Great teams are cyclical things. They grow, develop, peak, and inevitably die away. For every summer, there has to be a winter.
The career of Graeme Swann, who announced his decision in an exclusive interview with The Sun (subscription required—quotes here via The Guardian), neatly covers England's glorious rise from chaos and marks the beginning of the end for this particular version of the team.
One of Swann's earliest England appearances was in the ill-fated Stanford Twenty20 for 20 match in 2008. It was the start of a winter which saw Kevin Pietersen sacked as captain and Peter Moores ousted as coach. Swann's Test career, all the while, was two matches old.
In some respects, Swann's England career was a glorious accident. When he made his Test debut against India that year, England already had a lead spinner, Monty Panesar. A larger-than-life character with unusual skill and youth on his side, Panesar was the twirler who looked set to be a fixture of the England attack for years to come.
It says something about his impact that Swann was able to dislodge him.
Thereafter, Swann's rise coincided with England's. And what highs there were: World T20 champions in 2010, Ashes winners three times in a row and briefly the world's top Test team.
|Graeme Swann's International Bowling Record|
There are moments, such as the 2010/11 Ashes, or the 2011 4-0 whitewash of India, which represent peaks no England team in a generation have matched.
Swann was not the sole reason behind England's success—it is a team that arguably possessed no one out-and-out star—but he, along with the likes of Alastair Cook, Pietersen, Matt Prior and James Anderson, was an essential cog in the lineup. A player who, if ever he was absent, instantly weakened the team.
Fortunately for England, they rarely had to cope without him. From his Test debut until Perth, England played 66 Tests, and Swann featured in 60 of them.
His spin was old-fashioned and teasing. There were two main deliveries—an off-spinner and a slider. It was enough to outfox opponents at a time when some believed the art of spin bowling was dead. In addition he offered robust batting lower down the order, a safe pair of hands in the slips and a calming, positive presence in the dressing room.
In a team which was often clinical and procedural, Swann was a character, a genuine one.
But age caught up with the off-spinner, who arrived relatively late into international cricket. After summer came autumn, for the player and the team alike.
There were exceptions—glorious ones—such as his 20 wickets in India as England secured a 2-1 win on the subcontinent last year or the 26 wickets in the summer's Ashes series as England triumphed 3-0.
But the trend was a downward one, and the toll on his elbow was ever tougher.
And as a generation of England players peaked together, so too did they go off the boil together.
For a player who achieved so much—three straight defeats and an Ashes loss is an inglorious exit for Swann.
|England's Test Record When Swann Played|
But Swann and England's fortunes have been closely aligned for the past five years, and there is a symmetry there that gives us a glimpse of what lies ahead.
Swann's retirement—more than Andrew Strauss' a year ago—points to the end of an era for this England team. It would be a surprise if he is the only player for whom this series is the last. There were precious few changes between the Ashes XI of 2010-11 and this year's event, but when England and Australia next clash in 2015, England may look very different indeed.
As Swann himself put it in his retirement announcement: "It's time for someone else to buckle in and enjoy the ride."
To start with at least, the ride may be a bumpy one.
Statistics via ESPN Cricinfo