Up the Swanny
If it's an unlikely success story, it's an undeniable one.
Thirteen months ago Graeme Swann was a county spinner whose best chance of fame seemed to lie with his band Dr Comfort and the Lurid Revelations. As 2010 ticks round, he's the number three ranked Test bowler in the world, the fastest English spinner to 50 wickets in history (take that, Laker, Titmus and Underwood) and close to indispensible to England skipper Andrew Strauss.
By any standards it's been a spectacular year. Those stats above are only the start of it - there were the two wickets in his first ever over in Test cricket, four five-wicket hauls, starring roles with the ball in England's two Ashes wins at Lord's and The Oval and nine wickets in the match as England beat South Africa by an innings for the first time in 45 years.
How has this apparent transformation taken place? The first factor, according to former England captain Michael Vaughan, was the long years Swann spent in the international wilderness after his initial call-up back in 1998.
"When we first had him in the set-up ten years ago he was maybe a little bit immature," says Vaughan. "He went back to his county, worked his socks off and won two championships.
"He's now come back into the team at the right time. He's becoming a really pivotal part of the side."
Swann himself admits he thought his chance had gone. "I'd completely written it off," he says. "Luckily I had the chance to go back into county cricket and improve my game, and it's paid dividends.
"You learn how to bowl spin. Some lucky people like Shane Warne and Murali might be able to do it aged 21, but us mere mortals really have to work at it.
"I'm in a much better position to play Test cricket than I was before. If I'd been given my chance then, maybe I would have played a handful of Tests and never been seen again."
Swann's many overs in country cricket have given him a veteran's control over flight and pace, something that Monty Panesar is yet to develop.
His dismissal of Hashim Amla in the second innings at Durban foxed the batsman in the air, drawing him forward into the drive and then turning through the gate - exactly the same ball that cleaned up Ricky Ponting at Edgbaston this summer.
The lbw against Graeme Smith and at Kingsmead came from a flatter, faster ball, while the one that took the key wicket of Jacques Kallis in the first innings was a perfectly-disguised arm-ball - three completely different deliveries, three vital scalps.
Swann has also come onto the scene in an era that suits an orthodox off-break bowler.
Umpires are now willing to give lbw decisions against batsmen that 10 years ago would have been turned down flat. Play a shot against a spinner in the 1990s or before and you were highly unlikely to be sent packing; in this decade, get hit in line and you'll be on your way.
This change is clearly reflected in Swann's figures. 42% of his dismissals have come leg before. Compare that to John Emburey, the last right-arm offie to have similar levels of success for England; of the Middlesex man's 147 Test wickets, only 11% were lbws.
Then there is Swann's effectiveness against left-handers. 61% of his Test victims have been lefties; experienced old hands like Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Smith alike have failed to deal with his threat.
Almost as important as Swann's effervescent bowling is his bubbly personality. "His character is so buoyant, he energises the team," says Vaughan.
"I call him Rock-Star Swann - he enjoys his batting, his bowling, his fielding, he enjoys being on tour."
For the media, bored rigid by talk of "the right areas" and "taking the positives", Swann's constant carefree quotability is a godsend. If his Tweeting sails a little close to the wind for conservative tastes, conservatives are unlikely to be perusing Twitter; if James Anderson is getting tired of the constant mickey-taking, he's doing a good job of disguising it.
One shouldn't make comparisons with Shane Warne. But, if one wanted to be cheeky, the Aussie legend bagged only 13 wickets in his first year in Test cricket. And he was slower to 50 Test wickets.
There's also something of Warne about Swann when he has bat in hand. Just as Warne liked to biff with relish down the order, so Swann's runs - both in an attacking sense, as at Centurion at the start or the current series against South Africa, and as part of a rearguard defence, as in Cardiff - have played a key part in balancing and boosting his side.
Before this blog turns into a Swann love-in, some words of caution. Panesar also enjoyed a wonderful first year in Test cricket. He bagged 42 wickets from one fewer match, bowled his country to victory against Pakistan at Old Trafford and had the same sort of rapport with England fans that Swann currently enjoys.
Despite all that, he's now disappearing rapidly from the Test arena, unable to develop his game beyond the early impressive prototype.
"They've all had a look at Swann now," says Vaughan. "I hope he can repeat this in his second year in Test cricket, but it won't be easy."
Swann, as you would expect, is sunnily sanguine. "If people do take more notice of me, then great. If I keep putting the ball in the right place, there's no reason why I shouldn't carry on having the success I'm enjoying.
"Obviously every year won't be as great as this one, and I'm prepared for that, but I'm not thinking about the car-crash ahead - I'm thinking about the beautiful ride I'm having at the moment.
"I certainly don't think I'm the finished product. I still bowl bad balls, so if I can eradicate those there should be better things to come."
"I'm having," he says with relish, "the time of my life."