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December 14, 2006
It was a measure of the expectations surrounding this Test that, the moment the toss had been won by Ricky Ponting this morning, a familiar Australian voice boomed around the press-box, announcing: "That's the Ashes sewn up then!" And yet, a funny thing happened on the way to the middle of the pitch. England's walking corpse of a cricket team burst out of their huddle and broke into a trot, which all of a sudden turned into a headlong sprint for their fielding positions. Believe it or not, they were actually rather excited to be out there.
And no-one was more excited or excitable than Monty Panesar, whose first day of Ashes action exceeded every single one of his hugely hyped expectations. Back in the side by popular demand as much as sporting necessity, his remarkable figures of 5 for 92 were the third-best by any Englishman at the WACA, and the best by any spinner in the first innings of a Test here.
But more than anything else, it was Panesar's attitude that was so uplifting. As he admitted to Cricinfo on Wednesday, he is still some way short of being that "multi-dimensional cricketer" that so floats Duncan Fletcher's boat, but what he gave to England's performance today - quite aside from a bucketful of wickets - was passion and the sort of joie de vivre that was missing from every aspect of their play in the first two Tests.
Monty could be found everywhere in that tone-setting morning session, even though his bowling contribution was limited to just seven remarkable deliveries before lunch. Frolicking in the outfield like a lamb on the run from the abattoir, he was exuberance personified, unquenchably eager to get his hands on the ball at all times. There were misfields and mishaps, inevitably - not least when Matthew Hayden bunted the ball at him so hard that it ricocheted away for two - but the roar of approval whenever he did something right was massively uplifting for his team.
England's demeanour today formed a stark contrast to that desperate, fearful opening sequence at the Gabba last month. On that occasion the team bus, as Ashley Giles later admitted, had been a quiet and contemplative place and that had translated into a cowed and pessimistic performance in the field. Nothing of the sort clouded England's outlook today. Perhaps the pressure was off with the series so far from their grasp, but for the first time this series, the team played with the passion of Ashes-winners.
The best form of defence against the Australians is attack, and Panesar's success was definite proof of this wisdom. Almost from the word go he had three men round the bat, and even when Andrew Symonds clouted two sixes and a four from his 13th over, England refused to falter. "Andrew [Flintoff] said keep bowling," Panesar explained afterwards. "A few of the balls he got hold of were good shots and sometimes you've got to acknowledge that. We didn't panic and I just continued with the next over." Symonds duly fell without adding to his tally.
Panesar was almost a self-parody in the press conference afterwards, as he spoke of "landing the balls in good areas" and being "pleased with the way the ball was coming out", but his insouciance in his moment of personal triumph mirrored his zen-like calm in the eye of the storm.
And his success drew differing reactions from two of the key figures in the soap opera that has surrounded his non-selection. Giles was a beacon of beaming benevolence as he watched his replacement weave his way through the Australian batting; Fletcher on the other hand was an inscrutable sour-puss. The difference in their demeanours spoke volumes. It would be too Machiavellian to suggest that Fletcher wished Panesar to fall flat on his face, but he was clear that he wished him none of the success that Giles did.
Giles, one sensed, was delighted to be out of the firing line - his brilliantly candid diary in last week's Independent portrayed a man at odds with his game, his fitness and his right to command the centre stage. As Panesar displayed in his exuberance today, if you can't enjoy the moment, you've already lost the mindgame.
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It's close to inexplicable how India's best spinner is being left out in favour of bits-and-pieces players