Graeme Swann never kept wickets in his 15-year-long professional career, but out at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, during lunch and tea intervals of the unofficial Tests between England Lions and India ‘A’, he is busy unfurling his wicket-keeping skills.
The 100,000 capacity stadium is near empty, but loudly echoing around the ground is the voice of Swann, who is chatting from behind the wickets to a bunch of young English spinners, as they take turns and bowl alternately.
“I always wanted to be a wicket-keeper. So in every Test match I used to stand next to Matt Prior and say ‘come on, let me take a few’. I think it’s the greatest gig in the world,” Swann jokes in a chat with Cricket.com post the end of Day 2 of the third unofficial Test.
Swann, who is in India mentoring the next generation of England spinners who are part of the Lions tour, is a man of many talents, and someone who genuinely loves the sport.
But he is not keeping wickets on a hot Thursday afternoon just for fun.
“There’s a serious reason why I’m keeping wickets here against the spinners,” Swann explains.
“As a spinner, part of my focus was always on the keeper’s glove. So I keep wickets to the young spinners here while they’re bowling to help them zero in on the target. It worked for me, that’s why I do it.”
Among the bowlers Swann kept to was Durham’s Callum Parkinson — twin brother of leggie Matt, who has one Test cap for England — and Sussex’s Jack Carson, who for a while now has been earmarked to be the ‘next big thing’ in the country on the spin front.
However, more than these two spinners who are on the cusp of breaking through, Swann believes it’s the potential shown by some of the greener, younger spinners that highlights the depth in talent in the country when it comes to the spin department.
“Actually in England, we’ve got quite a lot of spinners coming through,” Swann says.
“You see the two currently playing in the Test series (Hartley and Bashir). But I’ve been really impressed by some of the other younger blokes.
“One of them is James Coles. He is a guy who doesn’t really bowl for Sussex in the County Championship. He is a batter who sort of bowls a bit (in England). But we’ve identified him as a potential frontline option. He can be a frontline spinner in a first class team.
“It’s our way of saying, ‘look what he can do’. And when he goes back to County Cricket, he must play as a spinner. If not for Sussex, he must go on loan somewhere else. And hopefully they’re seeing that.”
Swann also likes the look of Lancashire’s Jack Morley, who was drafted into the Lions squad after impressing in a spin camp in Mumbai.
“Jack Morley is a young lad from Lancashire. He impressed in a spin camp in Mumbai and so he’s here with us. He’s been really good. He spins it really hard.”
Swann, who retired from professional cricket over a decade ago, has been involved with the England pathway system since last year, in a mentorship capacity.
He overlooks the entire group, but his primary focus is moulding the young and inexperienced spinners, teaching them how to bowl in subcontinent conditions.
“Each bowler has separate things that we work on, basically. The whole point of me being out in these camps (and tours) and helping spinners is I know how to bowl in India. I’ve been here and done it (before),” Swann explains.
“I love this place, it’s the home of spin bowling, let’s face it. We wanted to give our guys more experience.
“We wanted to build a shed of spinners, a panel of spinners that we can rely on for the next 10-15 years, because we haven’t had that. And we’ve always been very reliant on our seam bowlers and our batsmen who are some of the best in the world in their respective fields.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be good at spin because there is talent there.”
It was in 2013 that Swann called it quits and, at that point, England’s demolition of India (in India’s own backyard) was still fresh.
However, since then, the Three Lions have flabbergastingly not had a single spinner average under 30, with Moeen Ali (207 wickets @ 37.31 a piece) turning out to be the only spinner to take more than 150 Test wickets.
In the last couple of years, Jack Leach has established himself as a solid spinner at the Test level but Swann believes England, in the last decade or so, have paid the price for completely neglecting the spin department post the successful tour of India in 2012.
“After 2012, I think spin in England got neglected,” Swann says.
“Everyone took it for granted after we won the Test series in India. We should have built on that then, but we didn’t. But we’re trying to right the wrongs now.
“With this crop of youngsters, who have no experience whatsoever, we are trying to mould them. There are five or six spinners in this (Lions) touring party and they are getting invaluable experience.”
