Like a FTSE-listed victim of the global credit crunch, Monty Panesar's stock has fallen dramatically of late. He's slipped from his June high of No. 6 in the world rankings to a lacklustre No. 20, he's lost the one-day spinner's role that was his during the World Cup in March, and he's even had to make do with a third-placed finish in the annual Beard of the Year awards - the title he scooped during his Ashes zenith last winter.
This week his England team-mates jet off to New Zealand for the start of their spring campaign, but Panesar has been asked to take the scenic route Down Under. Yesterday he arrived in Mumbai with the England Lions, where over the next couple of weeks he'll hone his skills in the Duleep Trophy, India's premier domestic competition. Nobody expects it to be a holiday camp - one on famous occasion on the last such tour in 2003-04, Rod Marsh's squad somehow allowed South Zone to chase 501 for victory in the fourth innings - but for Panesar the trip represents an urgently needed break from the limelight.
His game has been stuck in a rut for the past six months, and in Sri Lanka before Christmas, the frustration was evident. Monty's mantra throughout his brief career has been that most enervating of cricketing clichés, "Put the ball in the right areas", but for long periods in all three Tests, he was palpably unable to do just that. His impact may have been dulled by the broad blades of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, but instead of backing himself to bowl maidens and bore his opponents into error, he sacrificed his established strengths of line and length, and set about searching for the elusive magic delivery.
It was not a recipe for success, personal or collective. Panesar still finished as England's leading wicket-taker in the series, but that was entirely down to the shortcomings of his fellow bowlers. His eight scalps at 50.62 were his worst return since his debut tour of India in March 2006, but they mirrored almost exactly the eight at 50.37 he picked up in his previous outing, the home series against India. If a mental block is forming in his game, then the selectors should be praised for spotting the right moment to pull him from the front line.
"He didn't have the best of times in Sri Lanka," said David Parsons, the ECB's performance director, who will oversee the Lions tour. Prior to his appointment in December, Parsons had worked alongside Panesar as the England team's spin coach, and few know the mechanics of his game better. "Monty's the sort of guy who wants to play all the time, so I'm sure he's looking forward to the trip," Parsons added. "We all see this as an opportunity for him to work on his game so he's ready for the Test matches in New Zealand."
England's former coach Duncan Fletcher would doubtless seize upon this form slump as vindication of his own, controversial, assessment of Panesar's talents, but not everyone sees it quite like that. Writing in the Observer, Vic Marks, himself a former England spinner, suggested that Panesar was in need of nothing more than a "10,000-ball check-up". "Monty is a mechanical bowler rather than an intuitive one, which need not be a major disadvantage," said Marks. "But [he] looks as if he's starting to panic when his tried-and-trusted mechanism is no longer producing the results."
|If a touch of vertigo is setting in after Panesar's stellar rise in international cricket, it's hardly surprising - he has not even completed two years in the Test team, but he has ridden such a tidal wave of hype and celebrity, he's sure to feel weighed down by inflated expectations. Mind you, his lofty profile is largely self-inflicted|
If a touch of vertigo is setting in after Panesar's stellar rise in international cricket, it's hardly surprising - he has not even completed two years in the Test team, but he has ridden such a tidal wave of hype and celebrity, he's sure to feel weighed down by inflated expectations. Mind you, his lofty profile is largely self-inflicted - in 2007, thanks to some pretty avaricious cash-ins by his team of advisors, he was the face of everything from DVDs to potato snacks, and even found time for an unfortunately premature autobiography.
"A few people have suggested I might be getting too commercially motivated, but nothing could be further from the truth," said Panesar. "When you become a recognised face, people want to get to know you and with that can come opportunities, but I am working as hard as ever on my cricket."
Few who saw him in the nets in Sri Lanka would doubt that final assertion, but somehow he lacks a spark of belief at present. His predecessor, Ashley Giles, also struggled to cope with the burden that is placed on England's anointed spinner, but in hindsight Giles had it easy. In an era dominated by three of the greatest (and weightiest) wicket-taking spinners in history, no one realistically expected him to match the matchless. Panesar, for one reason or another, does not have that luxury.
In truth, he's been pretty unfortunate in his timing. Five of his first seven series (and 15 of his 23 Tests) have featured one of the big three - Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble - who currently outweigh his wickets tally by the small matter of 25 to 1. Coming from a culture where deference to one's elders is ingrained from birth, that's quite some mental hurdle to have to overcome.
Panesar's reaction ahead of each of these series has been the same. "How can the student be a rival to the teacher?" he said of his impending meetings with both Kumble and Muralitharan last year. The answer, to judge by his stats, is that he can't. Monty's record in matches involving the big three is 41 wickets at 41.68, compared to 40 at 23.62 against the spin-light opposition of Pakistan and West Indies. Moreover, he's contributed to two victories in 15 attempts in the first bracket, compared to six in eight in the second.
That's not to say he hasn't had some measure of success in these games, but at no stage - except arguably in Perth during the Ashes, when he was pumped to the gunwales with indignation after his earlier omissions - has he gone in with the same belief that so overwhelmed West Indies and Pakistan. With that in mind, his next destination, after the Indian interlude, is an intriguing one. New Zealand's captain is Daniel Vettori, the most durable left-arm spinner in the world today. He's respected and renowned, but hardly the type to be revered. In fact, his average of 34.22 is two clicks higher than Panesar's, and his strike-rate some ten balls slower.
Perhaps that goes to show that Monty's off-colour moments simply come with the territory. Despite the hype, he is not the messiah that England dearly wish him to be. He is merely the best slow bowler that the country has to offer. A touch more self-belief would not go amiss, however, and to that end he could doubtless be helped by his captain. In one of the most candid passages of his autobiography, Panesar tells of the excitement he felt when selected for his debut against India at Nagpur. Up he bounded to the room of the then-skipper, Andrew Flintoff, armed with a bundle of plans and potential field placings.
When I knocked on Flintoff's door and handed over the results he seemed a bit bemused.
"This is what I'm thinking of doing," I said.
"Ah, okay," he replied, sounding as puzzled as he looked. "No worries at all, mate. I'll take it all on board and you have a good night's sleep."
I decided I ought to leave quickly because I wasn't sure whether he wanted me in his room
Michael Vaughan, take note. Monty is his own man, and has plenty of ideas to make his own game work better. But to judge by the passivity of his recent performances, he could probably do with being coaxed back out of his shell a touch.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo