Graeme Swann Exclusive: The interview that will put cricket in a spin
Graeme Swann, usually the epitome of media savvy assurance, shakes his head as he contemplates the fuss caused by what he considered were constructive, innocuous comments about Kevin Pietersen in his autobiography.
“I didn”t think people would concentrate on just one bit of the book and make it out to be more than it was,” says a serious-looking Swann.
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“I completely stand by what I said that Kev is not a natural leader of men. I only know two people from my time who I”d put in that category. One is Stephen Fleming and the other is Andrew Strauss. It”s that rare.
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“You can have good captains but to be an absolute natural leader, like a Mike Brearley, is a rarity. I certainly don”t consider myself one when I”ve captained and I don”t think Alastair Cook is. He”s a good captain but it just doesn”t come as naturally to him. Straussy was born to be England captain. Fleming was born to be a captain. I just don”t think people took what I wrote in context.”
The Pietersen spat was a fascinating sub-plot during England”s unexpected 5-0 one-day international capitulation in India.
Their star spinner, who has smiled and joked his way through his meteoric rise to the top after his long exile from the international game, suddenly had to defend himself from accusations that he had jeopardised England”s fabled team spirit.
“To be a natural leader of men is a rarity. Kevin Pietersen is not one, I’m not one and I don’t think Alastair Cook is”
“People will always try to create tension when it”s not there,” he says. “Luckily it didn”t. I spoke to Andy Flower about it and he said he didn”t agree with people doing books but he couldn”t stop us and I said “fair enough”. I”m not the first England player to do a book while he”s still playing and if I look at the current team I think there are three or four who have done them.
“What it boils down to is that it can be OK to do a book but make sure you don”t say anything – and that”s not me. I would never forgive myself if I went through my career kowtowing to people and being a yes man. And I would never have forgiven myself if I”d pulled my punches. It”s an honest book and anyone reading it will realise that the one person getting assassinated in it is myself.
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“I rip myself to pieces because that”s how I feel about my career before it took off. I look back in embarrassment at a lot of it and I want that to come across. I don”t want to pretend I”ve always been in the right and everyone else has been wrong. I fully realise you”re responsible for everything in your life and I live by that.”
In truth Swann has produced an excellent look at his eventful career, with his voice brilliantly captured by ghost-writer Richard Gibson, and there is far more positive material than the criticisms of the likes of Pietersen, Samit Patel and Darren Gough.
But it is something of a surprise that someone so comfortable in the media spotlight and aware of how it works should be indignant about what has been highlighted.
“I genuinely couldn”t believe the bits that were pulled out,” insists Swann. “I really thought they were insignificant when we talked about them for the book. They were just so matter-of-fact. I thought more would be pulled up about my time at Northampton and what went wrong with Kepler Wessels.
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“When I wrote it I didn”t think it was controversial in the slightest because I didn”t say anything in the book that I wouldn”t say in an interview. Some people who applaud me for being honest suddenly turned on me.”
There was a fascinating moment at the end of the India tour when Pietersen sat next to Swann at a press conference and said he did not think England players should write books “of that kind”.
“The level of understanding was minimal. Even the intelligent members of the England team, both of them, didn’t get it”
At that moment, it was possible to believe not all the members of the current team are the best of friends.
“It wasn”t awkward with Kevin,” insists Swann. “You always get people who disagree. I don”t see a problem in a grown-up, honest environment. I just said how it was. Kev didn”t agree with books but he”s already written one! If you don”t say anything interesting then a book goes under the radar. I understand what Andy said. Headlines that need to be explained don”t help things and can be counter-productive to the team.
“I take that on board and will have to proof-read my next book more carefully. I”ll just put in it what my favourite ice cream flavour is and see if I can take Cooky”s book down! Jimmy Anderson is doing one now but I don”t think he”ll say anything out of the ordinary unless they give him a couple of beers beforehand.”
Harsh words: Swann doesn”t think Pietersen is captain material
That”s more like it, that”s more like the Swann we know and love. He cannot stay serious for long, at least in public. The bottom line is that Swann”s story is a remarkable one at a remarkable time for the England team.
This orthodox off-spinner, an expert purveyor of an old-fashioned type of bowling that was supposedly dying out in international cricket, has been a major factor in England”s rise to the top of the Test and Twenty20 world.
“Let”s make people say, “I saw that team play. We won”t see their like again”
“The last couple of years have been ludicrous really,” says Swann, smiling. “We set out to become the best but even I thought the path set out for us when we went to South Africa in 2009 was pie in the sky and I”m the most optimistic member of the team.
“Beat Australia 3-1 and then India 4-0 to go to No 1 in the world Come on. But it was like that. I look back and think of it as an absolute fairytale but it hasn”t been luck. Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss have put an environment together that expects those sort of results. Now they”re saying, “This is what we expect”. It”s great to be part of that ethos. We”re here for real success.
“Looking around the room that day in South Africa, the level of understanding was minimal. Nathan Leamon (the team analyst who set out what England had to do) got an honours in maths at Cambridge and taught at Eton. He”s probably a chess grand master, too, for all I know. And there he was talking us through it. Even the intelligent members of the team – both of them – didn”t get it.
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“It was as far-fetched a presentation as I”ve ever seen. Even Nathan said he wasn”t expecting it. It was just the scenario if everything went perfectly. I”d love to go back and listen to it again now because I think we”ve done even better than that scenario.”
England have talked about creating a legacy, of producing a sustained period of success to cement their place in the pantheon. Swann goes one step further. He wants England to become the best team of all time.
“We”ve got to No 1 in the world. We”ve done it. Now our goal over the next five years should be to become the best team that”s ever played cricket,” says Swann.
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“We want to be ranked with the West Indies of the 80s and the Australians of the late 90s and noughties. I think we can be if we truly believe it.
“Look at the guys we have and the type of players coming through. I really think we can do it. I think it”s the way to go. Let”s make people say, “I saw that team play. We won”t see their like again”. Like a modern-day invincibles. How nice would that be” His optimism is based on the players coming through as well as the ones already in the team.
“It”s right to be excited about the next generation, it really is,” says Swann, warming to his theme.
“The horrible little tour to India that we”ve got out of the way will probably do them more good than if we”d gone to Bangladesh and won comfortably.
“After a fairly easy start to their careers it”s a kick up the backside to show that it can be really hard work. It will stand them in good stead. But I think these guys have got talent oozing out of them. I couldn”t believe how good Jonny Bairstow was when I first bowled at him in the nets. Cardiff was the first time I”d really seen him. He”s got the talent to have an incredible career. Others have, too.”
Those future careers, if Swann had his way, would not include 50-over cricket. He is happy to elaborate on an earlier comment that the one-day international has had its day.
“I do feel strongly about 50-over cricket because we play far too much of it,” he says.
“I realise it”s a cash cow in the short term but it”s got to be detrimental in the long term because we play so much you just lose track of it. I”ve come back from England one-day tours and the public haven”t got a clue what the score was. They tell me they watch the first one and then lose interest.
“Five and seven-match series had their place a while back but in 2011, with Twenty20, it”s too much. I don”t know why people are reticent to play longer Twenty20 series internationally than 50-over ones. I guess it must be a money thing. Sooner or later 50-over cricket will suffer. People are already tinkering with it all the time to make it more interesting. The first hour is good fun and the last hour can be, so you are squeezing that into seven hours” play. Why not just have the entertainment and play 20 overs
“When I wake up ahead of a game I want to be so excited I can”t wait. This is an international cap we”re talking about. But if you just think, “Here we go again”, there”s something wrong. After a while, performances must suffer because you start thinking, “Let”s just get through my overs”. If we play less of it, the problem wouldn”t be exacerbated.
“In an ideal world I”d say I don”t want to play another 50-over game ever again but I want to play every game I possibly can for England. I had so long out of the international scene that I”d never forgive myself if I tried to pick and choose when I wanted to play.
“I don”t think it”s right if people do that. Unless you retire for a very good reason, like Straussy, I don”t think people should do that. I love playing for my country, I just wish that at times it didn”t seem mundane because of all the games we play.”
Swann is talking to promote his latest production, one that should not cause quite such a stir as his book. It is a DVD that looks to highlight his sense of fun and the outrageous in cricket.
“It”s basically an extension of my video diary. That”s the inspiration behind it. I loved doing them during the Ashes and this is an irreverent look at cricket and what makes me laugh in the game.
“Looking back, it was a bit naive to do the Sprinkler thing before the Ashes because that could have backfired pretty horribly but thankfully the team played so well and the victories came in, so it was received really well. We had something like a million hits and that sort of exposure is phenomenal. I”m very proud of that.”
There was nothing funny about England”s controversial series against Pakistan last year and the subsequent jailing of three Pakistan players, Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer, for spot-fixing.
Swann admits the severity of the punishments handed out for offences on a cricket field took him by surprise.
“I was shocked. Even when the trial was going on I didn”t think they”d end up in jail,” he says.
“I was the first to say that if you do something like this you shouldn”t be allowed to play the game again and I stand by those comments, but when it came down to custodial sentences I had to take a step back.
“Hopefully it”s the deterrent it should be because I can only assume they didn”t realise the seriousness of what they were doing. Surely they wouldn”t have done it if they”d known they could end up in Wormwood Scrubs. That hit home.”
Now England are preparing to face Pakistan again in the United Arab Emirates in the new year. Another accident waiting to happen
“I actually think this series will be the most civil there has been between England and Pakistan in living memory,” says Swann.
“There has always been an underlying angst between the two teams, it seems. I remember the jumpers being snatched out of the English umpires” hands and Ian Botham”s run-ins with them.
“There has always been hatred between the teams, almost, but because of what”s happened I”m sure both teams will want to just bury it. I can”t see any problems. There may be an incident at some stage but I”d be very surprised if any member of our team would get dragged into it.”
We started off talking about captaincy so it is fitting to finish by saying that Swann showed himself to be, dare I say it, something of a natural leader himself when he stood in for Stuart Broad as England”s Twenty20 captain.
“I did enjoy captaincy,” he says. “I enjoyed the tactical side of it and I went on instinct. It helped that we won the game in India. If it was possible to just go on the field then I”d love to do it but I couldn”t put up with all the bull**** that goes with it off the field.
“The guys we have at the moment handle it incredibly well. How I”d go to a player and tell him I”d not play him I don”t know. I couldn”t even think about that. When Jimmy didn”t play in the Twenty20s against the West Indies he wouldn”t talk to me and I said, “Well, I didn”t drop you mate”.
“I have utmost admiration for people who do that. I never dreamt I”d be playing for England during the dark days, let alone be captain for a few games, so the turnaround has been quite meteoric really. I love it.”
He will love it for some time yet.
Swanny in a Spin is out on DVD now.