Why Next 4 Ashes Tests Are Graeme Swann's Toughest Challenge Yet

Richard MorganContributor INovember 30, 2013

If looks could kill: Swann shows his obvious frustrations for all to see in Brisbane
If looks could kill: Swann shows his obvious frustrations for all to see in BrisbaneCameron Spencer/Getty Images

England’s Graeme Swann may have just become the fastest bowler in the history of Test-match cricket to take 250 wickets.

However, the next four Ashes contests are likely to be the biggest challenge of the off spinner’s entire career after the mauling he took in Brisbane.

When Swann bowled Australia’s George Bailey in the second innings at the Gabba, it was his 250th dismissal in Test cricket, four years and 347 days after making his debut against India in Chennai, beating the previous record held by compatriot Ian Botham, who reached the same landmark five years and 107 days after making his Test bow.

However, it is safe to say that was the only highlight of the entire four days for the Nottinghamshire spin bowler, who endured one of the hardest matches in his 58-Test career to date at the Gabbatoir as Australia’s batsmen made him look worryingly toothless and ineffectual at times.

One reason for that was the pre-series decision by coach Darren Lehmann to pack the hosts’ top order with right-handers, at whom Swann has historically found harder to bowl, hence one of the reasons why Bailey was chosen to make his debut at No. 6 ahead of the likes of Phil Hughes or Shaun Marsh.

But perhaps of most concern to the England management was the way in which left-handed opener David Warner took to Swann, especially during his chanceless second-innings century, with most experts in general agreement that only fellow Aussie Mike Hussey amongst other left-handers in the game has ever handled the off spinner with such aplomb in the past five years.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 23:  Graeme Swann of England walks back to his mark after being hit for six by Michael Clarke of Australia during day three of the First Ashes Test match between Australia and England at The Gabba on November 23, 2013 in Bri
Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Not that Swann should be that surprised, though, as Warner did boast in the buildup to the series that he would be going after the tweaker in an effort to disrupt England’s four-man bowling attack, forcing captain Alastair Cook to turn back to his pacemen sooner that he would want to.

And the diminutive New South Wales batsman was as good as his word in Brisbane as Swann returned match figures of two for 215 from his 53 overs at a run-rate of 4.1, compared to an overall career bowling economy of just 2.95.

That means the 34-year-old can be sure to expect more of the same rough-house tactics over the course of the next four Tests.

However, there is also no escaping the facts which clearly demonstrate that Swann struggles Down Under when compared to his overall Test-match record, his record in England and when matched up against other off spinners in Australia, too, including the vastly under-rated Nathan Lyon.

And that is because Swann is imparting too much side spin and not enough top spin on his deliveries which make the ball bounce more on the harder pitches in Australia, according to the greatest leg spinner the game has ever seen, Shane Warne.

In stark contrast, Lyon has been, as we saw clearly with his dismissal of Cook in England’s second innings at the Gabba as the ball got big on the left-hander as he tried to unleash one of his favourite cut shots, only to top edge it instead into the gloves of Australia wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.

Swann’s first Test struggles were further evidenced by the way in which Lyon completely outbowled his rival spinner in Brisbane, collecting impressive overall match figures of four for 63 from his 29 overs at just 2.2 runs per over (RPO), in the process firmly putting to bed Swann’s pre-match assertions that off spinners historically struggle Down Under.

But writing Swann’s England obituary now, as some in the media already seem eager to do, would be a dangerous and hasty ploy, especially for such a tough, redoubtable and upbeat character.

Not only that, but the off spinner has been here before, remember, after recording match figures of two for 161 from his 51 overs at 3.2 RPO in the first Test at Brisbane exactly three years ago, when another left-handed Australia batsman in the form of Mike Hussey appeared to take a particular liking to his bowling.

However, being the durable figure that he is, Swann bounced back in the next Test at Adelaide to capture seven wickets in the match, with his second-innings five for 91 helping to bowl the tourists to a crucial victory in what is his only five-wicket Test haul Down Under (see video highlights).

And while, unlike in 2010, next week’s second Test is being played on a drop-in pitch, the key for England as always as far as Swann is concerned remains the top order putting enough first-innings runs on the board to give the spinner the attacking fields in which to pressurise the Australian batsmen, something he thrives on and was clearly unable to do in Brisbane after the tourists made just 136 first time round.

Either way, writing Swann off after just one innocuous match is both foolish and disrespectful to someone who only recently was ranked the No. 1 bowler in the world.

While the next four Tests are sure to see him put under further pressure, do not be surprised at all to see that toothy grin on show before this tour is over.