August 28, 2013

Being Monty

There have been many players before Panesar who had to deal with prejudice of all sorts. One way to counter it is to celebrate your difference

"It frightened me too much. I felt incompetent and ugly."
- Green Gartside

"I really believed that I was going to die, it was that bad. I just had to get off the stage. And that was the end for me and touring. I just couldn't do it anymore."
- Andy Partridge

Simon Kerrigan, one trusts, will take some heart from the nightmarish memories of Gartside and Partridge, the musical brains behind, respectively, Scritti Politti and XTC; both spent upwards of 25 years unable to perform live. Unlike Kerrigan, of course, they had an option. If cricket could be played in the studio, complete with double-tracking and delete buttons, the players would be happier and the game pointless.

Yet while the Lancastrian was enduring his own terrifying stage fright at The Oval, there was one non-Australian for whom pity was tinged, forgivably, with schadenfreude. Jesse Ryder has been giving him a run for his money, but given that Mark Vermeulen's improbable renaissance for Mid West Rhinos has raised Disneyfied visions of a happy ending for one of modern sport's more disconcerting careers, there has arguably been no more saddening slither down cricket's greasy pole in recent memory than the precipitous plunge currently being experienced by Monty Panesar. As is the way of the world, Monty the Folk Hero and Mudhsuden Singh Panesar the Man inhabit the same perplexing body.

Eight months ago we were acclaiming him. Monty the Munificent. Monty the Magnificent. Monty the Heat-Sikhing Missile. Along with Alastair Cook he'd been the mainspring behind England's historic come-from-behind victory in India. Over two innings in Mumbai and the first in Kolkata he plundered 15 wickets, including Sehwag (twice), Tendulkar (twice), Gambhir, Pujara, Kohli, Yuvraj and Dhoni. In Nagpur, with a lead to protect and a series to be won, he proved so unhittable he went for just 81 in 52 overs. Being Monty, however, has never been a bump-free ride.

Graeme Swann's enforced absence in New Zealand left Monty back at No. 1 but now he was operating on spin-free surfaces and further handicapped by boundaries one could clear with a full-throated spit. The response - five wickets in 130 overs as, in effect, a holding bowler - doubtless bred concern. In terms of the only currency that matters, figures, he was outbowled not merely by an ageing debutant in Bruce Martin but by a part-timer in Kane Williamson, both beneficiaries of the touring batsmen's strategy of safety first, last and everything.

Whether that sudden re-acquaintance with ordinariness reflected inner turmoil or outer inadequacy one can only guess. Nursing a broken marriage and punctured pride, it was almost inevitable that the day Monty was left out at Old Trafford should be followed by the night he disgraced himself at that Brighton nightclub. But perhaps underpinning it all, even more than a weakness for the demon alcohol, is what might be termed MacGill Syndrome.

Had Monty been born 40 years ago, when even Caribbean selectors were prone to picking a balanced spin attack, he would have been a regular. In an era when offbreaking, legbreaking and slow-leftarming are either/ors, woe betide the one-trick pony. Against Pakistan in 2012, he took more wickets in two Tests than Swann did in three, trumping his partner by nine top-six scalps to four. By then, however, Swann, who contributes in so many ways Monty does not or simply cannot, was so far ahead in the pecking order that their respective merits were barely worth debating.

Not that Monty's frustrations stop there. Not since 2007, he will remind you, has he played an ODI, even though his last two outings - a series-clincher against India and a thumping defeat in Colombo - saw him go for barely three an over. As I write, on the other hand, he has not completed a List A fixture in 12 months (and that outing brought two overs for 19), so his disgruntlement at the rise of James Tredwell - a far better fielder and flintier batsman - might be better directed at his own shortcomings.

For some, sympathy comes hard. Not just because Steve Smith, Adil Rashid and Scott Borthwick have improved their batting but because Monty's frustrations are felt even more acutely by an even more beleaguered clutch of specialists. Chris Read knows how Monty feels. So does James Foster. So does Thami Tsolekile. So does every other wicketkeeper forced to toil at county, state or provincial level because their path is blocked by an inferior stumper, a rival who happens to average more with the bat, even though that difference might have been amply offset by byes allowed and chances missed.

