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Former spinner Graeme Swann opens up on England’s pursuit of topping the ICC Test rankings

‘God we were a good team!’ says Graeme Swann as he reflects jovially upon England’s previous ascent to the top of the ICC Test rankings.

It came to a head after a victory by an innings and eight runs at the Oval in August 2011 to consequently secure a 4-0 series thrashing of India.

Swann himself knows the journey and processes involved to reach the top better than most, outlined by the documentary entitled ‘The Edge’ which aired on the BBC last weekend.

He played with some of the finest players the country has produced to famously claim victory in the 2010/11 Ashes series Down Under, all while taking 255 wickets in 60 Test matches for England himself.

Nine years on, seamer Chris Woakes revealed the team have spoken about their ambitions to displace leaders Australia at the top of the pile and replicate the achievements of Andrew Strauss’ side, starting with the current series against Pakistan.

But former off-spinner and Betfair ambassador Swann has warned that despite some encouraging signs, there are some clear self-inflicted obstacles in the way right now.

‘It is brilliant that they are aiming for that, but the one thing that we had throughout that period was a really dependable high-scoring top three in Strauss, [Alastair] Cook and [Jonathan] Trott,’ Swann tells Sportsmail.

‘Being the no.1 team in the world is all about massive first-innings runs, and I keep saying it that this England team are not quite delivering on the first-innings runs, and even when they look like they are going to demoralise the opposition and get 600 they end up getting 400-450.

‘I really want to see the top three especially start to churn out the runs that [Ben] Stokes is doing, that Joe Root will get back to doing I’m sure. There are some brilliant signs and some great players, [Dom] Sibley played really well.

‘But I want to see these guys getting hundreds every second or third Test match and posting massive totals. If you do that the bowling attack will bowl teams out and they will be No.1 in the world again.’

However, while England took a small step towards climbing the rankings after coming from behind to defeat West Indies, Joe Root’s men did see quicks prevail in taking wickets but the spinners toil for little reward.

Off spinner Dom Bess bowled just 15 overs in the second innings of the second Test and did not bowl at all in the third Test. 

But Swann admits he felt sorry for the 23-year-old for bowling in unfavourable conditions.

‘One thing that is very hard for a spin bowler is if you’re not bowling constantly you lose your rhythm, and your confidence goes slightly. You start thinking about your action, where to land the ball, and it stops being a very natural thing. I felt for him a bit because they weren’t easy conditions to bowl spin. 

‘Old Trafford in that second Test match was turning square by the end but when you haven’t played much cricket and you haven’t got yourself up and running throughout the season, it is very hard to walk in and especially in a Test match at the top level, and be absolutely on the money. 

‘If you are in a regular season, you have got the advantage of playing three or four county games before the first Test match and you are in good rhythm by then and you have got some wickets under your belt, but none of the guys had that.

‘I felt he bowled well without setting the world alight, I thought his lines were very good and he is aiming at off stump rather than middle which is an important thing I believe, but he is such a young lad. Spin bowlers don’t usually earn their keep until they are turning 30, but he has got ages to go yet. 

‘He could play a good decade of Test cricket for England so if he keeps going away and keeps bowling. It is very hard to replicate match situations but wherever he can, he just needs to get the ball in his hands and work on spinning it harder and harder. He could be a fine asset for the England cricket team for the next decade.’

England’s other long-term project includes preparation for next year’s Ashes tour, with doubts still lingering over whether they will persist with Bess or revert to Jack Leach or the more experienced Moeen Ali. 

However, Swann claims England’s planning for the series Down Under should have already begun and therefore maintains Bess must be given the chance to stake his claim before facing a bold Australian batting line-up.

‘I’d say at the minute he [Bess] is in the team and you start building your team now for that Ashes series. I think it will be very much horses for courses when they get out there. If there are a lot of left-handers playing then definitely an off-spinner, if you have got a left-arm seamer like Sam Curran playing, then I would definitely go with an off-spinner.

‘The Australians are much better players in their own backyard, they have got much more confidence about them when they bat. They go into their shells a bit in England which makes them easier to bowl out. They will be attacked by the Australian batsmen to knock them off their line. 

‘Moeen is a very good bowler, he really spins it hard and is a very natural spin bowler, but his confidence has been shot when batsmen get after him. England, having played these games, should be looking to stick to the formula that won this series [against West Indies].’  

Swann, 41, also paid tribute to former team-mate Stuart Broad after he became just the seventh bowler in Test history to take 500 wickets in the deciding Test match against Jason Holder’s men, which followed his ‘ridiculous’ omission in Southampton.

‘He came out and bowled as if he had never left the middle [at Old Trafford]. It was testament to how highly he must have trained and I know he has been training hard because I have seen him running past my house a couple of times. He never runs anywhere!

‘Broady is a great bloke and I am not just saying that because he has achieved this milestone and he is one of my best mates. He takes his cricket very seriously with his bowling and batting and he has an inner fire that burns when he plays.

‘He is a brilliant athlete and when he runs into bowl and his knees are pumping he is natural born fast bowler so you never know [how long he can go on for] if he can keep that attitude and that fire burning. I definitely know he will want to go past Jimmy’s wickets, beyond a doubt!’

But while remaining as determined as ever on the field, Swann offered an insight into the light-hearted character the 34-year-old quick represents off-the-field.

His most vivid memory relates to the most serious of situations, when news of the spot-fixing scandal involving seamers Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and Salman Butt that rocked the sport at Lord’s during Pakistan’s tour of England in 2010 had just broken. 

‘The brilliant thing about Broady is he has always got a funny angle to look at things, he is never too serious about life and is the first to have a joke. When he got 170 against Pakistan at Lord’s and I got five wickets as well, it would have been our first time on the honours board, which is a massive thing for cricket players.

‘After the game we were sat in the changing room and were being given this desperately serious talk by Giles Clarke, the head of England cricket, who was admonishing these Pakistani players for cheating and saying that this game should be struck off the records.

‘But Broady just whispered to me: ‘S*** does that mean they will take our names down off the wall?’, in the middle of this desperately serious meeting. Me and him were just laughing like little schoolboys in the background.

‘Thankfully they didn’t take our names down off the wall because I would have been gutted. But he is a great bloke and he is brilliant at Call of Duty on the XBOX, I spent nearly all my hours on tour making sure he was my partner and playing Call of Duty against Tim Bresnan and Jimmy Anderson.’

For more from Betfair Ambassador Graeme Swann, head to www.betfair.com/swann

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