By Matthew Sherry
Ever since his retirement, Derek Underwood has been the benchmark for any England spinner that enjoys a modicum of success.
“He’s the best we've had since Underwood”. It was a line uttered every time there was a new kid on the block.
And it is easy to see why too.
After all, once the wizard-like left-arm tweaker had called it a day, England cricket fans spent years pining for another great spin artist.
Of course, we had our solid performers, from Emburey to Tufnell to Giles. And they played a role, particularly the latter in proving the perfect foil for an all-conquering pace attack in the mid-2000s.
But they lacked the fantasy, that ability to bamboozle opposition. When you’re routinely being rolled by Shane Warne, it’s easy to look at the ‘normal’ spinner with angry eyes.
Monty Panesar offered the first flicker of hope and, at the age of 31, should now be aiming to significantly add to his 166 Test wickets – a record that illustrates the quality of the man who would ultimately usurp him as England’s first-choice spinner.
The Swann Years started on December 11 2008. As would become his modus operandi, he introduced himself immediately.
Gautam Gambhir was first to fall into the trap, padding up expecting lavish turn. Fatal mistake. And then the maestro departed too, Rahul Dravid lured outside off stump by what would become signature drift, only for the sharp spin to come this time. Two lbws in six balls.
Oh, how the cheeky chappy transformed attitudes from that point on. In he would skip, broad smile on his face – don’t be fooled; he tea-potted with the best of them if you slipped up in the field – ready to craft some magic.
There was no mystery to it, no doosra; Swanny was all about the outdated ‘arm ball’.
And then he would get you, usually in his first over. The deliveries would all be on the same spot, only one would turn and another would not. It was the latter that usually did the trick.
That, ultimately, is where the mastery is. Do not be fooled, that is the craft of a spinner.
It is not about who has the greatest variety of deliveries, or even who turns it the most. It’s about who can control the ball, put it in the same spot six times an over, over after over. Of course, you have to get some turn - that is a prerequisite - but without control, you’re nothing.
That’s what Swanny did. From that aforementioned double-wicket start, he embarked upon a one-man campaign to prove orthodox spinners can thrive in the doosra, teesra and kneesra (it’ll be next) world of modern cricket.
As I write, the words to that oft-sung song are reverberating around my head. “Swann, Swann will tear you apart again.” And how he tore them apart, from Edgbaston to Kolkata, Adelaide to Durban.
The roll of honour tells its own story: three Ashes victories, a World Twenty20 triumph, a victory in India where he claimed 20 wickets at an average of 24.75 – yes, that’s right, an England spinner got the better of those fleet-of-foot artists from the sub-continent in their own backyard.
I could go on all day but perhaps the biggest compliment will come in the years to follow. You know, when the latest young spinner shows signs of guile and the commentator declares: “He’s the best we have had since Swann.”