December 18, 2008

Monty's mountain

Panesar may be a talented bowler but at present he is no more than a moderate cricketer

Gone missing: when the chips are down, Monty sometimes fails to turn up © Getty Images

Finding slivers of cloud amid all the blue skies conjured up by that marvellously enriching, life-affirming Test in Chennai requires a degree in curmudgeonry. Indeed, it may well be the most ungrateful act since Eve offered Adam a bite of her apple and he had the gall to insist on subjecting her to the first-ever sexual experiment. All the same, I wouldn't like to have shared a room with Monty Panesar on Monday night. Not with all that tossing and turning. Not with all those nightmares about spoilsports called Virender, Sachin and Yuvraj.

Put yourself in his shoes. The opposition, for all their rampant self-belief, are chasing more than any side has ever made in the fourth innings to win a Test in India. To be precise, no fewer than 111 more, i.e. nearly 40%. The pitch is turning. There's platefuls of rough on both sides of the wicket. You're the senior spinner. Andrew Strauss might think he's a shoo-in for Man of the Match, but hell, it ain't over till the slim man zings.

So much for scripts. All but bereft of guile or variation, the slim man bowled like an automaton and went wicketless in 27 overs. He couldn't even blame his fielders for fluffing chances because he didn't create any. Most of the day was spent bowling fruitlessly and nauseatingly over the wicket and into the rough; unlike Ashley Giles, his much-maligned predecessor, this suited his skills and modus operandi about as much as an Eskimo suits a bikini. Perhaps even more gallingly, he was outbowled by Graeme Swann, his junior partner, a chap making his debut at this level. It was a dispiriting sight for those who had got up at the crack to cheer England on to the victory their overall performance deserved. Being Monty Panesar must have been even more dispiriting.

Badmouthing Panesar is not something an Englishman does lightly. Like those other Great British Montys (Uncle Monty from Withnail and I, Monty Python) he commands enormous affection, and rightly so. Being the first Sikh to represent the nation is no small achievement. If an ad agency was commissioned to create a campaign designed to shame the British National Party, they could do a lot worse than sign up the finest cricketer ever to hail from Luton. The fact that a professional cricketer can be such an awful fielder provides all the more reason for a nation of underdog-lovers to cherish him. Indeed, referring to him by his surname, instead of "Monty", almost feels like a crime against the realm.

The headline news, moreover, remains nothing if not encouraging. As I write, Panesar stands 13th in the world rankings, behind only Muttiah Muralitharan, Harbhajan Singh and Daniel Vettori among spinners. With 117 victims at 32.58 to date from 34 matches, he is surely destined to become only the second English twirler to bag 200 Test victims. Those who stubbornly refuse to classify Derek Underwood's unique blend of molto-allegro left-armers as slow bowling, or even spin, might argue that Panesar will soon be in a class of one.

Among England spinners with 100-plus wickets in Tests since the First World War, only Jim Laker (62.1), Wilfred Rhodes (64.1) and Johnny Wardle (64.6) have bettered Panesar's strike-rate of 68.1, and all three had the advantage of bowling oodles more overs as well as playing in eras when pitches were much more inclined to decay. If we bring the comparisons to a contemporary plane, Panesar's record looks even rosier. Giles, an invaluable if sorely underrated core member of the attack for the first half of the decade, had a better strike-rate than Phil Edmonds, John Emburey, Ray Illingworth, Fred Titmus and Phil Tufnell, but while he and Panesar share the same economy-rate (2.86 runs per over), Giles' average (40.60) and strike-rate (85.1) both whimper in the distance.

Crunch the numbers a little more assiduously, though, and the results are not uniformly flattering. Predictably, inevitably, Panesar's average in the opposition's second innings is much lower than it is in the first - 61 wickets at 29.47 compared with 56 at 35.98. However, his strike-rate in the fourth innings is 74.1, some way below the 60.05 he maintains in the third. Just when a spinner is meant to have the upper hand - and especially in these days of shorter concentration spans and a disinclination to defend - he has all too often gone missing, netting 23 victims at 35.13 compared with 38 at 26.05 in the third innings.

