Panesar should back himself in lone role
There was one moment in the Wellington Test that would not have been seen a few years ago. On the third evening, with England striving to make inroads before the weather closed in, left-arm spinner Monty Panesar remonstrated with his captain, Alastair Cook, about his close-catchers.
From a distance away it appeared he did not much like the leg side, perhaps he wanted another man in the covers instead. Cook got his way and the leg slip stayed in place. Panesar completed the over then got an arm round the shoulder from Matt Prior. With rough to aim at and wickets an urgent need, the pressure was on Panesar. As it turned out he did not make further inroads and, ultimately, the Test was a watery draw.
That moment, however, when Panesar questioned, or challenged, his captain, was important - that is what people had wanted him to do. Come out of his shell; be confident in what he wants; set the agenda himself rather than have it set for him. A few years ago Shane Warne remarked: "Monty Panesar hasn't played 33 Tests, he's played one Test 33 times" in reference to his lack of development of self-thinking. The fact he did not get it on this occasion does not matter and, it must be hoped, it will not stop him from trying again in the future.
Panesar was not expected to play any part in this series. Then, Graeme Swann's elbow became too great a concern for the England management and he was sent off to the United States for surgery. Suddenly, on the morning of the first Test in Dunedin, Panesar was pitched into the series without having bowled a competitive delivery since the Nagpur Test in mid-December.
He was rusty in Dunedin. His economy, normally a safe house for him even when he isn't taking wickets, was high as Hamish Rutherford, especially, made an effort to get after him. In Wellington he was better, playing an important holding role in the first innings to allow the quick bowlers to rotate and dismiss New Zealand for 254 on a flat pitch. At the start of the second innings, Panesar made one spit and bounce out of the rough to remove Rutherford but that was as good as it got despite a few near misses.
There have been suggestions that Panesar's place could be under threat for the final Test, either from James Tredwell or a fourth seamer, on a surface unlikely to offer much for the spinner. Panesar, though, should be persevered with. He is not a naturally confident person so, although Test cricket is not a place for soft decisions, he needs to be given the sort of strong backing which will keep his self-belief high.
This is the first time Panesar has been England's lone spinner since the start of the West Indies tour in 2009, when he played the Jamaica Test, where England were bowled out for 51, and the next match in Antigua that was abandoned on a sandpit outfield after 10 deliveries. He was then dropped, in favour of Swann, for the rearranged Test at the Recreation Ground, and ever since has only ever partnered Swann, until this tour.
Being the main man is still not a position that comes naturally to Panesar. His successes in the UAE and India came when he knew the expectation was on Swann, something that Swann does not struggle to cope with. Yet Panesar can, even though he perhaps doesn't realise it, take a leading role. Cook's second-innings hundred in Ahmedabad instilled belief in England they could compete, but Panesar's spell on the first day in Mumbai - which included dismissing Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar - sparked them into life.
This tour, and especially the final Test with the series still square, is an important challenge for Panesar. The very early signs are that Swann's elbow surgery has gone well, but it will be a few more weeks before anyone has a clearer picture. Swann, certainly, is unlikely to be tweeting any downbeat thoughts. Panesar, however, must get his mind around the possibility that he will be England's one spinner in the Ashes not just that he might, yet, be part of a two-man spin attack that is looking tempting after Australia's problems in India.
If there was a combination of conditions Panesar would not want to have, it could well be what he will encounter at Eden Park. A drop-in pitch is unlikely to encourage the spinners and then there are the odd dimensions of the ground; short straight boundaries which are no more than a chip away. In his favour, he has a batting order filled with right handers and the DRS.
And, it might just be that one of the most discussed facets of Panesar's game helps him. Pace, pace, pace is often the theme when he bowls. Why can't he vary it more? Toss one up, Monty. Sometimes it can be infuriating when there appears no discernible difference during a long spell, but the slower he bowls often the more erratic he becomes. With short boundaries inviting lofted shots, Panesar's quicker speed, which gives batsmen less time to get under the ball, might just give him another trick up his sleeve.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo