One of the most enduring attributes of sport is the ability to unearth greatness generation after generation. Sunil Gavaskar had carried the Indian batting on his shoulders for the better part of decades. When he retired in 1987, people started obsessing over the fragility of the Indian lineup. However, Mohammad Azharuddin had already established himself as a top class batsman by then.
It took only more two years for the nation to witness perhaps its greatest batsman take centre stage. 16-year old Sachin Tendulkar showed the flair and tenacity to thwart a world class batting lineup - bloody nose and all. With Tendulkar nearing the end of his career Sehwag has taken over the mantle of being the most feared batsman in world cricket.
Coming to a more global scale, the eighties saw people proclaim the end of spin bowling. Kim Hughes made a statement that legspinners had no role in the game. The West Indians talked about picking a spinner if he could turn the ball at 90 miles an hour. Infact, only 12 spinners took 50 or more wickets during that decade, with only two of them averaging less than 30 runs per wicket. What's more, only Iqbal Qasim had a strike rate of less than 70 while Abdul Qadir with a strike rate of just over 70 being the only other bowler with a sub-80 strike rate.
However, the nineties saw the renaissance of spin bowling. Three of the greatest spinners in the history of the game made their debut. Interestingly, none of them had a good start to their career. Anil Kumble was the first of the three to make his mark with a six-for in South Africa and followed it up by tormenting the English batsmen in a 3-0 sweep at home. Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan debuted within months of each other but took a while to get going. Although the Australian legspinner produced a master performance to turn a test in Sri Lanka, he shot to fame with what was labeled "The Ball of the Century". He didn't stop bamboozling batsmen around the world, especially the English, until a little over three years ago. Murali took the most time to develop into a world class bowler, he wasn't rated very highly until the 16-wicket haul against England at the Oval. Soon after he developed the doosra which was pioneered by Saqlain Mustaq and gave batsmen even more headaches.
There were some more quality spinners in the game during this decade - Saqlain Mustaq invented the doosra, Mushtaq Ahmed who had an amazing wrong 'un, while Daniel Vettori and Harbhajan Singh made their debut in 1997 and 1998 respectively. In all, 15 spinners took 50 or more wickets this decade with 8 of them averaging less than 30. In addition, 7 of the 15 had a sub-70 strike rate. Part of it could just be down to strike rates generally following a downward trend from the 1960s.
Kumble, Warne and Murali continued their dominance well into the next decade and were joined by Harbhajan Singh who even managed to keep Kumble out of the side for a brief period. Vettori had his moments too, as did Saqlain Mustaq and Stuart MacGill. Towards the end of the decade it started to look like cricket might lose the charm of spin bowling. Warne retired in 2007, Kumble wasn't as menacing and eventually retired in 2008, and Murali was also losing his bite. Harbhajan Singh, who was supposed to take over as the world's premier spinner still hadn't adapted to foreign conditions and the Kookaburra ball. Worse, he wasn't as effective as he used to even at home. As a result, only 3 of the 18 who took 50 or more wickets in the 2000s averaged less than 30. The good thing, though, was 4 of these 18 had a strike rate of less than 60 and 3 more having a sub-70 strike rate. Again, part of it could just be down to strike rates generally following a downward trend from the 1960s.
It was in this backdrop that England finally picked Graeme Swann in their test side. Swann had played a few ODIs before that, making his debut in 2000 before being in international wilderness for seven years. It was in his comeback series in Sri Lanka that he caught my attention with a Man of the Match performance against Sri Lanka, tossing the ball up and inducing false strokes. Indeed, two of the four dismissals were caught and bowled.
Swann's latest challenge was perhaps the sternest one faced by spinners in international cricket. The best in the world have come to Indian shores and left with their reputations tarnished. The Indian batting was stronger than ever, for the first time featuring two prolific openers to set up a strong and experienced middle order. It didn't count for much: Swann rocked the batting by taking the wicket of Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in his very first over. He has gone on to take a wicket in the first over of a spell 22 more times. Talk about instant impact.
Eight wickets in a two-test series against the best batting lineup in the world must have done wonders to Swann's confidence. But it wasn't enough for Andy Flower who persisted with Monty Panesar in the first test against the West Indies in Jamaica. However, Swann got his chance in the next test and promptly got a five-wicket haul in the first innings. England couldn't force a win but Swann's place in the side seemed to be safe and he hasn't looked back since then. As seen above, he has the third-best average among spinners for the last decade. No shame being third in a list which has Murali and Warne occupying the top two positions. He also has the fourth best strike rate among the lot.
Since his debut in December 2008, 12 bowlers have taken 50 or more wickets in tests. No surprise that Dale Steyn has the best average and strike rate in the list. Asif has the second best average although it should be noted that all 12 of his tests have been in conditions ideal for his style of bowling. Swann is third on the list, no mean achievement because spinners have generally tended to average more than fast bowlers. It's interesting that Zaheer Khan has the second best strike rate. 9 of his 12 tests during this period have been in the subcontinent and only 2 against Bangladesh. Swann has the fifth-best strike rate, again a major achievement when you consider even the best spinners in the post-war era, Warne and Murali included, have an inferior strike rate to their fast bowling peers.
It should be pointed out that he's achieved all this with a clean action and without a doosra, displaying the old-fashioned virtues of beating batsmen in the air. Another impressive aspect of his bowling is the number of balls he forces batsmen to play on the front foot, thereby giving them less time to adjust. Last but not least, he is one of the few right-arm bowlers who starts around the wicket to left-hand batsmen. It's something James Anderson would do well to replicate.
It's a pity he's already 31 years old. In some ways, he's had the kind of start Michael Hussey had to his career. While he has been good in different conditions and against all opposition, his place in the pantheon of spin Gods will be sealed only if he sustains this level of performance for another 5-6 years. Test cricket will be all the richer if Swann manages to do so and in the process inspires others to take up the art of finger spin.