How Tom Hartley and Shoaib Bashir jumped the queue to play in India
As it turned out, it was Lancashire’s Tom Hartley and Somerset’s Shoaib Bashir who made the cut. Both Hartley and Bashir have since shown their mettle at the biggest stage, but the decision to pick them was a really unpopular one at that time, due to their rather underwhelming first-class numbers.
While Hartley, prior to the India series, had taken just 40 first-class wickets in 32 innings at an average of 36.6, Bashir had played just six games, in which he averaged 67.
Numbers-wise, there were a lot of ‘better’ candidates, but according to Swann, the management were clear about the fact that they wanted to look beyond raw numbers.
“We were looking for specific attributes - people who can bowl straight, people who can bowl on turning pitches, people who can generate bounce,” Swann explains England’s selection process.
“County Cricket is very, very different to Test cricket in India. And it’s not like we’ve had spinners who were knocking the door down in County cricket.
“It’s not always the people who average well. Averages hide all sorts of things. We didn’t pay too much attention to averages; we were (and still are) after match-winners.”
Swann reveals that multiple spinners, including Parkinson (Callum) and Carson were in contention to make the squad for the India series, but Hartley and Bashir got the nod due to their ability to consistently bring the stumps into play.
“Hartley and Bashir, the reason they ended up on the (India) tour was because they were the two best at what we were after. We were after bowlers that could bowl very straight; bring the stumps into play as often as possible,” Swann reveals.
“One area that a lot of spinners worldwide tend to go wrong in red-ball cricket is that they bowl outside off-stump. It looks pretty, but it doesn’t challenge the stumps enough.
“When you look at the Indian spinners bowl, they are very, very good at bringing the stumps into play, especially when it’s turning. That’s what we worked on with Bashir and Hartley.
“They’ve so far both done a great job. Hartley in the second innings in Hyderabad did exactly the job we wanted him to do. We wanted him (Hartley) to almost emulate what Axar Patel did against England three years ago.”
According to the former off-spinner, it was the showing of 20-year-old Bashir (in the camp in UAE) that really took everyone by surprise.
“Bashir was the one who surprised everyone. How good he was, and what he brought to the table with his height,” Swann says.
“But there were others who were very close (to making the cut). You see them on this tour, the likes of Parkinson, Coles and Carson. We had plenty of options to choose from, it was just the case of horses for courses. The extra height gave those two (Bashir and Hartley) the advantage.”
Outside of evaluating the younger spin bowlers, England, in the camp in UAE, also focused on emulating Indian conditions.
“The camps in Abu Dhabi were brilliant. We were able to create a pitch that was similar to what we would end up playing in India,” Swann reveals.
“It involved me putting my bowling boots on and really creating footmarks to make it look like a Day 5 pitch. I’ve still got sore feet from doing it.”
‘County cricket’s attitude towards spin needs to change’
Four years ago, in the aftermath of their final group game against Essex in 2019, Somerset were docked 24 points (12 of which were suspended) for ‘breaching pitch regulations.’
The Cricket Discipline Commission ruled against the county over the poor state of the pitch for their match against Essex.
According to ESPN Cricinfo, one of the complaints Essex head coach Anthony McGrath had was that the track ‘turned from ball one’ — 17 of the 21 wickets that fell in that particular encounter was against spin.
It is not the first time sides have been deducted points for preparing tracks that tend to turn excessively.
Swann strongly feels that this resentment back home, against tracks that assist spin, needs to go away completely if England are to become a complete side that can excel across conditions.
“We’ve got a massive issue at the moment, in my point of view, wherein spinning pitches in England are still frowned upon,” Swann says.
“You still get docked points if a ball turns excessively on Day 1. I can tell you now, that’s nonsense. If we want to be the best in the world at bowling spin and playing spin, we’ve got to get used to it.
“The Hyderabad Test pitch (which we saw in the first Test), that would have been docked points back in England. In the end, we actually ended up getting a brilliant Test match.
“Rather than docking points for preparing turning pitches, the players should learn to bat and bowl on them.
“If you have a green seamer in England on the first day and you lose 20 wickets, they say it’s down to ‘bad batting technique’. But if it spins square and you lose 20 wickets, they say it’s because the pitch is unfit to play on.
“This attitude needs to change. Hopefully it will change.”
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