Swann remains No 1… but this was a day to forget for England's top two spinners
12:48 GMT, 26 March 2012
Graeme Swann's third ball of the series this morning produced both a compliment and a concern. It was lifted high over wide long-on for six by the classy Mahela Jayawardene, who – in keeping with the general tone of a day on which he showed off his flexibility – managed to send out two messages at once.
The first was the importance of Swann to England's attack – a twist on the old West Indian wisdom that, if you target the opposition captain, the rest will follow.
But the second, for England followers at least, may cause some disquiet. Because perhaps Jayawardene was making another point too. Is Swann's aura, he seemed to be wondering as he shimmied down the track, quite what it used to be
In a spin: Has Swann lost his aura… and can Monty learn to catch
It is a question that is increasingly aired now that people are wondering whether Swann is in fact England's best spinner.
The cricket in Galle provided some neat ammunition to those who feel the last few months have been rather kinder to Monty Panesar (his bowling, that is, not his fielding).
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Mixed bag: England made gains with the ball but will have ended the day frustrated
And when the next leftie, Rangana Herath, finally appeared at No 9, he was expertly shielded by Jayawardene.
But these are the challenges a Test cricketer must overcome. And when Swann was finally removed after a second spell lasting 17 overs and yielding 74 runs, Samit Patel duly got rid of Herath with his second delivery. It was the stuff of Sod.
There is a school of thought that says Swann has been flattered by the number of left-handed batsmen in the modern era, plus the impact of ball-tracking technology, which has helped open umpires' minds to the possibility of front-foot lbws.
Those same critics will point to his record against Australia and India – he averages 40 against both.
And on days like these, with Swann forced to go round the wicket to increase the chances of an lbw verdict against the right-handers, he looks anything but the bowler whose overall career record of 166 wickets at under 29 apiece is in itself an answer to the naysayers.
Down and out: Patel was the only spinner to take wickets
Yet the debate remains one we are likely
to have only in Asia. At home, England simply don’t play two spinners.
And that means Panesar misses out.
For cricket purists, who love a specialist, this may sound counter-intuitive. But the suspicion that Swann is not on top of his game at the moment does not yet equate to thoughts of a terminal decline.
And while Panesar continues to drop chances as simple as the two he missed in the final hour to reprieve Jayawardene, he will never embody the overall package England demand from their spinner.
One thing is for sure. The only two wickets to fall to spin were both claimed by Patel, a debutant who was picked as much for his batting as his left-arm spin, and partly because Ravi Bopara was unable to bowl.
In the battle for the title of England's No 1 spinner, this was not a day for the annals.