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May 13, 2006
At 3.33pm, with an over to go until tea, England's fans and fielders were beginning to drift into an afternoon ennui. Sri Lanka's batsmen had got to grips with the conditions, and their rearguard was set to carry on for another day.
All of a sudden, however, an almighty roar went up from the stands, the like of which had not been heard since Matthew Hoggard had grabbed his 200th Test victim some four hours earlier. Monty Panesar, England's latest cult hero, had just been thrown the ball by his captain.
For nigh on two-and-a-half days, the fans had been waiting for this moment. "Monty! Give us a wave! Monty, Monty, give us a wave!" they had been chanting, and bearing in mind that Lord's crowds are not easily moved to such displays of affection, this was quite some accolade for a man making his first international appearance in England.
But cult status travels quickly and indiscriminately. Even for those who did not witness his mighty howler in England's last Test at Mumbai, when Panesar set himself for a steepler at long-off and watched the ball plop to earth four yards to his right, the moment was easy to imagine. Tall, spindly, and unsure of what to do with his limbs, Monty in the outfield resembles a wide-eyed baby giraffe on the plains of the Serengeti. A cricket ball hurtling across the turf - or, even worse, scudding through the air - is a predator to be feared, and avoided if at all possible.
But there's no place to hide when it comes to a Test match, and with every micro-fumble being eagerly lapped up, Panesar needed the same nerves of steel that he showed in Mumbai to cop the grief that the crowd was handing out. He let the ball through his legs with one half-cock interception, and then, in his desperation to make amends, hared after a firm push to the boundary, intercepted the ball brilliantly with a despairing lunge for the rope ... then spoiled all his good work by stepping over the rope as he made to return.
In the circumstances, there can have been few crueller venues in which to unveil Panesar to his new and adoring public. The juicy conditions of a May Test at Lord's seem specifically designed to render English spinners superfluous, as Chris Schofield, Ashley Giles and Gareth Batty have all discovered in the past seven years. The general idea is to get new players involved as early as possible, but it wasn't until the 60th over of the innings - and the 180th of the match - that Panesar was finally given a chance to prove his true worth to the fans.
The context of his performance makes Panesar's overnight analysis of 2 for 26 in 15 immaculately controlled overs even more impressive. "I don't know if they were backing him or putting him under a little bit of pressure," chuckled Matthew Hoggard, as if he knew full well the answer, "but with that tremendous round of applause and ovation, I thought he showed a lot of experience just to settle down and bowl like he did. He bowled with control, he turned the ball, and he replicated his Northampton performances on the big stage."
Most spinners of the Duncan Fletcher era have had an extra string to their bow to compensate for their lack of mystery. Panesar, in an uncharacteristically reckless move from the great inscrutable one, is more of a throwback to the days of Phil Tufnell, another left-arm spinner whose fielding veered towards the inept.
First and foremost, Panesar has the makings of a genuine matchwinning spinner, but also, in proving he can make an impact even when the conditions and circumstances seem stacked against him, he has demonstrated the sort of unflappable temperament that may one day soon enable him to make the transition from cult hero to national hero. If this seems a tough baptism, imagine what the bearpit at Sydney could be like this winter.
A look back at five high-profile exhibition matches
Bide your time, put your body behind each delivery, and play with the batsman's mind