There are times, in fact, when you get the distinct impression that the contents of the M column matter more to him than those of the W

He fares considerably better when bowling in the first innings of a game, when batsmen are inclined to be more cautious, requiring 81.3 balls for each strike when England bat first, to 53.3 when they field first. He also bowls significantly worse in the first Test of a series, wherein his strike-rate of 86.6 is nearly 20 balls per wicket higher than at any other stage of a rubber. Then again, this should not be all that surprising. As his impotence in India's second innings so vividly demonstrated, this is one bowler who suffers more than most from the truncation of tours. He needs to bowl to find rhythm; without plenty of overs under his belt, he goes into games, if not naked then certainly without anything like sufficient clothing to ward off catching a cold.

All of which points to a faintly depressing conclusion: when the pressure is on, when England expects, Panesar seldom comes up to the mark. But it is not that simple. It never is.

On Monday, to be fair, he was confronted by batsmen - especially Sachin Tendulkar and, more surprisingly, Yuvraj Singh - who played him with considerable expertise, keeping their front pads well inside the line and hence minimising the possibility of adding to Panesar's extensive list of front-foot lbw conquests. One admiring ex-international spinner told me he thought the tactic was "very sophisticated indeed".

Discussing Panesar with a coach and former county twirler who has been watching him since he was a 16-year-old "freak" at Bedford Modern school brought many a telling insight. "He was phenomenon back then - freakishly accurate, good enough to go straight into a county first XI. It didn't matter what the pitch was like.

"He has fantastic natural pace, which is his prime asset. When he bowls well and batsmen play him either defensively or in all-out attack mode, he eats them. He gets the ball 'on the dance floor' relentlessly, has three or four men up for a catch and bowls for half a mistake - bat-pad or lbw. When they go for him he sets four or five back on the boundary, two catchers, and waits for them to hole out. He bowls so accurately, he doesn't need men saving singles - batsmen either block him or bash him."

That, though, was not India's approach on Monday. Inspired by Tendulkar's deft and shrewd example, insulated from the need for extravagances by Virender Sehwag's flying start, and aided by Kevin Pietersen's curious field placings (what, pray, were the odds on the Little Master carving to deep point?), the batsmen were quite content to pick out the gaps and pick up the singles, keep the strike rotating and tick down the target.

Tactics like this appear to unnerve Panesar. He doesn't like being knocked around, doesn't like it when he can't keep a batsman in his clutches for more than two balls in a row. Nor is he overly fond of left-handers - he bowls too many balls inside the line of the rough - hence the supple ease with which Yuvraj played him. There are times, in fact, when you get the distinct impression that the contents of the M column matter more to him than those of the W.

Michael Vaughan reportedly found Panesar frustrating to captain © Getty Images

With Giles now a national selector, advice, presumably, cannot be lacking. The problem seems to be that Panesar is not so much a poor listener as a shallow thinker. Why else would he ignore all those incessant suggestions that he vary his pace more, and bowl slower? One vaunted ex-practitioner of the southpaw arts told me he reckoned Panesar bowls too fast to warrant going over the wicket; the slower you bowl in that context, the more time the batsman has to think about sweeping, a shot fraught with risk unless essayed by an Andy Flower - or, for that matter, the England batting coach's latest protégé, Andrew Strauss. It is surely not insignificant that Michael Vaughan, as a captain, found Panesar frustrating. Apparently he would refuse to speak to him until the bowler had worked out the pace the conditions required.

For all his popularity, Panesar often cuts an isolated figure, immersed in a world of his own, oblivious to the state of the game and the way its demands can alter. "He has never managed his own bowling - or aspired to, ever," believes our spin coach. "He has never immersed himself in a game because of that. That's why, when he's bowling, it is all about how he is feeling and never about what else might be happening. He is a naturally gifted bowler. He is a moderate cricketer."

Shane Warne put it best. Panesar hasn't played 30-odd Tests: he's played the same Test 30-odd times. But he's also very young for an international spinner. His thirties are some way off. He could have another decade on the clock. If he does, Murali and Warne might have to watch out. It is not all that inconceivable that the overall Test wicket-taking record could yet be his. But first he must become a thinking cricketer and a proper team player, as opposed to merely a gifted and natural bowler.

Reminding himself of an eternal verity, that the art of bowling slow lies in the slow as well as the spin, would certainly be a step in the general vicinity of the right direction.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton