From Wantage to Wankhede
As wickets tumbled at the Wankhede and India were swept away by the twirl-wind created by Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, England supporters were treated to a spectacle not seen for a generation. Their tally of 19 wickets in the Test was the biggest haul by a pair of England spinners since 1958, and ended an unwanted record of seven unsuccessful outings together, but it wasn't the first time they had clicked in tandem. On a Wantage Road dustbowl in 2001, though the crowd may have been smaller, the two provided a glimpse of the future.
The route from Northampton to Mumbai has been a long one. That match against Leicestershire 11 years ago was Panesar's debut, and he and Swann claimed eight wickets apiece - but Northamptonshire's spin revolution never quite arrived. They played just seven first-class matches together for the county where they learned their trade, and although both were identified as England prospects at an early age, it seemed they would never enjoy international success as part of the same team.
By the time Panesar, already an England Under-19 player, broke into the Northamptonshire first XI, Swann was on a path that would remove him from England's orbit for several years. A squad member on the 1999-2000 tour of South Africa, where he played a single ODI, the livewire Swann failed to impress England's coach, Duncan Fletcher, and his resistance to authority figures led to a falling out with another disciplinarian, Kepler Wessels, at Northamptonshire, and his subsequent departure for Nottinghamshire. For a time, it seemed Swann's biggest impact with England was to remain being punched in the face by Darren Gough while in a hotel toilet in Johannesburg. Now only Derek Underwood sits above him in England's spin-bowling hierarchy.
David Ripley, Swann's captain during his early years at Wantage Road, and now Northamptonshire's coach, admits that despite his good cricket sense, "Graeme was a bit frustrating sometimes", liable to chirp away even at senior colleagues. Swann had a sense of his own destiny and Ripley, like most at Northamptonshire, was glad to see him come again, first under Peter Moores in 2007 and then as an integral part of Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss' record-breaking England side.
"You wondered if he'd missed his chance but I'm really pleased that he's had success, and he's kept a little bit of his cavalier attacking spirit that he's always had and shaped it into being a top international player," Ripley says.
Panesar, too, had a quiet but fierce ambition to play for England. Andrew Radd, a journalist who has covered Northamptonshire cricket for 30 years, recalls his determination on a pre-season tour to Grenada in 2001, when Panesar's team-mate Toby Bailey told him he would need to learn the words to the national anthem if he was to fulfil his dream. Insisting he already knew them, Panesar stood up at the table, put his hand on his chest and sang the chorus to "Three Lions", by Baddiel and Skinner.
Radd still isn't sure whether it was a knowing mistake, self-parody or not. There is undoubtedly more to Panesar than the popular image of guileless innocence; though Swann, in his autobiography, plays it up, describing the young Panesar as not so much wet behind the ears as "absolutely drenched". By contrast, Ripley says Swann was "like an old pro who'd played for years".
While Swann had self-belief and bravado and never turned up early for anything, Panesar was shy and humble, practised incessantly and asked advice from anyone willing to give it (to his detriment, it has been suggested, as it prevented him from developing his own plans and thought processes). But they both had natural talent, and on August 23, 2001 they were deployed together for the first time.
A decade ago Northamptonshire were producing turning pitches that MS Dhoni would have been proud of. Darren Maddy, a fellow England tourist with Swann in South Africa, was part of the Leicestershire side dismissed for 85 on the fourth day, and he describes Northamptonshire's pitches at the time as "notorious". Leicestershire, having called up slow left-armer Richard Davis for his first match in four years, took a small first-innings lead after Shahid Afridi blazed a 74-ball hundred but Panesar made a good start, with figures of 4 for 120 from 35 overs. The dancing, high-fiving celebration was not yet to be seen, such was his reserve, but the control and the wickets were there from the start.
He even managed to shrug off the gamesmanship of Leicestershire's former England paceman Phil DeFreitas, then aged 35, who Ripley recalls trying to ruffle Panesar. "Daffy was doing his best to stare him out and give him a few verbals to unsettle him but Monty just laughed it off, really," he says. It's quite possible he didn't realise he was being sledged.
With less than two sessions to survive on the final day, Leicestershire should have been safe but Swann, Panesar and England A offspinner (plus one-time full tourist) Jason Brown took full advantage of a well-used surface to knock over seven wickets after tea. The three spinners took all 20 wickets in the match - Swann's 8 for 135 remarkably similar to Panesar's 8 for 131. Neil Burns, the former Somerset and Leicestershire wicketkeeper who now runs the London County Cricket Club, became Panesar's maiden first-class wicket in the match and he remembers the mesmerising control the pair exerted.
"Monty and Swanny created a fantastic hold over our batsmen," he said. "The thing that stood out for me was how much spin they imparted on the ball. To see two young guys run up and really try and spin the ball was exciting."
Leicestershire's coach, Jack Birkenshaw, who bowled offspin in five Tests for England during the 1970s, was particularly captivated, even as his side crumbled to defeat. But it was to be a fleeting moment of joint success for Swann and Panesar. Even at Northamptonshire, playing three slow bowlers was a rarity, and Swann left in 2004. Panesar made his mark at international level two years later but subsequently stagnated, his repetitive action and mechanical approach criticised, before a move to Sussex helped resurrect his England career.
But Northampton will always have that late summer afternoon in 2001 and the memory described by Burns: "I actually said to Jack Birkenshaw at the time, 'The way you're talking Jack, anyone would think it was Laker and Lock bowling'." Eleven years later in Mumbai, it may as well have been.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo