The stats speak for Graeme Swann and speak well. He has 255 wickets in 60 Tests at 29.96, in a career that started late but ended abruptly. But in the 2008 to 2013 span that Swann played, England were among the best Test teams in the world, and Swann had a large role to play in making that happen. The offspinner preferred the longer format, but he did very well in One-Day Internationals too, snapping up 104 wickets at 27.76 in 79 games, with an excellent economy rate of 4.54. With his classical action and loop, Swann was a throwback to an earlier generation that did not have ‘doosras’ and ‘carrom balls’ in their artillery, relying instead on flight, changes in speed and length and angle. Swann can now be heard on radio, calling cricket matches in his inimitable style that effortlessly merges wit with insight. On the sidelines of the Champions Trophy 2017, he took time to speak to Wisden India about England’s one-day rise, putting country over IPL, legspin being the most difficult art to master, R Ashwin’s development and much else. Excerpts:
You’ve seen England’s 2015 World Cup and their present form. What’s the reason behind their rise in one-day cricket?
I think the main reason is picking guys who are specialist one-day players. Certainly in the era that I played, if you played in the Test side, you played in the one-day team. We played a brand of old-fashioned cricket. We were lagging behind. So that World Cup (2015) really exacerbated the whole thing. Teams like Australia and South Africa would get 400s. We were thinking it would be great to get 300. Things had to change. Eoin Morgan as a captain is great. Trevor Bayliss as well, picking the guys who play T20 cricket. The sky is the limit when they bat; 400 is possible rather than impossible. They just play with a lot more belief now. It’s great to see from an English point of view.
Do you think England gave less importance to the shorter format earlier?
I don’t think so. The focus when I was playing was on trying to win. When you are doing well in one form of the game, like we were in Test cricket for a long time, we rely on that and forget about the others, almost subconsciously. I think we did lag a long way behind. We saw what the other teams were doing – India, South Africa, New Zealand – we just refused to believe to play the new way. There is no point getting 280 now. I remember a World Cup game in Colombo where we got 230 and were convinced it was a good score and they knocked it off in 29 overs. We were a long way behind. Thankfully everything has changed. I think it’s just the attitude. These guys – (Ben) Stokes, Morgan, (Jos) Buttler – they go out there, match-winners themselves, and they are actually allowed to play like that.
Stokes and Buttler did very well in the IPL. Do you think that will help in their performance for England?
I do. More than anything, being in the IPL, you are surrounded by the best one-day players in the world. Stokes sat down and had a half-hour conversation with MS Dhoni. It’s only going to make him a better cricketer. Stokes, now, truly believes he is world class. How he played in the IPL, he was getting Man of the Match every week, and the confidence coming from that, coming into this tournament, he now believes that he’s an absolute world-beater. That rubs off on to the other players. (Chris) Woakes got injured because of the IPL, it’s a shame for England but it will do their game a world of good. It’s been a shame for England that guys have not been able to play in IPL because of the scheduling. I think the more they get exposed to the IPL and the BBL, they are going to be better and better players.
Earlier, you were quite critical of the IPL. So has your opinion changed?
It is changing. But they allowed Stokes and Woakes to stay in India to play in the IPL. I personally don’t agree with that because I think you must be playing for your country. We are just one of the only countries that clash with the IPL which is because of where we are in the world — the northern hemisphere. Something that I don’t agree with is if there is an international game, you should always play for your country. I think they could have missed a couple of IPL games even though it’s Ireland and not Australia. I think you should still get your cap. The ECB seem to be more flexible now. I know Kevin Pietersen always wanted to play IPL. It was a very strong line they took then — you are playing for your country and not IPL. I agree with that. But the way the world is going at the moment, the way cricket is moving on, inevitably, players have got more power than they ever had because of the money. It was going to happen sooner than later.
Don’t you think playing in the IPL will serve a Stokes and a Woakes better than playing ODIs against Ireland?
Undoubtedly, you are going to play better games but that’s not the point. I think, to say it was just Ireland, it’s degrading the opposition. It degrades an international cap. I don’t think that’s right. Undoubtedly, you are going to play better cricket (in the IPL). Essentially, you are not going to gain anything by playing against Ireland but I think it’s humiliating for Ireland. It’s like saying we really don’t care about you and you are a B-grade nation. I don’t think you should treat an international cap like that. Every game is massive for your country.
On England’s new T20 league
“We haven’t got Bollywood, we haven’t got two billion cricket-mad people in this country making the IPL a surefire success. So when they did it in Australia and it’s so successful, that’s our model. And we’re going to copy that, and about time I think they should. There are a lot of people in England who are against it, all the counties are, but it’s inevitable. It will work, it will make us better in the future. If you can get the world’s best players in your country for two or three weeks playing in a huge tournament, you should do it.”
