From across the media hallway, Graeme Swann lets out a sudden shout towards the breakfast counter. “Sorry, sorry . I have spilled tea here.”
The just-retired cricketer and the latest addition to the enduringly casual cricket chat show, Test Match Special, again offers an apology when the girl in apron diligently wipes the stains on the tables and puddle below. She can’t help but be charmed and her smile gets wider when Swann says, “Whenever I spill tea, I want you to be around.”
In the canteen for a quick bite or talking about buses, birds and butterflies while watching the bat vs ball contest; England’s widely acclaimed ‘funniest cricketer’ is charming the listeners and making them smile. Blessed with a voice for radio, looks for television and a wacky sense of humour; the marketing men had been waiting, with contract papers and pen in hand, for Swann to hang his boots. Since the time the popular tour diary anchor, video blogger and tweet-world royalty retired, his phone hasn’t stopped ringing.
Before his TMS assignment here, Swann was at the theatre for the Aggers-Swanny evening, with Rahul Dravid at the pre-Test dinner, with friends at celebrity golf and after this he leaves for the West Indies for the T20 league. Before you talk about serene beaches and short working hours, he makes a weepy face. “I have to be in Caribbean, somebody’s got to do it.”
Still travelling around the world, still seen at cricket stadiums, nothing seems to have changed for the former England off-spinner. Not really, says the 35-year-old. “This morning my wife wasn’t well. So I had to get the kids ready for nursery and prepare their breakfast and drop them. It was a manic morning.” That’s a far cry from his morning in the England set up. “Then I would get up late, do things slowly and come to the ground with Jimmy (James Anderson). The pressure used to kick in at 11 o’ clock, but not anymore.”
Missing those days
For someone not known for his organisational skills, Swann misses those days when everything was taken care of. “I would pack the bag and leave it outside the room and not worry about bed and breakfast. Three days later I would get the bag and I had to just unpack it. But now I have to get the hotel organised, arrange the car and do all the things.” He does have a manager, Johnny Whitmore, who incidentally goes by the name Johnny ‘Hefner’ in his phone diary. The change of name coincided with the manager taking his star client to the ‘Playboy’ restaurant in London.
‘Leg-pulling’ doesn’t just come naturally to him, for Swann it’s a life-long pursuit that has lightened every dressing room that he has been part of and is now spreading laughs around the cricket world. “I try to crack jokes all the time anyways and continue doing that when on air. Radio actually encourages that.”
A lot has changed for the affable cricketer from the days of hearing TMS way past bed time, curled under the blanket and low volume to avoid parental attention. “In a very endearing sort of way, my mother can’t believe that I am on radio.”
As for his teammates, they are gradually getting used to seeing one of them moving to the other side. Swann says he feels strange standing next to the pitch speaking about his teammates while they warm up around him. On the first day, his closest friend Anderson couldn’t resist a tap on the back even as he was on air answering Jonathan Agnew’s questions about the outcome of the series and Alastair Cook’s captaincy.
“Cooky asked, ‘hey, what are you saying about me? Are you really jumping on the bandwagon’,” says Swann, confessing that it is really tough for him to be impartial. “During the last Test (against Sri Lanka) when Jimmy got out (on the penultimate ball of the game), I was totally devastated. Not that England had lost the match, but my best friend had got out.”
Those are rare moments when Swann is tongue-tied since on most times he is bringing the house down. Like he used to do on days when he was pushed in front of the media to talk about England’s disastrous day on the field. “I never minded doing it. I always thought what worse can you write about me which I don’t know. I have just gone for 10 runs an over and England has lost the match.”
What amused Swann most about press interactions was the days when an off-the-field controversy was brewing and the action on field wasn’t really on the mind of the reporters.
“Say something like a KP (Kevin Pietersen) issue was on and you know what they want to ask you. So, before the press conference, I would tell the media manager when ‘that’ question will be asked. It mostly comes as the third question. They would ask: So what you think about tomorrow? What about your form? I almost want to tell, please ask the question and save everyone the trouble. You come out with it, I will come out with it too and we all can go. We are all wasting 10 minutes of our lives.”
Even Swann says being cocky and funny doesn’t always work. “When I first played for England I had a problem with Duncan Fletcher. I didn’t impress him, actually I didn’t impress myself. You can get away by being cheeky and funny only if you take wickets and score runs, or else you are a pain in the axx.”
Even when he isn’t taking wickets or scoring runs, Swann can get away with anything he says or anybody he mimics. During the interview he suddenly breaks into his famous ‘David Lloyd’ impressions and warns that very soon he will copy others he shares the mike with.
Like leg pulling, mimicking too is a fine art that he has mastered after years of practise. He once spoke to his father on phone as a local politician for 20 minutes, asking for his vote. His mother had a more shocking experience when she got a call from someone claiming to be from the gas company. “Mrs Swann, you don’t touch the switch, whatever you do don’t go near the board. Touch anything and the house would blow up,” he says with his naughty smile.
Early in the interview Swann had said that the calcification in his elbow had seen him go for a second surgery which resulted in him getting his joint jammed. “Few days back I tried but I couldn’t turn the ball as the elbow rotation was very important,” he says. Luckily, for listeners of the voice of cricket from England, his funny bone has survived the rigours of playing a game ruled by political correctness and players who are paranoid about speaking beyond clichés.