Panesar faces lifestyle challenges
How down in the mouth does Monty Panesar feel now? While he begins his rehabilitation at the Colchester Festival, England are playing two spinners in a home Test for the first time since Cardiff four years ago, the scene of his defiant last-wicket stand against Australia. This should have been Panesar's Test. Instead, Simon Kerrigan begins an England career he might not easily relinquish.
Alastair Cook, England's captain, has revealed that Panesar rang him full of regrets after 50 stones of bouncer fell upon him in a Brighton pizza restaurant. It is to be hoped that these apologies were based on reality because Panesar has never been too far away from a fantasy world and the qualities that have made him so endearing now threaten, at 31, to end his England career.
When the Yorkshire left-arm spinner Bobby Peel famously urinated on the sightscreen at Bramall Lane, such was the wrath of Lord Hawke, one of cricket's greatest autocrats, that he never played county cricket again. More than a century later, Panesar has been more fortunate. Released by Sussex after treating nightclub bouncers to his own version of the Sprinkler dance in the early hours of the morning, Essex have given him an immediate chance to recover.
To see Panesar back in action so quickly, in the delightful setting of Castle Park, was heartwarming, even if he found no immediate rewards. For Essex, who need something special in the last month of the season to win promotion from the Second Division of the LV= Championship, it is a worthwhile gamble, but that does not disguise the fact that he has many challenges ahead.
The mobile phone video doing the rounds could hardly be sadder. Panesar's pleas for help as the bouncers catch up with him are pitiful and it should not pass unnoticed that the calls for help are aimed at Rory Hamilton-Brown, erstwhile Surrey captain, who departed for Sussex to get his life in order. Presumably he just fell upon Panesar while out for an early-morning jog to the Health Food store.
Panesar has suggested that the breakup of his marriage has been a contributory factor in his drink-fuelled excesses. To admit, as he now has, to personal pressures, offers potential for recovery, although that break-up actually began two years ago. At least once, he has been heard to deny that his marriage ever existed and, while everybody must deal with such emotional upheaval in their own way, it does reveal his almost childlike reluctance at times to enter the real world.
Nearly eight years ago now, Panesar chatted contentedly to this reporter about an India guru who he used to visit at Nanaksar farm near Edmonton in Canada, helping with the harvest and finding inspiration in a sense of community. He called it the defining moment of his life, saying: "I have always believed in my master. He is my guru. He is my maharaji. We did voluntary work on the land, harvesting the wheat and the canola and all united together. There was a feeling of togetherness and passion. There were strong binds and a sense of love."
A few years later, when he had made his England debut and was prematurely involved in a ghosted autobiography, his reluctance to talk about his guru could not have been more apparent. He was an England cricketer now. There was to be no talk of gurus. In fact, the guru did not really exist. His life had moved on.
As abstention from alcohol was one of his guru's tenets, perhaps Panesar might have been wise to maintain the link. Many of us have succumbed to excessive drinking on long tours, away from family and friends, so if Panesar really did develop such an affinity for whisky on England's tour of India last year he would not be the first.
But it is no surprise to find that alcohol and Panesar do not mix, or that prowling around nightclubs is not a natural place for such an ingénue. He is a private individual, whose occasional bursts of eccentricity and exuberance disguise the fact that he is can be an uneasy socialiser. Trying to live a life to which you are not naturally suited is often a quick route to unhappiness. We can assume that the message from his friends and family in Luton will be that his clubbing days are over.
At Essex, too, he will have the invaluable friendship of Ravi Bopara, another England cricketer whose career took a downturn after the break up of a relationship and the second Sikh, after Panesar himself, to play for England. The resumption of his relationship with Neil Burns, a long-standing cricketing mentor whose influence had receded, is another indication of his return to core values.
There was something typically tragic-comic about Panesar's downfall at Sussex. On the field, his bowling talent has often been accompanied by moments of batting or fielding incompetence and this natural clownishness has largely contributed to his popularity. Off the field, though, the disconnect has no sense of comedy but indicates issues that need to be addressed. The image of the sad clown could hardly be more appropriate.
Sussex rightly have gained a reputation as a caring county and their release of Panesar should be seen positively, not a punishment as much as a mutual understanding that Panesar now needs his support network of old.
They had fretted about his moody behaviour for much of the season. At times, he stopped the ball in the outfield with his foot and threw in underam. He responded aggressively at least once to senior players who questioned his attitude. But Sussex were not entirely sure if his disenchantment arose from something as simple as a shoulder niggle which had affected his form or from some deeper malaise. Eventually they dropped him, a fate also suffered, incidentally, by Hamilton-Brown.
As one Sussex insider said about his release: "It was the right and proper thing to do." He can commute to and from Chelmsford in little more than an hour and, if his Essex loan does not work out, then a substantial salary cut and a return to his first county, Northamptonshire, cannot be discounted.
If he needs more support then the PCA, who have been aware of his struggles for some time, are also as willing as ever to play a role. "Our dealings with any cricketer must necessarily remain confidential, but we offer a wide range of support and counselling services to any cricketer who feels they need them," said Angus Porter, the chief executive. Life is certainly different than in Bobby Peel's day. After Lord Hawke had sent him on his way, Peel became a pub landlord in Leeds.
Panesar might have developed a destructive fondness for whisky, but unlike Peel it is not easily available on his own optics.
It would be misleading to depict this as the latest example of a cricketer of Asian extraction failing to reach full potential in the England side. This is a story of individual vulnerability not structural failures, even if the complexities of integration has never been entirely addressed.
There is an uneasy sense, all the same, that English cricket has not intercepted Panesar's problems as quickly as they might or been pro-active enough in explaining how they are seeking to address them. Successive England coaches, Duncan Fletcher, Peter Moores and Andy Flower, have been more comfortable working with conventional, disciplined players far removed from Panesar's unpredictability.
Merely to suggest that Panesar is Sussex's responsibility is not good enough. England's tour of India became his greatest triumph as he combined with Graeme Swann last November to take 19 wickets and win the Mumbai Test in one of the finest spin-bowling double acts in England's history.
But without Swann, in New Zealand, as the sole spinner, he had a difficult tour. He sets his own fields these days - he is past 30, he should do - but observing some of Cook's bewildered responses was like observing a father fearing the worst reluctantly handing over the steering wheel to a son for the first time.
And then back to England. Only one spinner needed. Back to the county circuit. Not quite forgotten, but certainly unwanted. Omitted at Old Trafford, where he had hoped to play, he went back to Brighton and hit the town. His dejection is easy to understand. How long his punishment for that lasts now lies in the hands of Simon Kerrigan.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo