Monday, August 15, 2016

Belated book review: The Breaks Are Off by Graeme Swann

The Breaks Are Off
Graeme Swann
Hodder, 2012, £8.99

An off spinner who wins matches on helpful pitches and keeps it so tight on less helpful ones that England need only field four bowlers? It scarcely sounds possible.

Already the Graeme Swann era is receding into history, but it was great fun while it lasted.

As Vic Marks wrote at the time of his retirement:
Only Derek Underwood among the spinners took more wickets for England. Along the way Swann surpassed Laker, Lock, Titmus, Emburey, Edmonds and Illingworth. He would have settled for that at the beginning of December 2008 when, in his 30th year, he had yet to play a Test. Not a bad achievement in a career that lasted only five years.
As cricket fans may recall, Swann was named in the squad for the last test of 1999 as a 20-year-old and then selected for that winter’s England tour of South Africa. By his own admission he was not yet good enough to bowl for England, but then his selection seems to have been based largely on his batting in a televised one-day game.

Not did his self-chosen role as a joker impress an England dressing room in which players were jealous of their place in the pecking order – missing the team bus didn’t help either. By the time he was picked to play in a one-day international, Swann wanted nothing more than to go home.

He went back to Northampton and its spin-friendly pitches, later moving to Nottingham where he learnt to keep things tight when the ball wasn’t turning.

He was not picked for the England one-day team again until the autumn of 2007 and a tour to Sri Lanka. Then, in December 2008, came his test debut in India. He took two wickets in his first over and never looked back.

The Breaks Are Off has been on my shelf for several years, even though it boast it is an “updated edition”. Perhaps I was put off by the title. Reading the book now, some of the incidents it recalls – Matt Prior breaking a window, the Allen Stanford debacle – have mercifully faded from memory.

It was written while Swann was still playing, so he (or his ghostwriter Richard Gibson) had to be diplomatic. Even so, his gentle observation that Kevin Pietersen was not a natural captain caused a row when the book came out.

It was his comments on the Indian doosra bowler Saeed Ajmal – “we certainly have very different actions” – that should have been picked up.

Swann’s sense of humour was more acceptable when he returned to the England set up, and not just to his teammates. His social media double act with Jimmy Anderson, with Tim Bresnan as their stooge, did much to make a ruthless side seem human.

And Vic Marks wrote:
Off the field he was generally a delight. In the press room there was always a tinge of relief when it was announced that Swann was on his way. He shunned the usual banalities, could rarely resist that one-liner and generally provided good copy.
As an analyst on Test Match Special – I suspect the Sky commentary box would remind him too much of his first, unhappy tour – he is hugely impressive. Almost at once he has become central to the programme and gives listeners a rare insight to how test cricketers think.

Two other points have to be made. Judging by The Breaks Are Off, English cricket is awash with alcohol. If your county collapses, don’t demand extra net practice: ask for the batsmen to be breathalysed.

And Swann writes that that word on the circuit when he started out was that if Christopher Martin-Jenkins mentioned you favourably in the Daily Telegraph, you would be picked for England.

Given how often Martin-Jenkins got players names wrong when commentating on the radio, that may explain some of the more astounding selections of those days.

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