Graeme Swann was on ESPNcricinfo’s Talking T20 podcast this week, sharing his views on a range of issues: from the evolution of fingerspin in the T20 format, the state of the game in the UK, and England’s new generation of white-ball stars making their name in T20 leagues around the world. The following is an edited transcript..
It is almost exactly eight years to the day since you won the World T20 with England. You were the highest wicket-taker for England in that tournament, and were among a group of attacking offspinners in the format back then. What do you think has changed today?
There’s a lot of wristspinners at the moment, and there simply weren’t too many wristspinners back then. Not too many good ones, anyway. I think [Imran] Tahir might not even have started playing for South Africa. There were more fingerspinners around. But I think the one thing that has remained the same is that spin is almost always at the top of the wicket-taking charts in T20.
When it first started, everyone thought it would just be quick bowlers [doing well], spinners will get smashed. But if there’s less pace on the ball, the more pace the batsman has to put on it, especially outside India, where the grounds tend to be bigger. In the West Indies, there’s always a breeze, you get to bowl with the breeze and the batsman’s always hitting against the wind. [The 2010 World T20] was a wonderful time, very enjoyable. I only got one wicket in the final, should have got two – Cameron White caught at long-off – but someone missed a catch.
Where does that World T20 triumph rank in the list of your career highlights?
One of the best moments of my career. I won the Ashes three times, that’ll always be my favourite. I love Test cricket. I had a good record in T20s and ODIs but they never meant as much to me as Test cricket. But winning that World T20 – the first global tournament England have ever won in one-day cricket, we should’ve won a lot more – was a massive thing.
We innovated, picked Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb to open the batting and they just teed off. Kevin Pietersen batted three, and he just teed off. We bowled slower-ball bumpers and wide yorkers. At that time, no one else did that. We had Ryan Sidebottom taking wickets at the top of the order, Stuart Broad [as well]. It was a fun time, very fond memories.
How did you bowl in T20 cricket? And why do you think wristspin is taking over?
I was a big spinner of the ball and always tried to [put revs on the ball], which went against the grain for English spinners. We didn’t have a back-up to me in the fingerspinners’ department, because guys who didn’t spin it too much got smashed in T20 cricket. So that might be a thing at the moment. If you look at the fingerspinners around the world, they are not really giving it a rip.
Left-arm spinners are often harder to face if they are not big turners of the ball, Only one has to slightly hold up, because they bowl from slightly wide of the crease, and they have a lateral sort of line, and the ball’s always coming into the pads. Just one ball needs to hold up to get people caught on the boundary. A lot of left-arm spinners who grow up playing T20s are useless when it comes to longer forms of the game because they don’t spin the ball hard enough.
If you are a wristspinner, it’s hard not to spin the ball. If you bowl wristspin, you either spin the ball or you don’t. I think that’s why they are doing well at the moment, because they are also rare. Batsmen haven’t seen too many of them in the past decade, and don’t really know how to pick them. We’ve seen AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli, over the past few days, not picking googlies. There’s no way Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman would not pick googlies. But these days, these guys haven’t seen much of it, they are not used to it.
Today we see fingerspinners try more and more new variations, like R Ashwin, who’s started bowling legbreaks. If you were around today, would you still stick to your conventional balls or develop these variations to survive in the shortest format?
I probably wouldn’t because I’m stubborn. I bowled so much in Test cricket and was too old in comparison to a lot of these guys. I was more consistent because of the amount of balls I’d bowled in my career, so I knew exactly when and where they’d land. Towards the end of my career, I couldn’t feel my hand anymore, that’s when I knew I had to stop. I didn’t know where they would land.
I could bowl a carrom ball, but I didn’t have confidence in it because I couldn’t land it where I wanted to ten times out of ten. So I’d hardly ever bowl it. My variations were far subtler, but they were all based around where I let go of the ball, or working out the batsman. If you are on top of the batsman, in his mind, it doesn’t matter where you are pitching or what you are doing. That’s all I ever focused on. It was a mental battle with the batsman. If he’s hitting me straight, I’m bowling too full, and I’m not turning it. I want him to try and hit me straight but [end up] dragging it to deep midwicket.
