Graeme Swann and Ian Bell combine to dismiss Ashwell Prince for 16 runs: Swann would finish with nine wickets in the match. Photo: Paul Gilham/Getty Images.
With his long-sleeved shirt and buttoned-collar there’s something appeallingly old-fashioned about Graeme Swann. True, the sunglasses he often favours add a modern touch but, at bottom, Swann’s the kind of chirpy Englishman familiar from so many classic Second World War movies. You can easily imagine him serving under Noel Coward aboard the Torrin in David Lean’s In Which We Serve.
He is, without doubt, England’s cricketer of the year and I expect Wisden will ratify this come the spring when it the venerable almanack selects its Five Cricketers of the Year. Patrick Kidd has a nice piece in which he runs through all the necessary numbers: suffice it to say that Swann’s Year has been remarkable and that 62 wickets from his first 14 tests is a splendid return. Right now he possesses perhaps the most priceless attribute in cricket: he plays without fear.
True, sustaining this level of performance will be difficult and true too, Swann has been helped by umpires’ increased willingness to give front-foot LBW decisions but neither consideration diminishes Swann’s achievement this year. He has earned his chance and his success and, by doing so, reminded us that there’s still a place for classical off-spin in the modern game. Not for Swann, you see, the miserly fire-it-in-at-leg-stump approach: no, he bowls an attacking line with just enough loop and drift to discombobulate the batsman. (And speaking of off-spin, it’s worth celebrating Nathan Hauritz’s recent successes too.)
Swann’s success is also a welcome filip for the County Championship. In an age in which England have often put a low price on achievements in the Championship Swann’s development as a cricketer reminds us that the old girl can still breed test cricketers. It’s depressing that this needs to be pointed out, not least because other countries have capitalised on the training the Championship provides. Nevertheless, England have too often discounted County achievements and even when releasing players to represent their County have treated the domestic game as little more than a glorified practice net where players go to rediscover some confidence or fine-tune their game.
But it is, or at least should be, more than that. At 30 Swann has nearly a decade of first-class cricket behind him. The 450-odd wickets he has taken for Northants and Notts testify to the fact that you learn much more about your game in the middle than in the nets or from poring over video analysis. The best preparation for test cricket, most of the time and for most players, is playing well at a lower level.
More than anything else, however, it is Swann’s enthusiasm for the game that is so refreshing. Perhaps this is simply a case of a man revelling in an unexpected second chance but perhaps its because he hasn’t been brought up as part of "Team England" (ugh!) that Swann actually comes across as a bona fide human being. Contrast Swann’s candour in interviews with the dreary cliches offered by the likes of Cook and Broad. Even in victory this morning, all Broad’s responses to the TMS interviewer were stuffed with banalities about "being patient" and "scoreboard pressure" and, of course, "putting it in the right areas". There must be more to Stuart Broad than this, surely?
A telling moment: when Swann was asked about Trott’s interminable scratchings as he prepares to take guard – 45 seconds in one case during this match – Swann cheerfully admitted that Trott’s habits drove him mad when he faced Trott in County cricket, trusting I presume, that the audience would be intelligent enough to appreciate the difference between playing with Trott and playing against him. I suspect the other England players would not have dared be so candid. A night out with Swann, you think, might be quite a lot of fun. You couldn’t say that about every member of this England team.
Of course given the form he’s in it would be a surprise if there wasn’t something joyful about Swann’s play right now. Nonetheless, he gives the impression of understanding that while cricket is his job it’s not just a job and that having fun doesn’t mean you can’t also take the game seriously. This too is in marked contrast to the approach favoured by some of his team-mates.
His second year will doubtless prove more difficult than his first but Graeme Swann has been the best thing about watching England this year and long may he continue to enjoy the game as much as he does and long may his attitude and his cheery candour survive the "professional" ethos that too often suggests that if you’re having fun you’re doing something wrong.
*Yes, I know, obvious. But also, you know, appropriate.
PS: Don’t forget that the Christmas Quiz is also a New Year’s Quiz. Have at it…