England must look to finish with Swann song
Posted in England in Australia 2010-11
For many years now, the Ashes Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground has been something of an occasion to be feared for England supporters.
Shaking off the New Year hangover in time to shift any reasonable sleep pattern for the fifth time in two months can often seem like a burden for English fans not travelling with the Barmy Army.
Usually hosting the final Test of the series, as will be the case on Monday, Australia have been 4-0 up in the series and safely stored the famous Ashes urn on the last two occasions England have reached Sydney. In truth, they might as well have spent four days on Bondi Beach three years ago as they capitulated to 147 all out, a 10-wicket defeat and 5-0 series whitewash.
Once the pitch, which is usually receptive to turn, has been factored in, there has traditionally been little - if any - hope of an England victory, just one in the last 30 years of an all-too-often dead rubber.
While the Aussies have been able to name a certain Shane Warne and the greatly underrated Stuart MacGill in their side in recent years, England’s spin department has often appeared somewhat light.
Warne was never hugely successful against England at the SCG, but MacGill ripped through the tourists’ batting order with match figures of 12-107 in 1999 as Australia quickly put paid to any English thoughts of squaring the series after a brave fourth-Test victory in Melbourne.
MacGill’s efforts are often overlooked in a game best remembered for Darren Gough’s brilliant hat-trick - the leg-spinner was the second victim, falling to a sublime inswinging yorker.
But England lost that match, and it is a sign of how England have progressed under Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss that individual moments of magic are no longer considered memorable if they occur in a losing cause.
Graeme Swann said at the start of the series he didn’t care if he failed to take a single wicket on tour if England retained the Ashes - but he is likely to be the key man as the tourists look to turn the impressive feat of retaining the Ashes into the incredible one of winning a series Down Under.
For the first time in 20 years - in 1991 Phil Tufnell and Eddie Hemmings outshone Greg Matthews and Allan Border with the ball - England reign supreme in the spin department.
Not only is there no Warne to fear, but MacGill has also passed into retirement and suddenly it is the Australian selectors desperately scrambling to find a match-winning spinner.
That may or may not be Michael Beer, but 16 first-class wickets in just seven appearances, and at an average of 43, suggests he is not ready to shoulder such a burden at this stage of his development.
Swann, on the other hand, is rightly recognised as the best spinner in the world; only Dale Steyn is ahead of him in the ICC Test bowling rankings.
Not that his development was entirely trouble-free. Selected for international duty in 1999, the off-spinner infamously missed the team bus on one occasion and generally failed to shine.
But after nine years of honing his skills - not to mention timekeeping - in the county game, Swann finally arrived in the Test arena in December 2008 and has rarely looked out of place since.
He has already accumulated 126 wickets at an average under 28, and it should not be forgotten that England also have the option of bringing in Monty Panesar - who also boasts 126 Test victims - as a second spinner.
That off-spin/slow left-arm combination could appeal to Strauss and Flower if the pitch looks conducive to excessive spin, although leaving out one of the outstanding seam trio that dismissed Australia for 98 in Melbourne - James Anderson, Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan - would be cruel to say the least.
When England travelled to Sydney with Ashes glory already a faded memory they were never given an easy ride - and it is imperative that Swann, Strauss and co complete the role reversal and secure a series win.
In 2005 just winning an Ashes series was the end goal for Michael Vaughan’s men after 18 years of hurt.
But Strauss leads a side with grander ambitions - and having dethroned Australia, not only of the Ashes urn home and away, but in the Test rankings, England must aim to become the world’s number one side.
The world’s number one spinner can take them a step closer to that target if he is at his best at the SCG.