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.


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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 31, 2013, 15:09 GMT

    Interestingly, the ECB did not view Monty Panesar's recent urinary escapade at a Sussex night-club in the same light. He was not included in the England squad in that final Test match and was replaced instead by another left-arm spinner, Simon Kerrigan, who went wicketless in the first innings (0 for 53 in 8 overs or an economy rate of 6.62) and did not bowl in the second. Panesar has 164 test wickets at an economy rate of 2.75. The ECB's behaviour is understandable if we take into consideration a recent statement by the top England batsman in the series, Ian Bell. In describing the difference between his batting style and KPee's, he said, "He cuts, I pull. He flicks it, I drive it." In other words, different strokes for different folks. Tony Deyal, Trinidad Express August 31, 2013 (England's Soaker Warriors)

  • naresh on August 29, 2013, 17:39 GMT

    Madhusudhan is the proper spelling of that name - how did it end up as Mudsudhan? I wish him luck - always good to see a spinner without so-called mystery balls. Swann will be gone soon and England need a good one in his place.

  • Dummy4 on August 28, 2013, 21:39 GMT

    What Monty must do now is bbuckle down and keep beleiving ther is a way back. There is no one of his calibre in county cricket, to suggest Briggs is beyond me,and as has been stated earlier, Panesar still has age on his side. England will need a slow left armer in their arsenal, and Panesar fits the bill. I say good kuck to Monty, get back in the wickets, and who knows? Apologies to the skippe rand the team and management,have helped, no doubt they respect your honesty as you do for their subtle indiscretions at the Oval !

  • Dummy4 on August 28, 2013, 19:36 GMT

    Andrew, the point Rob Steen makes so well is "woe betide the one-trick pony", a description that fits Panesar singularly well as all he knows is bowling. While no one questions his qualities as a Test bowler, it's the fact that both his fielding and his batting are as inept as Kerrigan's ill-fated first two overs in the 5th Test that will keep him out of the England picture except in exceptional circumstances. (Kerrigan looked the part in the field though and towards the end was fielding quite well, something Monty never do). Even should Swann have to retire prematurely, the England selectors will not look to Monty but to someone with lesser ability with the ball but infinitely his superior in fielding and with the bat. That is Monty's tragedy.

    Thanks for pointing out my error re Robert William "Bob" Taylor!

  • Dummy4 on August 28, 2013, 14:07 GMT

    Had Monty been born 40 years ago, surely he'd have played most of his cricket in the late nineties and early 2000s...

  • VaRUN on August 28, 2013, 13:52 GMT

    One of the main reasons England won against India in India. He easily outbowled Swann on many occasions.

  • Matt on August 28, 2013, 13:14 GMT

    To the Facebook user, Monty is English (well British technically).

  • Dummy4 on August 28, 2013, 13:11 GMT

    I hesitate to carp, Henrik, but Duckworth was born in 1901. Post-WW2 he was baggage master on several MCC tours. Godfrey Evan's most accomplished competitor was probably Keith Andrew. Later John Murray was the unfortunate contemporary of Jim Parks, who Knott succeeded. Godders' and Knotty's big talent for England was their enthusiasm which enthused the side, especially in the field. Alan Knott's unfortunate contemporary was BOB Taylor. Today, Prior is not the best wicket keeper .. that's probably long been James Foster .. But I would not drop Matt yet ..

  • Dummy4 on August 28, 2013, 12:23 GMT

    Monty's confidence was severely dented by Duncan Fletcher leaving him out for Brisbane in 2006, when he was bowling well. This only months after Fletcher had said he was best spinner in world. Shane Warne's comment about Monty playing one Test match 33 times was the best sledge of all time. Interestingly Robin Hobbs recently commented that loads of flight and variations were not the be all and end all for spinners. Hobbsy cited Derek Underwood as an example. I hope, being Colchester born and bred, that Monty continues playing for Essex and will play for England in future.

  • Dummy4 on August 28, 2013, 11:08 GMT

    Monty is not alone in being weighed as a whole package. Both George Duckworth and Roger Taylor were regarded as far better keepers than Godfrey Evans and Alan Knott respectively, yet because of their being specialists with few pretensions at batting, they didn't get the nod as long as the others were available. Or consider the fate of Tich Freeman, statistically the greatest spinner the game has seen with an unbelievable 3776 first class wickets and 66 test wickets from only 12 tests (avge 25.86 with three 10s and five 5-fors). In spite of scoring a Test 50, Tich's 12 tests were shamefully few.

    Same with Monty Panesar. He is a great bowler, no question, but a woeful batsman and even more inept fielder and for such men, there never has been nor will there be much demand, no matter if their name is Alfred Freeman, George Duckworth or Monty Panesar.

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