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Fast forward a year and how times have changed for England: Ashley Giles is tentatively recuperating from his hip injury somewhere in Spa; England, too, have struggled against a cockroach-like Sri Lanka and England's spinner is now one Monty Panesar
June 4, 2006
On another day in this series which refused to go according to script, Panesar can be nothing but proud of his achievements in replacing England's main spinner of the past five years, especially taking into consideration the opposition. Sri Lankans are adept at playing spin, and share the same fleet of foot as most subcontintent batsmen, yet Panesar's eight wickets so far this series have cost just 25.62, second only to Matthew Hoggard.
Of course, he's no stranger to bowling at rubbery-wristed batsmen. In the winter, one Sachin Tendulkar became his very first Test victim, prompting India's finest to present the bowler with the very ball inscribed with "Never again mate, ha ha". On the basis of the control Panesar has demonstrated in his first home series against some of the most accomplished players of spin bowling, Tendulkar could well be made to eat his words.
Like most left-arm spinners, his threat comes from the flight and angles he creates more than extreme turn - although he does achieve enough revolutions on the ball to create useful dip and curve. Remarkably, for someone so young and inexperienced at this level - not to mention the barrage of criticism he has received for his schoolboy fielding - his action is as composed and rhythmical as is possible. And with long fingers and a high right arm, letting go of the ball from a decent height, the bounce he produces has consistently troubled Sri Lanka.
Eight wickets in two-and-a-half Test matches isn't going to worry many batting coaches around the world, but that's not the point. The promise Panesar has shown has elevated his profile from wannabe England bowler to accomplished Test spinner, very quickly. Admittedly Giles is still, in many people's eyes, England's leading spinner - but Panesar is the better bowler and probably the best this country has produced since Phil Tufnell. Yes, Giles is the man for squirting an extra 30 or 40 runs out of the tail - or edging England to a famous victory. However, Panesar's bowling from around the wicket this series has been nothing short of revelatory, especially having watched Giles (and pleaded for him to change) bowl a foot outside leg, praying that the rough will help the ball to grip.
Time and again, Panesar has looped deliveries tantalisingly close to middle-stump before turning it away (with surprising bite) to take the outside edge, or miss the bat by a matter of millimetres. His three key wickets today - Upal Tharanga, caught at short-leg; trapping Sanath Jayasuriya in front, rather fortunately, and Farveez Mahroof, who missed the arm-ball - were a bright light in an otherwise low-wattage performance from England. Twice in this Test they have thrown away their advantage, and their bowlers have rather been lulled into thinking it's Colombo, not Trent Bridge. Although, judging by the home crowd's response to Panesar this series, there is no doubt from them that they have a new hero to cheer.
"The crowds are supporting the England team really well, we take it as positive energy," Panesar said after the third day's play. "For me it's all a bit strange. The likes of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff - the main players - should be getting this sort of reaction, but it's all good. [I'm] out there enjoying myself, and trying to do my best for the team."
The attribute Duncan Fletcher and Michael Vaughan will perhaps be most heartened by is Panesar's economy: on average this series, only two runs-per-over have been squeezed out of him. His fielding needs work, and we've yet to really enjoy his No. 11 capers, but Panesar has given an encouraging insight into the full Monty.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?