Swann flies to England's rescue
Posted in England
Since Graeme Swann announced himself in Test cricket by claiming two wickets in his first over, things have generally been pretty plain sailing.
The off-spinner did not take long to overtake Monty Panesar as England’s number-one option and was soon classed in most circles as the world’s premier tweaker.
Indeed, heading into the winter series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, Swann’s stock could hardly have been higher.
At that stage, the affable Nottinghamshire bowler had taken 153 wickets in just 36 Tests and was undoubtedly Andrew Strauss’ go-to bowler.
Yet thereafter, his reputation - for the first time since removing Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid with those aforementioned deliveries - took a slight hit.
It seems bizarre that was the case given his performances in the UAE - when England were beaten 3-0 - far from warranted scrutiny; Swann claimed 13 wickets in three Tests at an average of 25.07.
But the re-emergence of Panesar, England’s most prolific bowler with 14 wickets in just two games, created a myth that Swann struggles against top-quality right-handed batsmen.
Slow-left armer Panesar did, indeed, cause a Pakistan team of predominately right-handers all sorts of problems.
Swann, meanwhile, was not as effective against the same batting line-up, but anyone thinking that proves the aforementioned school of thought may need to review the figures - of Swann’s 170 Test wickets, 82 have been right-handers*.
Yet, still, the more foresightful England fans were pondering whether the off-spinner’s title as England’s premier spinner was under threat.
It was the first time the off-break bowler had faced such questions since his debut just over three years ago and, indeed, heading into this series, many were wondering if, again, Swann would be out-bowled.
Not helped by being below his best in the warm-up games, murmurings about his form became more audible yesterday despite the off-spinner bowling without luck and England, generally, impressing in the field.
Michael Atherton, among others, asked the question of whether England would consider playing Panesar instead of Swann in the summer - when they will likely revert back to one spinner - should the former impress once more.
Swann’s final figures of 0-92 from 23 overs were far from flattering, but it is often wise to look beyond statistics and, while undoubtedly not at his most stellar, he will likely bowl a lot worse and take wickets.
Today, though, Swann delivered the perfect riposte, reminding many of the qualities that elevated above other slow bowlers around the world.
The myth that the off-spinner struggles against right-handers was, in some ways, dispelled as he claimed the prized wickets of Mahela Jayawardene, who struck 180 in the first innings, and Thilan Samaraweera.
That Swann also dismissed Kumar Sangakkara and Lahiru Thirimanne will have surprised no-one; he is a brilliant bowler to left-handers, but that does not mean he cannot bowl to right. (Just ask Ricky Ponting, or many of the other fine players the England man has dismissed during a, so far, stellar international career).
He simply prefers the former. What he really relishes, though, is delivering match-winning performances for England - something he has done time and again since December 2008.
We do not yet know whether today’s efforts will be decisive. Despite Swann taking four wickets to reduce Sri Lanka to 84 for five, the hosts remain 209 runs ahead after England were bowled out for 193.
Either way, he has dragged the tourists from a position that looked perilous to one from which they may well be able to launch a victory charge in the next day or so.
In the process, Swann has cast aside any doubts that may have been beginning to linger with onlookers waiting to see his best once again.
That will, no doubt, give him some satisfaction, though I imagine the real joy will come if England can now turn a promising position into a first Test victory since last summer.
*Statistics included today's play