I remember getting [Mahela] Jayawardene out in the 2012 World T20. That was as good as getting Sachin Tendulkar out caught bat-pad in a Test match. Even thought it was out caught on the fence, it was exactly what I wanted. It’s a completely different skillset. When I finished bowling in a T20 game, I always heaved a sigh of relief: “Thank god for that!” Very rarely did it go horribly wrong and I got absolutely destroyed, because I was looking at the batsmen and going: “I’m gonna get you out”, instead of worrying about going for four or six.
Do bowlers hunt in pairs?
One of the best things as a bowler is to work out who your best bowling partner is, and don’t let anyone know that you know. For me in Tests, it was Jimmy Anderson, because he’d let nothing go. He wouldn’t give any free shots away, and people would attack me more because they are feeling bogged down by Jimmy.
R Ashwin said in a Couch Talk interview two years ago that “the best way to go in T20 cricket is to bowl a short, wide and shit ball, and put together six well-constructed bad balls”. He’s really been proven right this IPL, with spinners getting 49 wickets off short balls so far.
If a guy’s on the move and is looking for a ball in a certain area where he can hit it, sometimes a short, wide, shit ball is the best ball you can bowl. It’s ridiculous. We always used to say this in Test cricket if we ever got someone out to a really rank bad ball, every now and again it happens. I once got Virat Kohli out in Mumbai – slipped out of my hand. He was so surprised he hit straight to mid-off in a Test match. Somebody would always go, “You know what they say, shit balls get shit batsmen”.We’d use that for a laugh, but you’re right.
I read what Ashwin said, and he said that the best spell you can bowl is 24 [well-constructed] bad balls. I know exactly what he means, because if you are consistent and bowl six Test-match balls, pitching just outside off and drifting away, I might get two dots, maybe a wicket, but two will get lap-swept for six, because the batsmen will line you up. If you bowl six balls [with no consistency], your pitch map is all over the place, one spinning square, one going straight on, one ten miles an hour quicker – the batsman just can’t get settled against you.
It wasn’t my way of doing it. All I’d do was vary where it pitched because I couldn’t vary how much I spun the ball, and my pride didn’t let me bowl shit on purpose. But yeah, when batsmen are coming at you, short wide balls are just as fun, because you can get him out stumped, caught deep cover. You are not working a batsman out in T20s, so any wicket’s fun.
Similarly, you’d think the full toss is the easiest delivery to hit, but over 17% of wickets at the death come off full tosses in T20s.
That’s because batsmen are looking for certain areas of the pitch. If it’s this area [good length], I’m going to hit it over his head. If it’s that [short balls], I’m going to pull it, and if it’s that area, I’m going to hit it over cover. And a full toss comes into none of those areas. When you are looking through all the players you ever played against, the only one I knew who consistently hit low full-tosses for six was MS [Dhoni]. And if you actually bowled a half-volley length, you wouldn’t go for six with MS, he’d hit you down the ground. If it was a full toss – big heavy bat, short Indian boundaries – he’d hit it over your head for six. We’d never seen it before in England. How does he do that? And it wasn’t actually till we figured that he’s doing it on purpose, waiting for the low full toss. Maybe, we should get these Indian-style bats. If you see all the bats people use in T20s now, they are all Indian-shaped – the big bow and a very low middle.
Is that kind of big hitting you see in India and international cricket different from what you see in the NatWest T20 Blast?
I think it is, and that’s because players have got fitter over the past ten to 15 years. There’s more money in it, so they can just play cricket and you have to be fit these days. Bigger doesn’t mean better with cricket bats. It’s a myth. Big bats work if you are a big, strong, heavy bloke. It’s the bigger bats combined with bigger blokes that makes [for such hitting] and the boundaries are too small these days.
The difference in England is that a lot of the grounds are a lot bigger than, say, here in India. Whenever I used to bowl here in India, I couldn’t ever believe how small the grounds are. You shout from the middle to long-on and long-off and you can have a conversation without raising your voice. If you go to Lord’s, even though the Health and Safety have brought it in by about 15 metres, it’s still 20 metres longer than it would be at, say, Mumbai or Kolkata.
