The day Graeme Swann announced his retirement from Test cricket, it was not only England that lost their best spinner. His retirement robbed cricket romantics and purists around the world of the joy of watching a classical off-spinner with a simple, clean action. Swann was like an opera singer in the midst of pop-stars that are the mystery spinners.
Now enjoying his second stint in cricket, as a broadcaster and commentator, the amicable former England spinner caught up with BCCI.TV during the Lord’s Test between England and India to talk on his favourite topic – spin bowling.
You and Warne are two modern day spinners who were successful despite playing most cricket in unhelpful conditions. What was the key?
When bowling in unhelpful conditions, I used to break my spell down. I would accept before the match that I was not going to get five-six wickets and that I had to do a job for the team. Later on when the pitch is four to five days old there will be help for me. But for the first couple of days I would say, I’ve got three overs before lunch, I bowl eight or nine before tea and 15 in the last session and I want one or two wickets on the day. When you have these little competitions with yourself, all of a sudden you realize that at the end of the day you have 3 for 60 and you’ve done the job for your team.
But that also depends on the captain, doesn’t it?
It does, and that’s why it is important to win the trust of your captain. Once you’ve done that he’s happy for you to set your fields and whatever tactics you want to apply against various batsmen. I had that rapport with Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. They would just say, you know what you want to do, just do it. I prefer that as a spinner because if I messed up, I had only myself to blame. If it was somebody else’s fault, I’d really get mad.
Do you think the fascination with mystery spinners is bringing classical off spin to extinction?
It is. When I first started playing they hadn’t even heard of a finger spinner to play more than half a dozen Test matches. Everyone is obsessed with doosras and other variations. But good orthodox spin is as effective as the doosra and that’s been proven by stats. So, I just think you should do what you do bloody well, don’t try to be someone you’re not. For me, bowling doosras and all that stuff wasn’t my game. I couldn’t do it.
Did being a classical off spinner in the era of mystery spinners make things easy or difficult for you?
I think it was easy. I always like being a maverick, stand out and be different than anyone else. People told me you’re not going to make or fit in because you are a classical spinner. I took that as a challenge because I’ve always had that ‘I’ll prove you wrong’. I think it’s good. You want to be different, right? I do.
Let’s talk about India’s current No. 1 off-spinner – R Ashwin. What is your impression of him as a bowler?
I like him. I think he should have been playing here (at Lord’s). He hasn’t bowled enough overseas to be judged yet. When you’re used to bowling in India it is not easy to adjust quickly to bowling overseas. That’s because in India it is very easy to find the right pace to bowl at as a spinner as compared to these conditions. Since most wickets in India are pretty slow and low, even if you are a little wayward, you don’t get punished. In England and especially Australia, if you pitch it slightly short or wide, you get smashed. I’m sure Ashwin can bowl really well outside India because his record in India is fantastic. And if he can do it there he can do it anywhere.
What kind of change in pace is required depending on conditions?
It’s tricky. For me, I used to try and bowl the quickest I could while still getting the ball to turn. Once I nailed that, I stuck to it; that was my pace. It depends on different wickets. For instance, when we played in India, I had to bowl much slower in Kolkata than I did in Mumbai. The Mumbai wicket was beautiful – it had the spit and jump. So, I just had to bowl quickly and as soon as the seam hit the ground, the ball went bang! It was glorious to bowl on. On the slow and low Kolkata pitch I had to bowl really slow to get any turn. But again, in England, you have to bowl much slower. For instance, to get any turn at the Lord’s, you have to take the pace off the ball because it tends to skid on. The Oval is opposite – the faster you bowl, it digs in the pitch and turns, especially later in the game.
He (R Ashwin) is an attacking bowler by instinct. But in these conditions he is often expected to play a containing role. How do you alter your mindset?
I think you have to be flexible throughout the game. During certain parts of the match you have to be defensive in England. On the fourth and fifth day, you are just thrown the ball and you go on an all-attack mode. On the initial couple of days, I wouldn’t be attacking much. I’d still be trying to take wickets but in a very different way. I’d want a short leg, a deep midwicket and a catching midwicket because you know the batsman will try to hit you straight or flick you and you could get catches there. On days four and five, I’d want three men around the bat – a slip and two catchers – and I’d want a short midwicket. So, at different times, you have to have different strategies.
Does he (R Ashwin) need to accept that?
