Swann critical of English attitude to spin
Graeme Swann fears that England are on a hiding to nothing when the Test series against India gets underway in Rajkot next week, thanks to what he perceives as the ECB’s outdated attitude towards slow bowling that has caused both an alarming dearth of Test-quality spinners, and undermined the techniques of their own batsmen when facing it.
Swann, England’s most prolific spinner of the modern era, claimed 255 wickets in 60 Tests and played a starring role in his team’s remarkable victory on their last tour of India in 2012-13. However, he believes that his success – and that of his former England and Northants team-mate Monty Panesar – came in spite of the system, not because of it.
“Me and Monty were freaks of nature, we grew up in Northants where the pitches used to rag square, but I moved [to Nottinghamshire] because I wanted to become a better bowler on non-turning pitches,” Swann said during the launch of BT Sport’s cricket coverage.
“We don’t take spin seriously in this country, and then bemoan the fact that we haven’t got world-class spinners when we go to the subcontinent.
“We’ve got a bloody good team with bloody good cricketers, but we will lose in India because of what has happened 20 years before. We are hamstrung by the fact that we treat spinners as third-class citizens.”
Swann’s own path to international cricket is widely documented. He was picked as a 20-year-old for the 1999-2000 tour of South Africa, only to be banished after a solitary ODI by the then-coach Duncan Fletcher. It wasn’t until Peter Moores took over after the 2007 World Cup that he was considered for a recall, and promptly picked up two wickets in the first over of his Test debut, against India at Chennai.
“Duncan Fletcher did a lot of good for English cricket – he and Nasser Hussain deserve a lot of credit for helping the game become ultra-professional – but spin bowling always lagged behind,” said Swann. “The best thing Fletcher did for me was not picking me for eight years, even though he did pick guys who I thought weren’t as good as me. It actually made me a better spinner. I taught myself to bowl because I was unsullied by the system.”
That system has made several strides in recent seasons, not least the change to the toss regulations in county cricket in 2016 which encouraged the preparation of wickets that offer more to spin bowlers. But, Swann says, that change alone won’t be enough to right a generation of wrongs. “You’ve still got 18 county captains who don’t trust their spinners,” he said. “It’s the English way. An over before lunch, two before tea and six before the new ball. That’s it.”
For that reason, he adds, the fact that England have embarked on a nine-week tour of the subcontinent without appointing a full-time spin coach is a glaring oversight.
“There is no sort of system in place to provide the backing that spinners need,” he said. “From the day they arrive in county cricket to the day they play in Tests, it’s not there. It is for batting, for bowlers, for fielding, for fitness, for nutrition … but not for spin bowling. And because of that, we are bad players of spin. It’s a whole melting pot.”
To help prepare them for the tour of India, England have recruited the former Pakistan offspinner, Saqlain Mushtaq, in a mentoring capacity, but that appointment, says Swann, is little different to the piecemeal solution that Saqlain’s fellow countryman, Mushtaq Ahmed, offered during his day.
“For me, Mushy was a brilliant sounding board and a mentor, but he only used to do 40 days a year. He’d be there for a couple of weeks, then he’d go home before the second Test. But there’d still be a nutritionist or a psychologist on the tour.
“I know there’s only one of me, but it’s stupid. I’ve always bemoaned that, but until we take it seriously, we have to accept that when we play away from home in spin conditions we will be shown up.”
That fear was made abundantly clear on England’s tour of Bangladesh last month, where they endured a near-miss in the first Test in Chittagong before succumbing to an historic 108-run defeat in the second Test at Dhaka, which featured the stunning loss of 10 wickets for 64 runs in the space of a single session.
And Swann, who had to surmount some of the flattest conditions of his career when he helped England win their previous Test series in Bangladesh in 2009-10, said that the identity of England’s conqueror in Dhaka, the teenage offspinner, Mehedi Hasan, really ought to be seen as a wake-up call for the ECB.
Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar helped England to victory in India in 2012-13 © Getty Images
“On paper, Bangladesh are one of the two worst Test teams in the world, but they saw England – a bastion of the game – coming out to play and knew exactly how to beat us, by having turning pitches, simple, and picking an 18-year-old to win it.
“If that doesn’t set off alarm bells in the upper echelons of the game, then we really are pig-headed. It’s like that Blackadder quote: ‘If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through!’
“In England, it will take you until you are 28 to bowl the amount of overs that an 18-year-old will have bowled in Bangladesh or India. These kids will have been bowling 30 overs a day since 11 to 12, because the conditions dictate that you can’t bowl seam all the day. It’s why they play spin better and bowl spin better. It’s like playing the piano. After you’ve done it for 15 years, you can bang out a decent bit of Chopin.”
Consequently, despite confounding all expectations on their last tour of India four years ago, Swann sees few grounds for optimism in the coming weeks.
“I don’t think we’ve got a cat in hell’s chance, seeing how [Ravi] Ashwin and [Ravi] Jadeja bowl,” he said. “Jadeja doesn’t spin the ball, he doesn’t try to. He just bowls straight and lets Ashwin do the work. Ashwin isn’t a massive turner of the ball, he rarely bowls his carrom ball, but he’s very, very accurate. Every Test in India he goes into, he believes he’s going to win it.”
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo