There are some dreams that you never want to wake up from. Dreams that when they’re over leave you sighing, crying or sullen. Great dreams. Unfortunately, most of us can only cling on to these illusions for a few minutes before we are summoned back to reality.

Graeme Swann has managed to inhabit his own fantasy for an entire year.

The Chinese would have it that 2009 belonged to the ox, but fans of English cricket have witnessed, with increasing disbelief, their own year of the Swann. Despite starting his Test career with a bang in 2008 (two wickets in his first over on debut at Chennai), Graeme Swann entered England’s most important season since 2005 unsure of his place and with plenty to prove.

As we sit chatting in Cape Town’s Cullinan Hotel, Swann is able to bask in the afterglow from a magical year in which he claimed the wicket to win back the Ashes, reached number three in the ICC Test match bowling rankings (above Muttiah Muralitharan), became the first English spinner to claim 50 wickets in a calendar year and, to round things off, put in man-of-the-match performances in the first two Tests in South Africa.

In short, life – on the cricket pitch at least – couldn’t get much better for a player who has become the beating heart of an impressively resourceful side. But when we meet in the aftermath of his match-winning performance in Durban, Swann doesn’t give off the air of a player who is getting carried away with his success.

Perhaps it’s because it is New Year’s Day – a date reserved for some post-revelry reflection – but, more likely, it is because exactly 10 years ago, an impostor in the very same country, Swann was a man seriously out of his depth: “I was picked to go on an England tour being nowhere near the standard required. At the time I would probably have told you I was good enough, but I was nowhere near ready.”

Swann readily admits his limitations as a cricketer at the turn of the millennium, but – as has widely reported before – he also feels that it was not only a deficiency of skill that turned England off his 20-year-old self: “My character definitely kept me away from the team for a long time. I was seen as a bit of a loose cannon during the Duncan Fletcher era. My personality wasn’t what they were looking for at that time. I’m not saying that that was the reason I wasn’t picked, but it didn’t help me.”

Having failed to make an impression on the 1999/2000 tour, Swann spent five seasons back at Northants, during which he became increasingly convinced that his international ambitions would remain unfulfilled: “To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think I’d get another chance. When I moved to Nottinghamshire I said in the press that I wanted to reignite my England ambitions, but it was more about finding somewhere where I could enjoy my cricket again.”

Yet, after three productive seasons at his new county, the recall finally came: “The first time I thought about playing for England again was when Ryan Sidebottom phoned me up from the Lord’s changing rooms and said, ‘Look, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but we’ve just been told that you’re in the squad for the one-dayers [against Sri Lanka in the winter of 2007]’.”

The phone call from David Graveney duly came, and while Swann revels in revealing the fact that he was watching the last night of the Proms at home when the former chairman of selectors called (“He probably thought that I’d be out on the lash. To this day I haven’t told him I knew the call was coming”) he also suggests that, contrary to previous experience, his extrovert personality played an important part in getting him into the side: “Peter Moores was very happy to have that sort of character in the side; in fact he encouraged it. This probably played to my strengths as there were probably two or three spinners around statistically on a par that could have been picked, but I was put forward and my character was mentioned to me as one of the reasons why.”

Personality may have played a part in getting Swann noticed again. But the bottom line is wickets and runs, and Swann’s nagging, probing off breaks, complemented by his match-changing lower-order batting, means he is now an invaluable member of the England set-up. So what’s changed so drastically since Swann’s first trip to South Africa?

Swann believes it has taken him this long to properly understand his chosen art: “The physical ability to turn the ball is something that most spinners have from a young age, but it takes time to learn how to get people out. There’s a massive difference between bowling spin and taking wickets bowling spin. When you’re 19 you’re just bowling wicket to wicket, but the difference between getting someone caught on the drive or caught bat-pad is massive. When you have a few barren years, as most spinners do, you almost have to re-learn your trade; learn how to get batsmen out. That’s why most spinners don’t really mature until they’re about 30, because it takes you 10 years to work out how the hell you’re going to get wickets.”

It has also benefited Swann that he has been able to transfer a naturally stoical mindset to the highest level: “One thing I’ve always been lucky with is that I’ve always been quite phlegmatic about batsmen coming after me. At a young age, I worked out that if someone’s just hit you for six, there’s every chance you’ll get a wicket the next ball.”