But now every nation has a franchise-based T20 league…
I think they have to. I think the IPL, and especially the BBL – I mean the BBL is a lot closer to the English system because there’s not going to be the sort of razzmatazz that India brought along, which is incredible. We haven’t got Bollywood, we haven’t got two billion cricket-mad people in this country making the IPL a surefire success. So when they did it in Australia and it’s so successful, that’s our model. And we’re going to copy that, and about time I think they should. There are a lot of people in England who are against it, all the counties are, but it’s inevitable. It will work, it will make us better in the future. If you can get the world’s best players in your country for two or three weeks playing in a huge tournament, you should do it. That’s my view.
But given your country-first stance, with every nation having a T20 league – when do you play international cricket?
Well that’s the thing. It’s something that’s got to be looked at. Everyone will want a piece of the pie when it comes to Twenty20, but for me Test cricket is the ultimate. I think everyone who plays still wants to play Test cricket. You will inevitably get some players who just want to play T20, good luck to them. Youngsters coming up now will want to get rich and probably might not like Test cricket. But I think nearly everyone who plays these days still loves Test cricket. And I think there’s always a way to fit it in. There’s 52 weeks in a year, you can fit it in!
Of late, legspinners have been doing well in international cricket…
I think international cricket is begging for a match-winning legspinner again. In Test match cricket, we need a Shane Warne to come along. Because he is the best bowler ever to have played the game, without a doubt.
The best bowler?
Legspin is impossible to bowl. You can’t learn it. You’re either born to do it, or not. He was born to do it. He never bowled badly. He is the best bowler in my opinion to have ever played Test cricket. What any team would do for Shane Warne. He also had Glenn McGrath at the other end, which makes it a lot easier to get wickets!
But I think there’s some good offspinners around the world. I mean Ashwin’s flying the flag. Nathan Lyon’s a good bowler. I know he didn’t have a great tour of India but he’s a good bowler. The lad from Bangladesh coming through, the youngster – Mehedi Hasan Miraz – he bowled very nicely as well. As long as some spin taking part in the game, I’m happy, leg or off. As long as there’s spinners.
Staying with spin, you had a very clean and classical action. You don’t always see that in world cricket. Does that bother you?
Well, I think now they have cleaned it up a lot. Basically you can’t bowl the doosra at a decent pace without bending your arm, and I think they’ve realised that. But you know I’ve got nothing against people who could do it. It was part of the rules and they did it brilliantly for a lot of years. But personally, as a purist, I prefer if for your variations you have to come up with clever use of the ball and use of the crease or something like that. It’s not very nice facing someone who chucks at you at 100 miles an hour, so I don’t think it’s very fair! But like I said I don’t blame any youngsters coming up who watched guys bowling doosras and would have learned to do it. So it’s unfair to them that the game has clamped down on it. But at the end of the day, if it’s in the laws you’ve got to stick by them. And they have tightened up on the laws so you don’t see doosras nowadays because as I said you can’t bowl it quicker than about 30 miles an hour, legally I don’t think.
As an offspinner, what did you think of Ashwin’s home season and development?
It doesn’t surprise me at all, because I’ve always seen just how talented he was. Like we said earlier with Ben Stokes, it’s when you start really believing how good you are. India have relied on him through these Test matches and he’s bowled so well. If you get ten wickets in a match, you believe in the next game you’re going to do the same. I think he focussed a little bit on his poorer form away from home, but if you get to play in India for 13 Test matches, you cash in. You get as many wickets as humanly possible because that’s the place of offspin, let’s face it. And he’s a brilliant bowler because he just bowls no bad balls. His variations aren’t out of this world, his carrom ball doesn’t really spin, but he’s just metronomic. He lands it on the spot all the time. And in India, with scoreboard pressure, men round the bat and very good captaincy because you guys know spin bowling – it’s no surprise to me he got so many wickets.
On Ashwin’s rise as an offspinner
“It doesn’t surprise me at all, because I’ve always seen just how talented he was. It’s when you start really believing how good you are. India have relied on him through these Test matches and he’s bowled so well. If you get ten wickets in a match, you believe in the next game you’re going to do the same. I think he focussed a little bit on his poorer form away from home, but if you get to play in India for 13 Test matches, you cash in. You get as many wickets as humanly possible because that’s the place of offspin, let’s face it. And he’s a brilliant bowler because he just bowls no bad balls.”
How much has he improved since you last saw him?
Well he’s become a lot more consistent. I don’t think he’s changed his game much, he’s not inventing new weapons like Shane Warne pretended to all the time! But he just doesn’t bowl bad balls. Also, the more wickets you get and the more your reputation grows, people start playing the reputation rather than the ball coming down at them. I think we saw it with England in the winter. Going into the last day in Chennai, they were like ‘Oh my god. We’ve got Ashwin and (Ravindra) Jadeja’, rather than play the ball. I mean being bowled out in Chennai is one of the worst day’s cricket in English history because none of them got bowled out! They gave ten wickets away on a flat pitch. I think reputation comes into it. And Ashwin will believe his own reputation as well, so that makes you a better bowler. Every game he’s confident, it’s all in the mind, Test cricket. I take my hat off to him, I think he’s been brilliant. And his batting as well, you can see it there. Arguably, he was a better batsman before than a bowler, but now he’s a genuine allrounder.
