Graeme Swann has spent the past 14 days in quarantine in a Mumbai hotel room, just a stroll from where he and Monty Panesar bowled England to a famous 10-wicket Test victory in 2012, and has been thinking a lot about England’s spinners.
He has been stewing on it for a good while but has now decided to get a few things off his chest. The tipping point, one that led to a rare request by the subject for an interview, has been the recent mood music out of the England set-up that Adil Rashid is back on their radar for the subcontinental winter.
Swann’s issue here is not Rashid per se. He rates the Yorkshireman highly. But it is rather the collective wishful thinking that he can make the mental transition from white back to red once more without specialist coaching support, something he believes Moeen Ali, Dom Bess and Jack Leach are all being denied, too.
“Adil has all the skills to be a brilliant Test bowler, but I don’t know if he truly believes he can be,” says Swann, speaking from isolation in the Trident Hotel before TV work as a summariser on the Indian Premier League.
“He’ll have heard the chat and I worry he’ll be bricking it right now. Because there is a fundamental difference between the mindsets in one-day cricket – where he has an aura – and Test cricket. And if you’ve not done it, you just don’t realise.
“I didn’t feel any pressure before a one-day game because you get generous fields, you have 10 overs max and the worse that can happen is someone gets hold of you, maybe you come back and pick up a wicket, and while that’s still a crap day at the office, it’s not the be all and end all.
“For a Test match you might be the only spinner and there is that pressure to win the game on four and five. Even if there’s no turn, if the game goes five days your team, the press and the public all turn to you. And if you’re not thinking like a proper red ball bowler …”
Swann believes England’s Ashes obsession has seen the focus on spin bowling drift to the point they are “not remotely giving themselves the best chance” against an “unbelievable” India team this winter. Certainly the coaching support for spinners has been undermanned of late, not least when considering the resources afforded to other departments.
After Saqlain Mushtaq’s part-time contract ended last year, Jeetan Patel stepped in as spin coach for the winter. But a visa bungle then meant he was unable to coach during the English summer and left Bess and the unused Leach working with Graeme Welch, a seam-bowling coach, during their time trapped inside the biosecure bubble.
“Why didn’t they get in touch with me?” says Swann. “I’d love to speak to those guys. And particularly about bowling in India, because that is when the pressure is doubled. But England have never really tapped into how I coped with all that expectation and worked out those conditions. It bemuses me.
“The only time I have spoken to Dom Bess is on a podcast for Sky. It’s ridiculous. These are conversations I’d love to have more but they should be happening in private – in the nets or over dinner – and not just with the spinners. Joe Root is not a natural captain of spin. It’s a fact. That’s not his fault, it’s just the way the thinking in English cricket all revolves around seam-bowling.
“But ultimately the spinners need it. You don’t need top-level success as a player to be a good coach. But surely tap first-hand knowledge; someone who has sat in a hotel room the night before a Test in Mumbai and listened to the ominous tap-tap-tap of the Indian batsmen shadow-batting on the floor above.”
Swann slipped into the media after retirement and enjoys the work. But when he took a call from Andrew Strauss in 2017 to discuss England’s spin coaching situation – only to discover his old captain was asking for his views on Saqlain – he was “crestfallen”. It at least informed him his passion for the craft remains.
These are times of austerity for English cricket and if money is found for a spin coach, Patel’s recent spell likely makes him the frontrunner. But for all the domestic excellence of Warwickshire’s New Zealander, Swann’s 255 wickets from 60 Test caps is surely a rich seam of experience worth mining, too.
“When you finish you feel so far out from the team and, if you do media work, you get viewed with a bit of suspicion, too. It probably meant I didn’t approach them either or make my time available,” says Swann. “But I think I have so much to offer the spinners on the mental side of Test cricket.
“Because it’s all in your head. People look at me and think I didn’t give a stuff; I was this cocky so-and-so who didn’t suffer from nerves. But before my Test debut I was absolutely shitting myself and if anything, I got lucky taking two wickets in my first over.
“It was the first Test after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and I think Rahul Dravid – arguably the best I faced in county cricket – played the situation and not the ball. He came out with eyes the size of dustbin lids.
“But after that, as much as I didn’t look back, I had my own dedicated coach in Mushtaq Ahmed and he was critical to my success. He did so much for my mental state, either before or during Test matches. And it’s the kind of stuff I’m desperate to pass on to these guys.
“Take Moeen Ali. He’s half the bowler he should be right now because he’s somehow convinced himself he’s not good enough. The bloke’s got 181 Test wickets for goodness sake. How has that been allowed to happen?
“We’ve spoken once, after his first summer with England, and I said ‘well done’ and his reply was that ‘it will only get harder’. It was so gutting to hear and such a product of the English mindset. Eddie Hemmings told me the same after a good first year, how batsmen would work me out. But it’s total bollocks.
“Me and Mo are the same bowler. We have no doosra, no mystery. But the balls that take wickets on day one of your Test career still take them five years on. You might have to tweak tactics to the odd player but you’re the same bowler who succeeded before. Yet the only person who talked like this to me is Mushy and I bet it isn’t being drilled into the current lot.”
This mindset is something Swann believes won’t change and were it not for Mushtaq’s wise counsel, it might have swallowed him up. One example that has stayed in his mind came at the end of the 2009 Ashes. “It was the final Test at the Oval and Sky had just started doing interviews before play. Nasser Hussain’s opening line was: ‘You could bowl England to the Ashes today but you’ve never done that before, that must put pressure on you.’ I was furious.
“Nasser was doing his job but what got me was it felt indicative of the English system. An Australia spinner would never get that, they’d just have their tyres pumped up. That’s not going to shift any time soon but again, coping with that kind of crap is something I overcame and feel I can help others do, too.”
When I put it to the 41-year-old that his aforementioned cockiness might have informed England’s reluctance to get in touch, he replies: “Maybe. But that’s not a valid reason. They shouldn’t just want ‘yes men’ in the coaching set-up.
“And [the head coach] Chris Silverwood knows me. I’m not a guy who looks to cause trouble. What I do look for is excellence. I just want England to be the best possible team and when it comes to the spinners, who are all talented lads, they’re not as good as they should be or could be.”
At the start of our conversation Swann insisted he didn’t want to “stick an advert in the paper” – and at the end he asks to retract some industrial language in case his mum is reading – but over the course of an hour it was clear how desperate he is to help out. Whether it results in a call from Silverwood remains to be seen.
But when you look back on Swann’s career – the 17 five-wicket hauls, the big-name scalps, the taming of India in their own backyard in 2012 – and winter coming up, it would be strange if one of English cricket’s finest exponents of spin bowling remained an untapped resource forever.