The four-man attack in which Swann has become such an integral part has actually minimised the pressure on him: “When you’re a spinner in a side with only three seamers, you know before the day begins that you’re going to have to bowl 25 overs even if it’s nipping around. But if you’re bowling in the first innings no one really expects you to take wickets – you’re there to keep it tight and pick up the odd wicket here and there. In county cricket, I often found myself only bowling in the fourth innings and I’d be expected to perform on cue to win the team the game.”

The expectation to perform for England, however, has grown rapidly in recent months. Having claimed 54 wickets at an average of 28 and scored 452 runs at an average of 45 in 2009, this is hardly surprising, but Swann – in typically blasé fashion – denies that this is something that will affect him over the coming months: “If you feel the pressure or expectation, you’re reading too many papers. If I start reading the papers, reading the hype saying I’m the new Shane Warne, I’m in real trouble because I’m not.”

He may not be another Warne, but Swann, an excellent self-publicist, is quick to correct me when I suggest to him that his long term aim must be to get his batting average above that of Andrew Flintoff before he’s through with Test cricket: “Get it above or keep it above? I don’t believe in stats, but it would be nice to look back in 50 years and say, ‘I’m the greatest allrounder since Garry Sobers!’”

It may be a tongue in cheek comment, but Swann – a contributor with both bat and ball in virtually every game he has played over the past 12 months – has rapidly become one of England’s most valuable players. As our conversation draws to a close I suggest that he has also become one of the side’s most marketable figures: “Well, I’ve always said that after Stuart Broad got a string of deals in the aftermath of the Ashes, a brand new girlfriend and an appearance on Jonathan Ross, that I wasn’t bitter about that. Just because I got more wickets in the match, more runs and completely outplayed him, I’m not looking for these contracts!”

If you spend any amount of time in his company, it’s impossible not to play along with Swann’s quips. As a parting shot I suggest that there might – in light of the well-documented misdemeanours of a certain Mr Woods – be a lucrative deal with Gillette up for grabs… after all, he’s got the chin for it. Swann responds in typically mischievous fashion: “After reading the papers, I have to say I’m not half the man Tiger is!”

Swann has had the type of year for which Woods used to make the headlines, and anyone who has followed his progress over the past 12 months will remember 2009 as the year when Graeme Swann became seriously good. The Chinese may claim that 2010 is the year of the Tiger, but whether you’ve read the papers or not, it seems just as likely that it will be the year of the Swann again.

Swanny’s ’09 in clucks and tweets.

The season begins in style. England win the Lord’s Test against the West Indies by 10 wickets, with Swann dismissing star batsman Shivnarine Chanderpaul twice, including a first-ball duck in the first innings

“After what he’s done to England in the past, to get him twice (one off the inside edge, one off the outside edge) felt pretty good”

Day two in the second Ashes Test at Lord’s and England run through Australia to set up a match-winning position

“I’m on my bed hoping for more wickets to tumble our way 2moro”

Four second-innings wickets help to seal victory

“what a magnificent feeling! having beers in the lords changing room with the boys”

The third Test sees Swann bowl Ricky Ponting with one of the balls of the series

“To get one of the best batsmen in the world, castled through the gate was a great feeling. Nicely juxtaposed with the worst over of my life to Mike Hussey shortly after”

Day three of the Oval Test sees Swann and Stuart Broad decimate the Australian top-order in a series-winning spell

“the noise at the Oval yesterday when broady was bowling was phenomenal. Reminiscent of Northants vs Derby, June 05, ’98.”

England win the Ashes… with Swann claiming the final wicket

“Wow. Never felt quite so phenomenaly brilliant as i do tonight… I remember the ball just floating up. I know people say they don’t remember what happened next but I don’t remember what happened next for five or ten minutes.”

Becomes a TV star after Ashes heroics

“unless careful editing takes place I feel a question of sport may get a lawsuit because of me”

Having completed a first-innings five-fer at Centurion, Swann proceeds to smack an ultimately match-saving 85

“in the words of george in blackadder goes forth as gorgeous georgina, i feel fantastic!”

He takes another first innings five-fer at Durban…

“i purposely allowed steyn to smite me for three huge sixes in my neverending bid to have the batting orders reversed in test cricket”

…And picks up a second consecutive man of the match award

“sometimes the headache all seems worthwhile!”