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400 pages (short chapters)
Me and Graeme Swann have things in common. We are both Northampton boys, both suffer bouts of hubris and piquancy and both rebels with a cause, not ones to be told what to do and when to do it, especially when we know how to do it. It's why I can be a pain in the neck on opinion sites and he won't shut up with the soundbites in the media that are slowly eroding his position in the England team. Hubris is telling yourself and everyone else around you that you are better than you actually are so you have to live up to your boasts, which Swanny certainly did at cricket and which I hope to do at whatever I try my hand at. We also wrote/write for the Northampton Chronicle & Echo on cricket, Northampton's local rag, yours truly taken over his weekly column when he left Northants to sign for Nottinghamshire. I managed to get his column with that hubris, a rubbish CSE in English and an opinionated bent not what normal sports writers have on their CV. Swanny is a way better cricketer than me but I'm a better writer than him, although this engaging biography a big improvement on his column.
I know the bloke to talk to and he has always been the big head he appears to be and unless you go along with it you won't get on with him. We don't like each other as I was critical of him as a spectator and in my column. The home blue seating area at Northampton's County Ground had a love hate relationship with Graeme and we enjoyed winding him up when he fielded close by. I recall the first time he returned to Northampton with his new club Nott's and he had a stinker as we rattled him so much he bowled all over the shot, flicking a rude gesture at us from the balcony when he departed, yours truly writing that 'his finger gesture matched the number of wickets he took and runs he scored in the Sunday game'. You felt for him a bit as all I ever wanted to do was play for his home county and here is his fans booing him but he never really pushed himself to the levels he has for England whilst he played for us so a new county was the only way forward.
The ego is huge that ears him the loveable rogue tag and in this rather enjoyable read he owns up to not only practicing writing his autograph before his 12th birthday but getting punched in the face a few times in his drinking career, and twice by England players. The first was a young Darren Gough decking him in the urinals when the two toured with England in South Africa in 2000, that kind of confrontational attitude earning Swann an eight year gap between his next England international, Swann not particularly Nasser Hussein and Duncan Fletchers kind of bloke, and the second you will never hear about in the book as I was there when it happened and it was never reported and I don't want to get sued.
Swanny's ego in the early days at Northampton was not only writing autographs but cheques his body couldn't cash. He always had the talent but wanted to bat at number four and bowl 50 over's every game, even on green pitches not suited to spinners, pitches that would get him out cheap down the order. But that's Graeme and he believes he can do anything. I remember when he was just 20-years-old and he did a whole hour's stand-up comedy at the clubs annual dinner when the main speaker cancelled at short notice. Northampton CCC has always been that kind of laid back place for Swanny (until Kepler Wessells arrived and forced him out) for this type of dalliance with showing off and so big ego's become big fishes in small ponds and suck quickly the oxygen of success out of the dressing room, a dressing room Swann often split more than the old Yugoslavia.
The Early Days...
Born to working-class Geordie parents, Ray and Mavis, the Newcastle born and bread couple moved down to Northampton to take up teaching positions in the county, eventually teaching his own kids in Towcester. Ray was the best cricketer never to play for Northamptonshire in most peoples opinions here and recently scored his 100th century in amateur cricket and played in the over 60s Ashes series last summer. Mum always wanted the boys Graeme and Alec to go to university and become the first to do so in the family, whilst dad secretly wanted at least one of them to go one step further than him and play professional cricket, which both brothers did, becoming the first siblings to play for Northants since the Watts boys in 1968.
The boys raced through the local leagues and age group teams and soon identified as young talent, both brothers and dad playing in the same local village sides for many a year, of which they dominated on and off the field, the post match drinking sessions rowdy indeed. Graeme still comes home now and then to play with his brother and dad for the Northampton Saints at the old Birchfield Road ground, Swanny always good like that. He even played between test matches on a pitch that could break the Terminators finger! The England coach Peter Moore's never did find out about that. Whoops! Ray Swann was a noisy fellow and liked a drink as much as nicking it and not walking. Alec was always the quieter one and today writes for the same local paper I do as the cricket correspondent after retiring from his career at Northamptonshire and then Lancashire CCC, a lugubrious opener as he is a bloke and never really hit the heights of the first-class game. He just didn't have Graeme's hubris and ego to be someone with the obvious timing and talent he had.
Graeme played for Northants seconds when he was just 16 years old and signed a deal soon after, the distraction of A-Levels no more than that. Whilst Alec was packed off to university, Swanny was hammering the local pubs and casually stuffed a grand a month professional contract in his back pocket with his three A-levels, soon elevated to the first team for his aggressive batting and his ability to put some serious rip on the ball. In the early days he just used to lob in grenades and let the spin take the wickets but learning pretty quickly that you need more than that to make the step up, guile the spinners true weapon, what he learnt at Trent Bridge under coach Mick Newell.
