Graeme Swann has stunned the England Ashes party by announcing his retirement from international and first-class cricket, effective immediately.
In doing so, Swann leaves the game as one of the finest bowlers his country has produced and one of its most colourful personalities.
Swann’s retirement is the latest staging post in the dismantling of a golden era for English cricket. With Paul Collingwood and Andrew Strauss long gone, and with Jonathan Trott (at least for now) and Swann joining them, the halcyon days of 2010-11 seem a lifetime ago.
It is also a decision that plunges England’s disastrous Ashes tour to new depths. Swann is the second player to leave the tour mid-series, there have been three insipid Test performances and the Ashes have been surrendered by Christmas. The ‘Ashes Horribilis’ tour of 2006/07 is beginning to look like a jolly jaunt downunder by comparison.
While it had been predicted that this may be Swann’s final tour as an England cricketer, the nature and timing of the announcement has still taken everyone by surprise. Aged 34, nursing an increasingly troublesome elbow, and with a young family, Swann topped the list of would-be England retirees in the wake of the Ashes destruction.
The ramifications are plentiful. First and foremost, England are shorn of their premier spinner as they look to regain some semblance of pride in the final two matches of the series. Both at home and away, they will miss him in the longer term too, as his ability to simultaneously attack and hold up an end made him the pre-eminent conventional finger spinner of his generation.
Swann, as he mentioned in his final press conference, was a cricketer who played the game with a smile on his face. His pronouncement that “since I got back in the team I’ve treated everyday like a lottery win”, shone through in the manner that he went about his business on and off the field, often taking on an ugly and unglamorous role with vim and vigour and a belief that he had the best job in world.
Timing retirement is not always easy for a sportsperson. Some have it thrust upon them, others leave fans longing for more and some battle on with failing faculties and legacies eroded. The timing of Swann’s has inevitably sent tongues wagging and fingers typing furiously. Many have been quick to applaud him on a fantastic career and the role he has played in one of his country’s greatest cricket teams. Others have lampooned him for leaving when his team still needs him.
Ultimately, though, Swann was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Stay on and be accused of being in it for the cash, leave and he’s bottled it.
I understand the Swanny debate. Very difficult to judge not knowing the conversation. Suspect he was told not playing at MCG & given option
— Jonathan Agnew (@Aggerscricket) December 22, 2013
Swann’s decision looks the right one by his team, though. With an ageing squad reaching the end of a glorious cycle, the genial offie’s retirement leaves space for the selectors to plan for the future. Staying around for two more Tests helps few, as Swann acknowledged.
“With two games to go in Australia and then a fiercely competitive summer against Sri Lanka and India I feel that it is a great time for someone else to strap themselves in and hopefully enjoy the ride as much as I have. I could have made myself available for the last two Tests and maybe had a bit of a send-off from the Barmy Army. But that’s no reason to hang on for two more games. I like to be the centre of attention – but for the right reason by winning games of cricket.”
In the short term, Monty Panesar will surely play in the final two Tests of this series, but, with World Cups in T20 and ODIs as well as another Ashes series to come in the next 18 months, a long term successor needs to be found. Panesar, an awful batsman and worse fielder, is probably not that man. Turning 32 in April and with a turbulent personal life, not to mention mixed performances in the middle, he is unlikely to be tomorrow’s man. No doubt, though, that he will give his all whenever called upon.
Looking further forward, the cupboard is not exactly brimming with ready made successors. Beyond Monty, England have young Simon Kerrigan, brilliant at domestic level but the victim of a brutal demolition job by Shane Watson at the Oval in August, Danny Briggs, a rangy left-armer with ODI experience and Scott Borthwick, a leg-spinning all-rounder tipped for big things by Swann himself. Kerrigan and Briggs are in Australia with the England Performance Program.
This is a moment that also provides the opportunity for reflection on a sparkling career. Swann’s is a story that proves that good things come to those who wait. After a brief dalliance with ODI cricket when barely out of his teens, he returned to domestic cricket and didn’t make his Test debut until he was 29. In 60 Test matches he’s picked up 255 wickets at an average a smidgen under 30, contributing useful lower-order runs, and a safe pair of hands at second slip, too. He was spectacular against left-handers and had a happy knack of picking up a wicket in the first over of a spell.
In an era of small boundaries and big bats, Swann has plugged away at an art deemed unfashionable by all and defunct by many. To take as many wickets as he has without a doosra is also a fine achievement.
At his best, Swann was worth two bowlers for England and the lynchpin of the attack. Able to toil away for hours upon end, exacting pressure even on the most unhelpful of pitches, before slipping into fifth gear and attacking, made him a unique proposition in world cricket. Sadly, his body no longer allows this.
Lately, of course, he has struggled to achieve these dizzying heights. Faced with a right-hander heavy Australian middle order keen to take him apart, he has managed just seven wickets at 80 this series. We should be loath to forget, though, that only three men have more than his 43 Test wickets in 2013 and twice he was a match-winner for England in the northern summer.
Citing his own personal highlights, it was little surprise to hear Swann point to the three Ashes victories he has been involved in, while he described the England team as his “family” and said he would miss breakfast with his partner in crime Jimmy Anderson. The pair already host a BBC radio show and there is no doubt that commercial opportunities will be flying in for the personable and humorous Swann now that cricket is out of the way.
In his spare time, Swann is the frontman of an indie band, Dr Comfort and the Lurid Revelations, and in an era of manicured professionalism and manufactured press releases, he revels in his life outside the game. Always ready with a witty remark or quick quip, Swann’s relaxed attitude and everyman charm was a breath of fresh air.
He was a rock star on the field, too. In his first Ashes series in 2009, not yet a year into his career, Swann looked like the cat who’d got the cream as he flayed his way to a second innings 63 to push England close to victory. Cricketers don’t always make cricket look fun, but Swann could not believe his luck and was having the time of his life. Like a singer on stage, he lapped up the crowd’s adoration (in his head they were his groupies holding signs aloft and tossing underwear at him), grinned from ear to ear and put on one hell of a show.
Thanks for the memories, Swanny.