So how does a touring side win in India?
You can win in India, we proved that in 2012. What we did when we went there, a) you can’t believe they are going to bowl you out. You have to look at the wicket, there are still very good wickets in India and especially on the first three days, they are brilliant for batting. So we scored heavily, Kevin Pietersen was batting sublimely at the time. We posted big totals and then myself and Monty (Panesar) believed that we were going to bowl them out and win the game. And we saw India playing our reputation rather than the ball coming down. Test cricket is such a mental game. As soon as you get ahead, you puff your chest out and start bowling well again in the next game. Then you take one quick wicket and the opposition will go, ‘Oh no, here we go again’. That’s not just England and India, that’s every cricket team I’ve ever played with or against.
Coming to England, Joe Root as Test skipper – will leadership act on him like it did on Kane Williamson, Steven Smith and Virat Kohli?
I hope so. I don’t actually agree with Joe being made captain because I think he is potentially our best ever batsman. I’d love to just leave him alone, don’t burden him with captaincy. Let him be our Sachin Tendulkar, let him be the best that we’ve ever had. I think the pressures of captaincy are all encompassing. I don’t think it’s going to help his batting. I hope I’m wrong, I really do. And I hope he does go on to greater things like Virat and Steve Smith especially. But I hope I’m wrong and I stand to be corrected, but I’d have let Stuart Broad do it for a while.
You think Stuart Broad should be the Test captain then?
Yeah, well teams never let bowlers be captains. Even though bowlers are more intelligent than batsmen!
You said you want Root to be free and bat, but the other three have raised their games after getting captaincy…
Yes, well, they have. But I don’t think you can say just because they have, it will happen for Joe. I mean the most impressive one of those is Virat because in India it’s probably the closest to England where captaincy is so much more. Your country has cricket everywhere, there’s cameras everywhere, pressure all the time. In England it is the same. You speak to Michael Vaughan, speak to Alastair Cook – it is 365 days a year, it’s all over you. I just… I don’t know. I think Joe’s the best player we’ve ever had and I think he could break every record in cricket, and I’d leave him to do that and let someone else be captain. That’s my personal view.
What are your thoughts about the Ashes with Australia’s pace attack? Worried about them having the quartet of Starc, Cummins, Pattinson and Hazlewood?
If they all stay fit, they’ve got a formidable bowling attack. But I look at the English attack and I think it’s just as good, if not better. Because we’ve got Ben Stokes. All those guys are very good bowlers, but they haven’t got an allrounder. I don’t think their team’s as balanced as well as potentially the England team can be. Broad is still a brilliant bowler in Test cricket, Jimmy Anderson’s still a great bowler, and Mark Wood coming through is as quick as anybody. I mean for an Englishman the Ashes is everything. Absolutely everything. Already everyone’s picking their teams and who’s going to play. I think the Aussies potentially have a shed full of incredible fast bowlers, but it’s whether they can stay fit for five games, in the first couple of games if the confidence isn’t there…. You just have to score a lot of runs in Australia, you really do. First couple of Tests pile on the runs, and that piles the pressure on the bowlers. And they can be beat. We beat them there in 2010-11. While doing that Alastair Cook scored millions, we put massive totals on the board and we bowled them out, so it can be done.
India have really struggled to get Steven Smith out everytime he comes out to bat. You have any ideas?
(Laughs) Steve Smith’s undoubtedly a better player now than when I played against him. I don’t know… I think I got him out a couple of times, but I can’t particularly remember how I did it. No, he’s a good player. Personally I’d bowl seam at him. I think he’s a good player of spin. But he moves around a bit too much against seamers, and you can do that in India and Australia and get away. Because his head is always very still. In England he struggled a bit when it moved around. The days when it’s overcast and moves around, he nicks off early, but it doesn’t move around in the rest of the world like it does in England.
Do you think you left the stage quite prematurely?
I wish I had! The reason I finished is I couldn’t feel my fingers any more. I have a nerve problem in my elbow. I played three matches more than I should have done. I should have never gone to Australia. I thought it would be alright, six weeks off, it’ll be fine. But then I couldn’t feel my hand and I realised too late I shouldn’t have done that. I’d have given anything to still be playing Test cricket now. I wouldn’t be in the one-dayers, I wasn’t quick enough in the outfield, wasn’t fit enough. Didn’t like it enough! But Test cricket, I would have played till I dropped dead I reckon. I love that game. I miss it massively.
But no regrets over retiring?
No, because I couldn’t carry on. I couldn’t feel my fingers, I still can’t. So I regret that no one signed me up as a batsman in first-class cricket!(Laughs) I put myself out there and no one took me up on it. I’m devastated.