It should be admired that he is prepared to stick to his guns and be aggressive. Since he’s not been playing so far, he has a good chance to work his way on the English wickets – go to the nursery grounds, get batsmen to face him, bowl different deliveries, vary his pace and ask the batsman, ‘alright, what works? What is easy and what feels dangerous’? That’s what I used to do. I’d take a batsman and tell him, ‘I’ll bowl you five balls. Tell me which one you did or didn’t enjoy facing. Tell me which one you didn’t give monkeys about’. Sometimes I realized that what felt better to me, was not necessarily what most batsmen found tough.
Ashwin is a very intelligent cricketer—he thinks about the game a lot. Do you think that goes against him at times?
Sometimes, it does. It can be a hindrance and a help. When you’re bowling well, your variations tend to come off. When I was bowling badly – when my rhythm was bad, my fingers didn’t feel right and I knew I couldn’t spin the ball – I always kept a plan B to fall back on. I’d just look to hit the top of off-stump and get a lot of top-spin, so the ball dips and the batsman won’t be happy driving. This method could help him.
If the wickets in the last three Tests indicate the future of the nature of English wickets – slow and low – do you think you retired at the wrong time?
The wickets have become a lot slower and lower because all the moisture has been sucked out of the pitches and the grounds on the whole. I wish I could still play. Watching the last game and this too, I wished more than anything else that I was out there playing instead of talking about the game. But it’s not meant to be.
Are you worried about England’s scarce spin resources now that spinners will play a bigger role on these pitches?
They need to place genuine emphasis on developing spinners at grass-root level. Throughout England there are a lot of batting coaches, fast bowling coaches, nutritionists, mental conditioning coaches, etc. Spin coaches are few and far between. Last year, we had Mushy (Mushtaq Ahmed) with the team and he was part-time. So, as a spinner, for the half of the series I had no one to talk spin to. England haven’t really focused on spin bowling over the years, but now that the grounds and the wickets are drying up, they will need to. They need at least two world-class spinners quickly.
Do you intend to play a role in that development?
I don’t know. I am committed to broadcast at least for the next three years. I am happy to mentor any young spinner coming through but whether it will be a bigger or different role in the future, I’ll have to wait and see. I’m not a very good coach (smiles). Peter Such is one and he is trying to grow, which is great.
Are you worried about the fact that we don’t have many finger spinners these days who are happy to bowl in half sleeves?
I used to bowl in long sleeved shirts but that’s because I used to get sunburned. But yes, it does bother me a bit. I’d like to see more spinners bowl with a classical action. I think there’s something nice about the game when it’s played without any questions asked about it. One thing I am really proud of is that my action was never questioned. If you have to have a look at someone and say, ‘oh, wait, it that a chucker or not?’, if people have to stop and ask you, ‘is that a throw or not?’ what does that tell you?
Who is your favourite current spinner?
I like classical spinners. I like Nathan Lyon, who I think is fairly similar to me – very straight arm, high-chested action, gets revolutions on the ball. I like Scott Brothwick, the leg-spinner from Durham. I am the biggest advocate at the moment to push him forward. I believe he spoke to Shane Warne and got a couple of tips from him. Hopefully that’s helped him. With England’s current situation, he’s as ready for Test cricket as anyone else. If you’re going to play a spinner, play a guy with most potential and Scott is a world-class spinner. The problem is, he doesn’t get to bowl much for Durham. I don’t want to upset my friends at Durham but I feel he should switch to a county where he is bowling all the time.
One distinction you have over Shane Warne is that your record against India is fantastic. What is the secret of that?
I enjoyed playing against India. When we went to India, people said you’ll get lot of wickets there because they are all spinning pitches. First, I tried to convince them, ‘look, they’re not spinning wickets; they’re batting wickets’. I used to worry about that – the expectation that I was supposed to get loads of wickets in India. But then I just said I’m just going to embrace it. So, I made myself believe that no matter how I bowl, I will always pick up the odd wicket. I think that was a good mindset to go there with. India have some of the best players of spin in the world but they also tend to be the aggressive ones. The likes of Sehwag, Tendulkar, they look to knock you off your mark and play their shots.
I loved having a battle with Sehwag. He was such an aggressive player that I knew if I could get the ball exactly where I wanted, I could spin him out of the game. That happened only about three times but I enjoyed the battle. He played that lovely drive on the onside and I knew I could get one to sneak in through his gate as he played that shot. When that actually happens, the feeling is so elating. You enjoy it because you know he’s playing the same game. He knows that that ball could get him out but he doesn’t give it up. I don’t give up bowling it even though I know I could be hit for a few fours.