At Lord's this year, Monty Panesar is everywhere you look. He's there to greet you as you enter the ground via the North Gate, his victory gambol framed on a massive promotional billboard. He's there, in a special npower-red patka, adorning the sponsor's tents beneath the media centre. He's there - in cardboard cutout form - in the MCC museum. And of course, as of last month's 6 for 129 against West Indies, he's there for posterity on the famous honours board in the dressing room as well.
But above all, Panesar is there in person. When there's training to be done, he's the one who'll be doing it. One minute it's a fielding drill under the supervision of Allan Donald; the next he's into the nets for a quick hit, before being dispatched to the outfield to circle under a few steeplers. And then, when all the other players have retreated to the pavilion, there he will remain, out on the practice strip in the middle, grooving and fine-tuning that effortlessly repetitive action.
"Spinners always like to bowl a lot of overs, so when I'm bowling a lot it helps with my rhythm," he says with reason so seasoned it might as well come served in a pepper-grinder. Panesar is nothing if not grounded. He has a £300,000 book deal with Hodder & Stoughton, he drives a hulking great silver VW Touareg, he's even been unveiled as the new face of Walker's Crisps (his personally endorsed flavour, Chilli and Lemon, is slightly fruity with an unmistakable kick). In 17 matches and 17 months, he has been transformed from diffident understudy to the indisputable kingpin of England's post-Ashes attack. And yet he remains rooted to his family home in glamour-free Luton, blissfully unaffected by the trappings of fame.
It's Monty's modesty that makes him the phenomenon he is. "I'm a nobody," he declares, and the look on his face confirms that he genuinely believes it. He can't help but be honest with his emotions, because his Bambi-brown eyes serve as a shortcut to his soul. They are the root of his universal appeal. Through them you can watch him flit, almost unconsciously, from gimlet-eyed assassin as he twirls the ball at the top of his mark, to frolicking free spirit as another victim bites the dust. And then, when his day's work is done, he finds a whole new expression. The startled fawn-in-the-headlights as he turns to face the media.
In truth, Monty's media image is a misconception. He can talk all right - at length and with the same exuberance he usually reserves for his bowling. His county colleagues at Northamptonshire describe him as a "chatterbox", and the same is increasingly true in the England dressing room as well. But when it comes to talking about his bowling ... well, he probably finds there's really very little to say. With three Bs at A-level in Maths, Physics, and Chemistry, and a computer science degree from Loughborough University, he certainly could if he wanted to, but given that his day job requires robotic repetition with infinitesimal adjustments, it's little wonder if, by the end of it all, he finds himself thinking with the logical simplicity of a NAND gate.
Consequently Panesar's press conferences are fast becoming the stuff of legend. Without doubt they are the single most arduous aspect of his profession - for the journalists who sit through them as much as for the player himself. At times, trying to find an angle in a Panesar q&a is like trying to hit him off his length ... drip, drip, drip. Every ball, every answer - simple, accurate, nothing to work with at all. At Old Trafford last month, after Panesar's 10-wicket haul against West Indies, a reporter resorted to scribbling on a sheet of paper and left it on the table for Panesar to read as he sat down. "Remember to say," read the note, "Hit the right areas, work hard, keep it simple."
Panesar, to his immense credit, got the joke and grinned. He turned the paper over and, in the course of five painstaking minutes, tried desperately to come up with a different way to describe his craft. "You've just got to make sure you're getting the balls ... in the areas you want to get them," he ventured. "It's important to get the balls ... where you want to get them." It was an admirable effort from player and scribe alike, but the end result was remarkably familiar.
Even Panesar's coach at the ECB, David Parsons, finds it hard to express what he does in any other way. "It is a cliche," he says, "but that is primarily what it's all about. But any old Joe Soap could put the ball on the spot. The key thing is the rotation through the air he achieves - which makes the ball drop more sharply in flight and turn more sharply off the pitch. That, and the capacity to deliver his skill over and over and over again."
|"It is a cliché but that is primarily what it's all about. But any old Joe Soap could put the ball on the spot. The key thing is the rotation through the air he achieves - which makes the ball drop more sharply in flight and turn more sharply off the pitch. That, and the capacity to deliver his skill over, and over, and over again."|
Skill plus temperament equals one impressive cricketer, and Panesar credits both of those attributes to his parents, Paramjit and Gursharan, who emigrated separately from India in the late-1970s then met and married in Luton. They settled in Stopsley, a predominantly white area of the town, where Paramjit set up a construction business that is going strong to this day. "He works hard because he enjoys it," says a clearly proud son. "He can do everything. Extensions on houses, electrical work, plumbing, kitchen-fitting. He's an A-to-Z on houses, to be honest."
Panesar's mother was scarcely less busy, raising three children (Monty was born on April 25, 1982, soon followed by a younger brother, Isher, and a sister, Charanjit) and all the while putting down roots in a foreign land. "My mother's good with textiles. She can do anything - wedding dresses and all sorts." It's not hard to see the seamstress in Panesar's elegantly bony digits, or imagine the extra rip on the ball they impart. He's clearly inherited very handy hands.
Panesar speaks of his parents with the gentle determination that is visible in so many of his generation of British-born Asians. "I guess we were lucky in a sense, because both of my parents came over here with their own skills and were very good with their hands. Though builders do work and work hard, it's not like having to do labour work in a company or a factory.
