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July 29, 2006
People have struggled to believe that England have found an attacking spinner who has the ability to win Test matches on his own - but the tantalising glimpses of proof have been there from the moment Sachin Tendulkar became his very first Test scalp at Nagpur in March. "It is always a dream when you are younger to win a Test for your country," Panesar said with a satisfied air. And there wasn't even a doosra in sight.
The past 20 years have been about finding a replacement for Ian Botham and last summer that search finally ended. The hunt for the killer spinner has been even longer - not since the days of, briefly, Phil Edmonds, then going back to Derek Underwood and before that Laker himself have England truly possessed match-winning spinners. Let's not pour a poisoned chalice down Monty's neck just yet, instead just enjoy watching the development of someone who has the potential to emulate those famous names.
And it isn't just Panesar's performance in isolation which has created the excitement. He completely out-bowled Pakistan's two legspinners, Danish Kaneria and Shahid Afridi, thoughout the match. Panesar struck in his first over of the match on Thursday; Kaneria - with 162 Test wickets to his name already - had to wait until his 36th, and Harmison - England's No. 10 - was his only scalp of the match.
Panesar's wickets were not just nine, ten and jack. Nothing of the sort. Midway through the Lord's Test England couldn't shift Mohammad Yousuf for love nor money; now, even at Headingley, they could well throw the ball straight to Monty who has snaffled him on each of the last three occasions.
The comparison between England's lone spinner and Pakistan's duo throws up a similar story to fifty years ago and the rivalry between Laker and Tony Lock - the holder of the most famous one-for in Test history. As Laker spun out Australia, Lock got more and more frustrated at his own lack of success and bowled faster and faster. The same happened with Kaneria and Afridi. They had watched Pansear grab three on the first day, and the pressure to repeat that feat made them push the ball through too quickly for the surface. Panesar used loop, guile and drift and also benefited from the same safe close-catching that Laker enjoyed.
As Laker did in '56, Panesar exploited conditions that were in his favour. However, instead of the old-style `sticky dog', this Old Trafford pitch was rock hard and bone dry. The fact Panesar actually worked with the conditions, rather than get overawed by them, is another clue as to the depth of his impressive temperament.
"The key was trying to stay patient and not getting carried away with how the ball was turning and bouncing," explained Panesar with impressive conviction. "I could easily have got carried away and tried to bowl the magic balls." A little over 12 months ago here, Ashley Giles had a final-day pitch to bowl on against Australia and went wicketless. Even if he is fit for Brisbane, Panesar will push him every inch of the way.
The problem is he still carries that tag of being a one-dimensional player. But when that one dimension is so strong it begins to raise the question of how much the rest actually matters. Yes, Giles scored runs and yes, he was safe in the gully but Panesar is slowly getting better. Whereas at the start of the summer the crowd would jeer him in the field, now they are cheering him as his cult status morphs into hero status. He is quickly showing the ability to answer his critics; a strong trait of this England team.
Concerns had been raised that the three times Panesar had a final-innings challenge to bowl out the opposition he hadn't managed it - Nagpur, Mumbai and Lord's. That ghost has been emphatically laid to rest and maybe, just maybe - thanks to the magic of Monty - so has the ghost of the Ashes.
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