For some time now, Graeme Swann has been the best spin bowler in the game and with every outing the gap between him and other bowlers of his ilk grows wider. It is clear that when it comes to pure unadulterated skills, the 34-year-old England spinner is a joy to watch. It is also good to see him being rewarded regularly for his sublimity.
Off spin has never really been England’s traditional strength even though ironically they have produced arguably the greatest purveyor of this subtle art in Jim (19 for 90) Laker. The finest and most successful England bowlers have been those who hurtle them down at fearsome pace or swing the ball prodigiously.
Even when it comes to spin bowling, the best have been left armers like Hedley Verity, Tony Lock and Derek Underwood. After Laker there have been off spinners like David Allen, Fred Titmus, Ray Illingworth and John Emburey but none of them are in the outstanding category. Swann however has emerged as the best England off spinner since Laker and takes his placed alongside two other great purveyors of this art of the last 50 years Lance Gibbs and Erapalli Prasanna.
Indeed the more I see of Swann, the more I am reminded of Prasanna. The same economical action, the same smooth delivery with the high classic arm action and then of course the loop, the alluring flight, the sinuous dip, the impeccable line and length and the vicious turn – these are all the connoisseur’s dream and not since the days of Gibbs and Prasanna has there been an off spinner from the text book school in every way.
As it is, Swann’s figures are truly impressive. Following his third ten wicket haul in the just concluded Test against New Zealand at Leeds – essentially a seam bowler’s paradise – they stand at 222 wickets from 52 Tests at 28.50 apiece. The match figures of ten for 132 were the best of his career and like most spin bowlers, Swann is getting better when he is in his thirties. He had a late start playing his first Test in his 30th year but is clearly making up for lost time.
More than the impressive figures, it is the manner of his bowling that has caught the connoisseur’s attention. For all their remarkable feats, Muthiah Muralitharan, Harbhajan Singh and Saeed Ajmal, thanks to the controversy surrounding their actions, are not classical off spinners. Saqlain Mushtaq was another fine off spinner but I believe that Swann is the better bowler.
Swann belongs to the traditional and orthodox school. Right from his action to the way he deceives the batsmen in the air and off the pitch, he revives memories of the great off spinners of the past. Moreover he has this uncanny ability to pick up wickets whatever the surface and even on dead tracks he is a hard trier and can never be collared as an economy rate of 2.9 will illustrate.
It was against India at Chennai in December 2008 that Swann made his debut and he did not take long to exhibit his talent and skill. He took two wickets, those of Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in his first over - only the second time this has happened in Test cricket. Criticism for not being able to bowl out India in the fourth innings as the hosts raced to a famous victory was tempered by the fact that this was his first Test.
Since then Swann has shrugged off the challenge from Monty Panesar to become England’s leading spin bowler. His impeccable line and length, immense variety and the ability to keep his spirits up even in alien conditions has seen him make giant strides in this subtle art.
Swann’s gifts do not end with his bowling. His lusty lower order hitting that has got him five half centuries, a highest score of 85, an average of 23 and a strike rate that is over 75 is a bonus but there is little doubt that it is his bowling that garners much more attention.
In 2009, his first full year in Test cricket, he took 54 wickets putting him second behind Mitchell Johnson. It was the first time that an England spin bowler had taken over 50 wickets in a year. Since then he has had an unbroken run of success and if it is a truism that a spin bowler improves after he is 30 then Swann’s best still lies ahead.
It has not been easy for Swann to make it to the top. In a pace oriented attack there can be place for only one spinner and Panesar for some time had that slot sewn up. But then Swann is made of sterner stuff. Fighting his way into the squad he has produced a series of match winning performances that has put him in a league of his own.
The most striking aspect is that he has taken wickets consistently against all teams and in all countries - the hallmark of a truly great bowler. The apotheosis was perhaps his showing in India in the series late last year. He had the measure of the Indians, reputedly the best players of spin bowling in the game, and his 20 wickets in the four Test series was a crucial factor in England’s first triumph in this country for 28 years.