If stump-minding remains the game's most specialised role, competition has intensified with the rise of the batsman who can keep at the expense of the keeper who can bat. On the upside, Dhoni and Matt Prior have had opportunities to prosper at Test level that might have been denied them half a century earlier, and AB de Villiers' versatility allows South Africa, too, to field seven frontline batsmen. On the downside, the domestic runs made by Read, Foster and Tsolekile have proved fruitless, while the ambitions of Hampshire's gifted Michael Bates, for now, appear stillborn.

Tuffers was cricket's Johnny Rotten: a hard-smoking, hard-drinking, sly-winking, supremely sarky scallywag of a class warrior, an artistic ruffian. Had he been the one who urinated over a bouncer, Loaded and FHM would have crowned him Man of the Month

On balance, it is quite possible that benefits - to spectators and even teams - have outweighed losses, but that doesn't make the keeper's lot any easier to bear. Helpfully, the mentor Monty has turned back to in his hours of need happens to be Neil Burns, himself a former stumper.

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But what of Mudhsuden the Man? Where does he end and Monty begin? When he steps on the field? When he drives into the car park? When he packs his toothbrush? The difficulty in attempting even a tentative crack at amateur psychoanalysis is exacerbated by the suspicion that, while our affection for him has a great deal to do with the infectious puppy-like manner in which he celebrates his triumphs, this in turn stems from our compassion for his frailty and incompetence. Empathy breeds affection. However, according to someone who has worked closely with him, feeling the love is tricky when you're seen as a buffoon who is yet desperate to be taken seriously. Call it Charlie Chaplin Syndrome. Or Jim Carrey Syndrome.

In many ways Monty's plight recalls that of the similarly troubled Phil Tufnell; another purveyor of left-arm spin; another one-trick pony. While the gap between Philip Clive Roderick Tufnell the Man and Tuffers the Folk Hero was by no means obvious, the role he played is much more familiar and cosy. Tuffers was cricket's Johnny Rotten: a hard-smoking, hard-drinking, sly-winking, supremely sarky scallywag of a class warrior, an artistic ruffian. Had he been the one who urinated over a bouncer, Loaded and FHM would have crowned him Man of the Month.

For reasons that may have less to do with race than differentness, Monty's descent into laddishness was never going to receive any latitude. Nevertheless, without wishing to diminish his conduct, to ignore racism as an ingredient in his dilemma would be to underestimate the size of the mountain he has had to scale. He may not have been the first British Asian to represent England on a sporting field but none has shouldered a heavier burden. Because his faith obliges him to take the field in such distinctive headgear, he sticks out: a proud and welcome symbol of a multi-ethnic nation, yes, but also the most visible symbol, and often, as a consequence, an isolated figure. Not so much a sore thumb as a crooked finger. Add that clown's hat and confusion is inevitable.

As a rule, successful sports folk present themselves as either irresistible forces or invulnerable objects: strutters or saunterers. Either they impose themselves or assume an air of nonchalance. Consciously or not, conformity to such stereotypes seems especially apparent - understandably so - among the minority constituents of a multiracial team. Nasser Hussain strutted, as do Ravi Bopara, Owais Shah and Samit Patel; so does Imran Tahir; Hashim Amla could saunter for South Africa. Monty does neither. Does it matter? Only to the extent that it accentuates that differentness.

More than Tufnell, then, the closest parallel is the occupant of another neighbouring kennel in the Underdog Club: Devon Malcolm. As cricket's first Anglo-Caribbean folk hero, his rise to lovableness was aided less by comical batting and gigglesome fielding than by an unfortunate contradiction: a bowler of chilling pace bedevilled by poor eyesight. Bespectacled bouncer? Yup, he tried that disguise for a while: not quite what the aura ordered. Had he been born ten years later he would have had laser surgery and perhaps twice the returns - and maybe even a 10 for 57 - but would he have commanded such affection?

In South Africa 18 years ago, shortly after Nelson Mandela embraced Devon as a brother, Ray Illingworth ridiculed him in public. Coincidence? Envy? Racial prejudice? Team manager taking star down a few necessary pegs? Whatever the reason, it demonstrated a breathtaking ignorance of the most basic precepts of man-management.

Devon, Tuffers and Monty. All had Everests to conquer; all defeated prejudice of one sort or another. Now Monty must conquer his all over again. Trying to be one of the boys is not the way to turn it into a molehill. Better, surely, to come to terms with reality and self, then roar it from the rooftops: Vive la difference!

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

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