"They obviously worked hard at bringing us up well, and I think that's why I work hard too," he says. "As first-generation immigrants, with no family in the background to support them, they had to set their own foundations and learn about different things. When you go to a different country, you're basically doing it for yourself, just trying to stand on your own two feet."
Panesar's upbringing gave rise to an inquisitive nature, particularly where cricket was concerned. He was 10 when he was first taken along to Luton Indians Cricket Club, which at that stage was little more than a strip of a wicket in a public park. "The pavilion was provided by the council, and we were just lucky to get a lease. We didn't own anything, we just came out on Sunday mornings for practice."
It's an image that brings to mind the experience of generations of Indian cricketers on the maidans of Mumbai and Kolkata. As a "flat-footed lad who turned up and couldn't hold a bat", Panesar began life as a left-arm seamer after watching Wasim Akram beat England in the 1992 World Cup final, but it was through the influence of his father's friend Hitu Naik that he changed tack and started out life as a spinner.
"Hitu always had in his heart that he wanted to train kids and play cricket. He still does it now." A lifelong love of the sport was inculcated in Panesar, but his passion went into overdrive when a friend and team-mate, Kiran Patel, was picked for the England Under-15s. "We were just, like, 'Raz man!'" says Panesar, now wide-eyed with reminiscence. "For someone from the club to go that far, it meant there's hope for all of us."
By now Panesar had earned a sports scholarship to Bedford Modern's sixth-form college and things began to move quickly for him - although in keeping with his character, he seemed more in awe of the success of his contemporaries than himself. A close friend who taught him the intricacies of badminton ("You have to touch it reaaaally slowly, then hit it back, hit it back, and then when you slam it, you slam it really hard") went on to become the county schools champion, and soon afterwards, at the behest of David Mercer, the local development officer, Panesar was playing Minor Counties cricket for Bedfordshire.
A trial for Northants followed swiftly, and a contract too, even though Panesar - wisely, as it turned out - had already committed to his Loughborough university course. "There was something a bit different about him," recalled David Capel, then the coach of the second team. "He had a lot of energy, and was a real sponge for information." The arrangement at Loughborough enabled Panesar to play cricket in the summer and work on his degree for five months in the winter. "What I missed out on was the chance to hone my skills in places like Australia and South Africa," he says, "but I figured I might as well do my degree now, because you're not going to do it when you get older."
It's certainly hard to imagine Panesar would find the time these days to do anything as lofty as the "Mathematical Modelling of Physical Systems", which was the title of his final-year dissertation. "Basically you have to simulate a pendulum, using a java programme - an applet." He enthusiastically simulates a pendulum, using his precious spinning finger. "The user sets the settings: the speed of the pendulum, and the time and the distance. And speed equals distance over time." By now he's a daze of gesticulations. "It'll oscillate to whatever time is set. If it's a short time, it oscillates quicker."
His delightfully hyperactive explanation reveals once again Monty's child-like awe for, well, pretty much everything. But in the grand spectrum of all things awesome, there was one moment in his life that will never, surely, be matched. That came on March 2, 2006, in the 18th over of his first spell in Test cricket. Panesar leans forward and his voice drops to a reverential hush.
"It's crazy. Think about it, someone from my background, who'd basically come from a park pitch, and there I was, bowling to my hero, Sachin Tendulkar, who I'd seen all the time on TV. It was like - well, I'm playing Test cricket now, but let's look at the opposition ... Sachin ... Dravid ... Sehwag ... Laxman ... Dhoni. And you just hold your breath and think 'Oh ... my ... god'. That's when it hits you. I used to play cricket in the park, and now I'm here. In India."
What happened next has already passed into folklore. "I was just lucky it hit his pad before his bat," says Panesar. The ball pitched, bit, straightened, and Tendulkar was on his way, lbw for 16. The dream debut wicket. After the match, Tendulkar signed the ball which is now "preciously" locked away in Monty's bedroom. On it, Tendulkar added: "Once in a blue moon, mate, never again."
"That was unreal. Even that, a comment like that, it was so warm and kind of him to say that." Panesar is shaking with excitement at the memory. "Oh my god. This is the guy who's played since he was 16. I was like, 'Wow, I'm going to remember this for the rest of my life.'"
'I guess I just enjoy bowling'
The setting is rather different now. Back then, Panesar was the awkward rookie with a penchant for fielding blunders and hapless batting. Now he is, by his own admission, a more rounded, "multidimensional" cricketer and, whether he's aware of it or not, the single most significant bowler on either team. "Thankfully with God's grace - with the guru's blessings and stuff - things have gone well and I've taken wickets," he says, gesturing to the almighty. "But I still need to develop as a spinner. I've still got a lot of learning to do."
Despite the beard and the patka, Panesar's religious side comes as something of a surprise. "Cricket's a dream, religion's a faith. They are two separate things," he demurs, eager - it would seem - to keep them that way. "I suppose there's discipline with any religion, so maybe I've channelled that into my cricket a bit.
"But really, that's just spin bowling, isn't it? Spinners in general just have to be patient. Sometimes the batsmen will get after you, sometimes you'll get wickets, and sometimes you've just got to hold on and be patient. You can't act like a seamer and let a bouncer go. I've seen spinners just trusting that they'll get a wicket, and so they keep bowling, keep bowling, keep bowling.
"I don't know," he eventually concedes. "I guess I just enjoy bowling." With Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman lying in wait, there are worse mindsets to take into the biggest challenge of your career.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo