October 9, 2009

What next for Monty?

Paul M Smith
One of the quickest spinners to 100 wickets, Panesar has been left facing a harsher winter after his omission from England's tour party to South Africa

During England's Ashes celebrations at The Oval, the nation's attention was focused on the retiring Andrew Flintoff, the captain, Andrew Strauss, and the Man of the Match, Stuart Broad. If football legend Jimmy Greaves was watching, however, it is likely his thoughts were with the incongruous figure of England's 13th man, Monty Panesar.

Before the 1966 World Cup, Greaves was England's main man - the Wayne Rooney of his day. But the combination of an earlier injury and Alf Ramsey's selection policy meant he missed the final XI. As World Cup substitutes only appeared four years later, in Mexico, Greaves sat on the bench while Geoff Hurst achieved immortality.

Panesar, 27, whose 39-match England career began in India in 2006, suffered his own Jimmy Greaves moment at The Oval. On an overly dry wicket, ideally suited to his bowling, Panesar, who in the recent past seemed destined for greatness, was a spectator as his former county team-mate Graeme Swann bowled England to Ashes victory.

Post-Warne, many experts viewed England's spin superiority as the key to the 2009 series. While Panesar regularly won games for his country, Australia's selectors vacillated between the struggling Stuart MacGill and the unproven Jason Krejza and Nathan Hauritz.

Midway through the 2008 English season, Panesar had built an impressive international record. His 6 for 37 against New Zealand at Old Trafford included his 100th Test wicket, in only his 28th match, a rate equivalent to that of his role model, Bishan Bedi, and only one match slower than Jim Laker. He had become the first England spinner since Derek Underwood to be an automatic selection in all conditions.

He had also entered the national psyche in a way few sportsmen ever manage; his enthusiastic approach, eccentric fielding and batting, and the instant identity afforded by being English cricket's first patka-wearing Sikh, were perhaps as important in this as his bowling. He even joined Nasser, Sachin and Inzy in the ranks of cricketers identifiable by just their first names.

The start of Panesar's descent into the Jimmy Greaves Club came at Edgbaston last August. The Northants man proved toothless on a fourth-innings pitch where many expected him to dominate, as Graeme Smith's unbeaten 154 ended Michael Vaughan's five-year reign as England captain.

Since Ashley Giles' retirement, Panesar had been unchallenged, a situation that brought him stability and confidence. This comfort zone ended during England's autumn tour to India where Swann's flight and subtle changes in pace first caught the eye. Praise for his useful batting and reliable catching inevitably raised the spectre of Giles.

Swann's gregarious manner hinted at a keen cricket brain, while Panesar's slavish adherence to the psychobabble of "work hard" and "put it in good areas", had the reverse effect. Those close to Monty insist this impression is, misleading, but his rabbit-in-the-headlights demeanour and bland public utterances do him few favours

Panesar's harsher critics now considered him tidy but unthreatening on flat pitches, and suggested that Swann was more likely to outmanoeuvre a well-set batsman. The offspinner, previously bracketed with predecessors Shaun Udal, Richard Dawson and Gareth Batty as just a little short at international level, grew in stature at a rapid rate.

In the debate about their relative merits, Swann won support in another, less tangible, way. The Nottinghamshire man's gregarious manner hinted at a keen cricket brain, while Panesar's slavish adherence to the psychobabble of "work hard" and "put it in good areas", had the reverse effect. Those close to Monty insist this impression was, and is, misleading, but his rabbit-in-the-headlights demeanour and bland public utterances do him few favours.

Confirmation of their reversal in the England pecking order came last February, after the tourists were thrashed by West Indies at Sabina Park. While the previously unheralded local left-armer, Sulieman Benn, took eight wickets in the match, Panesar managed only one, and paid with his place.

In England's 10 most recent Tests, Panesar has only featured twice as a second spinner and with little success. Indeed, his 2009 Ashes was all about unlikely batting heroics and, according to Shane Warne, his ability to replay the same match 39 times.

It seemed likely that a return to county cricket would allow him time to develop his bowling and regain confidence. His home ground at Northampton traditionally takes spin, and developing variety against second-division batsmen seemed a less arduous task than doing so in the international arena.

But things did not work out this way. Northants' successful year, third place in Division Two of the County Championship and Twenty20 Finals Day, was built on their seam attack comprising left-armer David Lucas and South African duo Andrew Hall and Johan van der Wath, plus a lengthy batting line-up.

Panesar finished 2009 with 18 first-class wickets at nearly 60 runs apiece and a strike-rate of 137. Northants' other slow left-armer, Nicky Boje, managed 30 wickets, and Wantage Road was the scene of fine displays from James Tredwell, Robert Croft, Chris Schofield and Danish Kaneria, so unreceptive home wickets were clearly not the sole cause of Panesar's struggles.

With Boje and Hall often batting in the top six, coach David Capel accommodated Panesar without unbalancing his side. This selection was based on history and hope rather than current form, and shortly after Panesar's ECB central contract expired, his county omitted him from their final Championship match.

Former England spinner Vic Marks described Panesar's bowling as mechanical rather than intuitive. Since his return from the Caribbean, Panesar has worked exceptionally hard to develop variations in pace and a better arm-ball. But remodelling a method honed over 20-plus years, through many thousand repetitions, is not an overnight process, and like in the case of a top golfer who changes his swing, things often deteriorate before they improve.

This has certainly been the case for Panesar, whose brisk, hard-spun stock delivery has lost some of its fizz, and on occasions its accuracy. Sources close to him also speak of the confusion caused by a surfeit of often contradictory technical advice from a huge range of well-meaning parties.

With Adil Rashid joining Swann in Bangladesh and South Africa, Panesar will winter in Johannesburg with the Highveld Lions. It seems likely that his county's strong South African connections have facilitated this, to enable him to work hard on putting it in good areas away from the spotlight but within reach of an England tour.

His county captain Boje, himself a former South Africa Test spinner, can relate to Panesar's situation. "Monty is a key player for us, and he is still a key player for England," he said. "Everyone at some point goes through a tough time, and he's in the middle of that right now. Lots of people are asking him to change, and you can see he's working really hard on things.

"But he was one of the quickest spinners to 100 Test wickets, so my advice to him is: 'Just keep doing what you're doing'. Don't try and fix something if it doesn't need to be fixed, just keep gradually improving it. In international cricket, people do a lot of analysing, and you've got to keep working yourself to stay ahead."

With Northants' third slow left-armer, Graeme White, recently joining another former colleague, Jason Brown, at Trent Bridge, the county has lost spinners in successive years. As Boje will be 37 at the start of next season, long-term retention of an in-form Panesar seems vital to a side aiming at Division One cricket.

Nonetheless, some uncertainty surrounds his immediate future, since if he is not contracted to the ECB next summer, Northants must fund his substantial salary, a matter rumoured to be causing them some concern.

Allied to this, and with the knowledge that a change of scenery often tempts a player seeking to revitalise his flagging career, it is unsurprising to learn that Panesar is linked with a move to the more affluent surroundings of Warwickshire, Middlesex or Surrey.

The many fans of this popular, hardworking and enthusiastic cricketer are hoping that a return to the good times is just around the corner, regardless of which county that corner is found in. They also hope that after the 2010-11 Ashes the life experiences shared between Monty and Jimmy Greaves only extend to being teetotal.

Paul M Smith reports on Northamptonshire cricket for the Press Association

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