It’s harder to get as many high scores in England as you do in India. But one thing they’ve done recently is bringing the ropes in, and I just feel for offspin bowlers.
As a spinner, could you plan for each ground differently?
Yes. It was all about the wicket for me. If this wicket’s gonna grip, I’m not gonna go for more than 20 runs. That’s my price. If this wicket’s gonna hold a little bit and turn, I should get 2 for 10, 2 for 12, if everything goes well. But there are grounds where you turn up and know that this is a belter. Trent Bridge, where I used to play – brilliant one-day wicket, skids on, doesn’t spin, faster outfield. I think, “Right, I wanna go for no more than 25. Just over a run a ball, I’d take that.” In T20s, you go in, thinking, I should let absolutely no boundaries off my bowling today. Very rarely happens, but if it did, you felt great.
You were among the earliest England cricket advocates for the benefits of playing in the IPL. Has the mindset in England changed about the IPL?
The players have always wanted to play in it, not least, because of the riches that come from it. It’s been the board that’s always been [resisting], because of the way the English season falls which is very different to everyone else.
I don’t think it helped that Kevin Pietersen was one of the flagbearers who came over here [to play in the IPL]. The way he conducted himself, back in England, with the board, they sort of pegged it along, “Kevin’s a troublemaker, and he’s being stropping, and he is doing this and that. We don’t want our other players going down this route.” It was all a bit messy.
The board are now more free and allowing the players to come over here. It was always going to happen. I still think it’s a shame there’s a Test match coming up – we’ve seen Jos Buttler, for instance, possibly having to miss out on the IPL finals [playoffs]. I don’t think a player should ever miss a Test match, so I definitely wouldn’t have said Jos should be allowed to stay out here. He should have to go and play Test cricket for your country. The players have always wanted to play over here, and there’s an argument that it’s for the betterment of your country, and the betterment of your game.
But deep down, it’s the riches that come from the IPL – that’s why a lot of the players have come over here. I don’t think you can hold that against the players.
It was not until probably with the appointment of Andrew Strauss that they realised more how they players feel.
Was the disastrous 2015 World Cup and what came out of it a kind of turning point for England?
We went to the 2015 World Cup with the worst possible team. Alastair Cook is one of my best mates, and he was in that squad, and I spoke to him before the World Cup and said, “You need to stop playing one-day cricket”. Cooky had just got his Test place back and he’d had a really good game against India at Headingley (Southampton), and I said, “Right, you’ve saved your Test career. Now, get out of the one-day team. You’re not a one-day player.” But he was convinced he was, because he had grown up, like me, in an era where Test players played one-day cricket if they wanted to, unless they weren’t that keen.
Myself and Michael Vaughan did a radio interview and we said, we shouldn’t have the likes of Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, Alastair Cook and Gary Ballance in our one-day team. We should have Alex Hales, Jason Roy and Sam Billings. These guys who have grown up with no fear, no idea what a good score in T20 cricket is, because sky is the limit. We used to think, in 50-over cricket, that 250 was a good score, which is just embarrassing. People were [now] getting 250 in the first 25 overs. People were thinking England were rubbish, but that’s because we were picking the wrong team, not because we had the worst players.
Even among this current crop, sides have started targeting them with spinners. We’ve seen the likes of Stokes and Buttler struggle to get going this IPL season in the middle overs. The moment they have come in to bat, opposition captains seem to bring their wristspinners on.
It’s quite funny, because the Australians are just as bad on turning pitches, and yet they don’t have the same stigma attached to them. Whenever we played on a turning pitch against Australia, I would always get wickets. But they are still picked up [at the auction]. There’s stigma attached to it, but that’s natural. If I was picking up a team and I was Indian, I wouldn’t have known why the one-day team was so bad in 2015.
The difference between what the English players are worth [at the IPL] compared to the Australians who have gone for massively high prices is that Australian cricket has been the best in the world for a long time, so people automatically think they are better than everyone else. They are not necessarily better, but that’s the perception at the minute. With all due respect to the people spending the money, they are not savvy cricket minds.
[A lot of] the coaches are Australian, so they pick, I won’t say their friends, but they pick the players they trust and coach in Australia. But trust me, in the next ten years, you’ll end up with truly multinational teams everywhere, because the best players will end up in the same places.
Do English players see the IPL as a career route now, seeing so many of their countrymen make big sums here?
Not all of them. One thing I’ve noticed is that most of the bowlers, especially the spinners, are from India or the subcontinent. Very few New Zealand, Australian or English spinners are out here, and that is because there is a lot of good home-grown Indian spinning talent who franchises can purchase for cheaper sums, apart from some good ones from Afghanistan. The fact that there is no Sri Lankan spinner getting games consistently in the IPL says a lot about the standard of Indian spinners. There’s some good legspinners in Australia, who I’ve seen during my time covering the Big Bash, who do an unbelievable job but aren’t playing over here. And if you are spinner growing up in England at the minute, you don’t think of the IPL.
Alex Hales has given up on a red-ball contract, convinced in his own abilities to attract a massive price at the [IPL] auction, and he didn’t get picked up. He’s only here because David Warner got caught scratching a ball with sandpaper. It is not a given that English players will get picked up at an auction. It’s only one or two players who’ve been here all the time. Eoin Morgan, he’s not here anymore. Owais Shah who used to come every year, threw all his eggs in the white-ball basket, it didn’t really pan out for him. So, there’s still much, much more of a route down the red-ball avenue in England.
All of which leads us to a point from our UK editor, Andrew Miller, who’d brought this up a couple of days ago. How much of a benefit does the IPL offer in terms of big-game experience? For example, when Ben Stokes wasn’t playing in the IPL, he had everything hinging on one over in a World T20 final. And he was up against the West Indians, who had seen this sort of thing day in, day out for years.
It really helps. Especially for English players coming over here, the noise surrounding a one-day game in India is a higher pitch, certainly more intense, and it’s crazy when Virat or Sachin come in to bat. It’s far more intense cricket than we are used to. These days, T20 is not small in England anymore, and you get big crowds in English stadiums, they have big pressure games. They also play in the Big Bash. But trust me, there’s no bigger pressure game than the Ashes in cricket. I’ve never played in the IPL, and I tell those that have played in the IPL the same thing.
The reason England lost to Carlos Brathwaite was because they didn’t have anyone with experience on the field to walk up to Ben and go, “Mate, wide yorkers. They need 24. Six wide yorkers, we win the game.” Even when he got hit for one six, there was panic. Ben was the senior player and Eoin was a young captain who didn’t know what to do. I was screaming at the television, holding my baby asleep in my arms, and got into such trouble with my wife for screaming at them to bowl outside off stump, for goodness sake. They didn’t.
International cricket is as high-pressure an environment as anything else, but what the IPL’s great at is for players who’ve not played internationals, it’s a breeding ground for them. The youngsters in the Indian team now all take to international cricket like a duck to water. It’s brilliant for selectors because they know these guys will be able to cope with it.
It’s good argument, but Brathwaite and Stokes is a bad example. Andrew, you’re right, but you’re wrong! (laughs)
Hundred-ball cricket: yea or nay?
No, not really, but I’m not that bothered, to be honest. It will be exactly the same as T20 cricket if they get the world’s best players in it. There’s the thing that Colin Graves is barking on about: “It’s because kids don’t like cricket”. They do, Colin. Turn up at my cricket club where I take my son on a Friday night – there’s 150 kids every week.
[Hundred-ball cricket] is being done very blatantly to fit the TV [schedule], since there is only a small window to get the game on, so they’ve tried to squeeze it in. Let’s just be honest, if people were more honest, everything would be more simple.
But people want to also be different.
Be honest while you’re being different. It’s because of the TV rights. We need to get participation and [also] need to get it on TV, so they’re ready to given them small time slots, like they do for football games. So they want to squeeze it in to 100 balls [for these reasons]. But then to insult people’s intelligence by claiming that it’s something else? That’s why there’s uproar at the moment. Just be honest. If everyone’s honest, the world goes round better.