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July 27, 2006
Now plenty has been said about Monty's cult-heroic status, most of which can be summarised thus: he fields like a clown, which endears him to the crowd but secretly infuriates his coach, but a tally of two drops and one catch in seven-and-a-half Tests (two of which came in the space of three balls at Mumbai) suggests that England have found a way to hide him quite effectively in the field. So let's not over-dramatise that aspect of his game.
Secondly, he bats like a tailender, rather than the international-class No. 8 that Fletcher so craves. But, as a No. 11, he is watchful and diligent enough to have helped two team-mates to triple figures (Paul Collingwood at Nagpur and Ian Bell at Lord's), and yet bold enough to have slapped Muttiah Muralitharan for a huge six at Trent Bridge, en route to a Test-best 26. Scope for development, you might say.
The single most heroic thing about Panesar, however, is his ice-cool temperament when the ball is placed in his hand. Phil Tufnell, his spiritual predecessor in the England side, used to talk of his "ball on a string" - the ability to float a delivery onto the exact same spot, over after over after over. Ashley Giles, on his day, was able to do just that (and Dalrymple may yet) but neither will ever manage it with as much guile or panache as Panesar.
He took three wickets today and each was stitched up like a kipper. Mohammad Yousuf was spooked by one that kept low before, one ball later, feathering a cut to one that climbed on him; Faisal Iqbal suffered a near-identical fate, while Shahid Afridi clobbered one vast six, as is his wont, then two balls later sliced another heave to cover. Panesar did nothing but keep his cool, find "his areas" and wait for the errors - but how well he did it.
Admittedly, the pitch was unusually lively for the first day of a Test, but even so, it offered considerably less assistance to two men, Danish Kaneria and Shahid Afridi, who might have been expected to run riot in the evening session. It is no exaggeration to say that Panesar's support of a rampant Steve Harmison was the kind of attacking defence that Shane Warne has spent the last decade providing for Glenn McGrath. "Monty bowled an exceptional spell," confirmed a grateful Harmison. "He kept the men on strike for me to attack, which made it easier.
Of course, Warne and McGrath have produced that sort of double-act game after game after game. Harmison, on the other hand, has just produced his first five-wicket haul in just over a year - in between whiles he has lacked the venomous consistency that briefly made him the No. 1 bowler in the world.
But the circumstances of the Old Trafford Test looks finally to have woken England from a year-long slumber. Andrew Flintoff's long-term injury has forced the hand of the team's tacticians, which means no more talk of "stand-in's stand-ins" and other such desperately piecemeal terminology. It is noticeable how much more proactive Andrew Strauss has been in this game compared with Lord's. This is his team, these are his bowlers. And today they went about their business with an unruffled intent.
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