England age group selections followed and he signalled his arrival with the Under 18s with two centuries and repeated that with the Under 20s, helping England win the Under 21 Word Cup, looking on for a long illustrious career for the seniors as Phil Tufnell's replacement, a similar type of character. But missing the England bus in South Africa a couple of times and talking back to his coach and captain in front of the team saw him ostracised from the England set up on his first ill-fated full tour. In the book he makes the point that back then a lot of the guys were there just for the money and somewhat selfish and so the team spirit was poor and the players just plonked their head down and the bum on the dressing room seats and picked up the cheques. He recalls being confronted by an angry Nasser at one particular England team meeting to demonstrate how funny he is by telling a joke. Swann thinks for a second, perhaps wise to back down, Hussein a real authoritarian, but then decides to do his Christmas Star Wars joke and getting around of applause for just that, even Nasser forcing a grin. At twenty years old you just don't do that. Swan would take just one wicket on that tour and score zero runs, how not ingratiate oneself to the England set up.
Another story with Swanny at Northampton was a similar deal to why he didn't last long at England back then. He stood up in the Northants dressing room at just 19 years young and addressed the team (full of proven internationals and old pro's) and told them we need to push to win everything and some of the lads are not trying. That did not go down well. Many guys back then just wanted a long career in county cricket and not so much the pressure of wining and here's some big mouth making them push for the Sunday league after months of gruelling four day games. But his enthusiasm did rub off as we won the double in 2000 under the imperious captaincy of the superb Mathew Hayden from Australia, the second division championship and the Pro40 league in the bag, our last trophies for what looks like being a very long time. If we are honest we cheated to even achieve that as the home pitches were prepared for the spin of Swann and Jason Brown and would turn on day one, resulting in regular point's deductions. By 2004 the pitch inspectors had their own marked parking space at Wantage Road it was that blatant.
Just as it looked like we would go on and finally win the championship (Northants one of the only counties not to win it) the team was split apart in the appropriately named 'noughties' when one of the wicketkeepers slept with the other wicket keepers finance - just two weeks before the wedding! It's pretty obvious if one keeper is out in the middle the reserve isn't and so a great time to bonk his misses, young Tobin Bailey, a rather bosh public school lad, coming home early after snapping his finger only to find Russell Warren in his bed drinking his bottled beer and eating his fig rolls next to his misses. Russell always was a ladies man and there was rumours of other conquests, the whole thing causing a huge stink at the time and as Swann was Russell's big mate, also a Northampton boy, those two sat one side of the dressing room and the rest squashed into the other. Bonking each others cricket 'PADS' (partners and dollies) is nothing new in cricket, of course and, indeed, in professional sport and still the biggest reason teams collapse on trophy runs in my experience. But it would be the arrival of gnarly South African Kepler Wessells that would really scupper Swanny.
The players didn't like Kepler's methods from day one and felt he was only at Northampton as head coach to get this lad Rikki a pro contract, which he did. Rikki was a nice lad and was picked on by some players because of, resulting in a fight at the end of season player's wards night where a young promising fast bowler punched Rikki across two tables, resulting in the bowler being sacked on a technicality and the end of the remaining players respect for the coach. But Swann was the first target for Wessells and he wanted him out from day one. Their first encounter went like this -
Wessells: " I hear you do impressions Graeme?"
Swann: "I do indeed coach! Would you like a Bruce Forsyth or a John Motson?"
Wessells:" Your choice mate but if you do one of me I will snap your f**ing spine pal"
And that was that for Swann, detailing his near depression in the book at Northampton and how that forced him to want away the home county he loved. Once Kepler had got wind Swann was talking to Kent about a move the two never spoke to each other again. In fact Kepler also told the players not to talk to Swanny in the dressing room. It was disgusting behaviour and destroyed team moral for most of the middle of the decade and resulted in 14 of the 16 players calling a vote with a PCU player's union rep to force the coach out mid season, great copy for me but bad for the club. By then Wessells knew we weren't up to much and wanted out and so agitated the situation some by being even more outrageous, even threatening to throttle me a couple of times for my take on things. The worse thing about writing about the team you follow and support is the players all end up hating your guts. The current coach even suggested I help force Monty Panesar out of the club when I wasn't being positive about the spinner when his form collapsed and so left for Sussex. I would say it was the leaving of Swann and Monty from Northampton that made them the England players they are and so they shouldn't be complaining. We have an equally talented batsman called David Sales but he refused to go to a bigger county to get noticed (young Taylors dilemma whilst at Leicester) and so never pushed himself when he needed to. If most cricketers are honest they would prefer to drag their county cricket career out for as long as possible and avoid the pressure of having to win things by getting pi**ed most nights.
Swanny did infuriate as he never batted his ability at Northampton, scoring just two first class hundreds in his ten years with us, slowly moving down the order to end up slogging aimlessly away at number eight. Bowlers quickly found him out and you are seeing that same journey with England, down to number nine and the runs dried up. He should have been at least captain at Northampton as I felt that was the only way he would ever perform to his best and so stay. When I told Wessells that he just chuckled below his menacing sunglasses.
So come 2007 after Swann enjoyed a somewhat average two years at Trent Bridge after his move he was back in the England fold after Monty Panesar had effectively burnt out and lost that place. I chatted with Monty a couple of times before he left Northampton and it was clear the strong South African contingent in the home dressing room - that forced me to rename the team Steelbacks as the Northamptonshire 'Steelboks' - had got to Monty and sapped his confidence, the guys often ridiculing him in Afrikaans. You wouldn't call it racism but you would call it stereotyping, Monty and his signature patka (turban) always a figure of fun for the crowds who weren't always laughing with him, the fact he appears to take the stick why people like Monty so much. On the surface it looks like Monty loves the crowd banter and gentle ridicule but deep down it hurt a lot. But Swann would have none of that and he walked into the welcoming arms of Nottinghamshire CCC where he quickly helped them win the championship in just his second season there. It's tough for spinners at test grounds as the county games are often played on the outer strips to protect the centre test and One -Day International strips and so the boundaries much shorter. At Sussex our Monty would play across the square and so quickly get his confidence and form back with deeper boundaries by getting them caught in the deep.
Swanns test career dominates the second half of the book, almost as if he had rid himself of the stigma of being a county cricketer, I'm box-office the attitude, although test regulars rarely getting to play for their counties these days under the central contract system. Sri-Lanka and coach Peter Moores was the series that welcomed him back and he was an instant hit, still ripping it big and soon an England regular, earning a reputation for taking early wickets after he got a double in his first ever test over. With his first fivefor against the West indies he was in the winter tour party and became the fastest English bowler to 100 test wickets, and to the first to take 50 in a calendar year and the first English spinner since Laker to take ten wickets in a match, all this on the increasing number of flat test pitches around the world designed purely to provide five days of gate receipts and so not great for finger spinners. In Laker's days they were uncovered pitches and it was chaos for batsmen and so easy to get wickets, why he and the other chap took a world test record 19 of the 20 in that Ashes test. The key to Swanns early success was that big rip and the fact that overseas test players had never really played him before. Now they have played him it's getting tougher, Swann taking just 25 wickets this calendar year, why I thought Monty would get his spot for this week's test match against Pakistan.
In his momentous international run he has won two Ashes series (the first Northampton born lad to do that since CT Studd in 1898) and one T20 World Cup, enjoying reminding us of those facts ad heroic feats in his book. He has also found time to front a rock band called 'Dr Comfort and the Lurid Revelations', and write this book, of course, one or two comments about Notts and England teammates causing the requisite amount of publicity to let the people know the book is finished and out there. His comments about fellow Notts and fringe England spinner Samit Patel being a fat lump and overrated seem to have gone uncontested and quite divisive to me as Patel is effectively next in line for Swannys' one-day international sport, one that Swann recently said he couldn't care less for and may live to regret that statement if Monty is back to top form.
On the whole it's a book of two halves, especially to someone like me who knows the guy well and watched him play, the Northants half why I'm here so I can fill in some of the gaps. There are not that many new revelations here and certainly some he didn't include which I could add but that would only get me in trouble as I got rid of the evidence along time ago.
When test cricketers write books they tend to enjoy reciting their success and statistics in the back half of the book and it gets all rather boring as most of the readers are cricket fans and know all that stuff anyway, Graeme putting aside the last 25 pages to list all his wickets, runs and matches. It's set out in crisp readable shortish chapters and if you like your cricket you will race through his infectious style as Swann writes the way he talks in the media, never short of an opinion and always up for a laugh. He has had to rein it in a little as he is still playing at the very top although knowing Graeme, I'm sure there are more books to come when he finally retires. Its refreshing to have people like Swanny and Robbie Savage in professional sport who want to close the gap between the fans and players by being more open and through Twitter and books like this and so we can only hope its setting a trend as there is nothing more boring in sport than a player with his PR person on his shoulder telling him not to answer any questions and deliver only banal responses. Graeme Swann is certainly not boring and always auditioning for his coming media career.