen were willing to milk the orthodox spinners, too many hours passed between scalps.

Swann challenged these glum metrics and emerged triumphant. From the outset he sets out to take a wicket every ball. It’s his nature. As much can be told from his batting, with its swashbuckling shots and refusal to regret. As a rule Swann sends the score surging along at a run a ball, and never mind that the team is in trouble or that it is a highly respectable five-day match. He takes brave decisions and then defies the game to do its worst. To him caution is defeat. Apart from anything else, he is bad at it.

Although a spinner, he is about as docile as a rottweiler. Much could be gleaned from his belated first over in Test cricket. Within six balls he had removed two batsmen. Nor were they mugs. His victims were Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid. It was a remarkable contribution. Shane Warne himself could not have grabbed the ball with as little fear and as much impact. The Indians left the field with a bemused air. How on earth had they managed to miss apparently innocuous offbreaks? And twice in one fell swoop? Dravid’s defence is supposed to be impenetrable. But these dismissals were not flukes. Swann landed each ball perfectly and beat superb opponents in the air and off the pitch. Of course he celebrated the dismissals, but he looked pleased, as opposed to surprised. As far as he was concerned it was a beginning not an end.

And those first two wickets pointed towards strength in his game. Swann can flight the ball. Again, he is a man of his times. As anyone following the careers of Daniel Vettori and Nathan Hauritz could confirm, flight is back in business. Ten years ago anyone prepared to toss the ball into the air was dismissed as a doomed romantic. Heavy bats, short boundaries and shorter matches had sent slow bowlers to the knacker’s yard. Cricket had become a power game. Only freakish spinners could survive. Before that, pace was supposed to be the supreme ruler.

Perhaps it is cyclical. Somewhere along the way batsmen forgot about footwork and reading from the hand. Maybe, too, they forgot about stroking the ball into gaps or dropping it at their toes. Whatever the reason, batsmen became less confident against flighted deliveries. Swann and company have been able to exploit this weakness. Swann has beaten great batsmen like Ricky Ponting and Jacques Kallis, penetrating their defences, clean-bowling them or enticing an edge. And so the great mind falls to the unconsidered question.

Now Swann has risen to second in the rankings. It is an extraordinary achievement. Happily, too, he has remained the same chirpy fellow. At once he is a handful and a throwback. Above all, he is a fine cricketer and a distinctively English character, a wide boy, An Eastender in the blitz, ignoring the bombs and calling out the price of apples, with a little added for his back pocket.

This article was written for ESPN cricinfo.
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