Forgotten Panesar lends a hand
As England began their preparations for the final Test against South Africa a forgotten, but instantly recognisable, face was at nets to offer a helping hand. This time last year Monty Panesar was still his country's first-choice spinner, but he has slipped so far down the pecking order that questions are circulating as to whether he has an international future.
Panesar has spent the English winter with the Lions, the Johannesburg-based franchise, trying to recapture the magic that drew comparisons with Bishan Bedi as he became a match-winner for England. From the outside, his statistics don't suggest a resurgence is near - 15 wickets at 39.06 in six games - but they are a noticeable improvement on his meagre 2009 haul, where he managed 18 at 59.44 in 13 Championship matches for Northamptonshire. Either way, he has made a positive impression on his latest team.
"He started with us pretty much in a negative mindset, not much confidence in himself and we just gave him some space to find himself," Dave Nosworthy, the Lions coach, told Cricinfo. "He was getting a lot of information from so many different people and he needed some space.
"We've allowed him that and tried to nurture him as much as possible. We have given him the opportunities he has needed and he has been magnificent for us. We've got everything we have needed to get out of him and he's bowling well so that's quite exciting."
In between whiles, Panesar has also moved counties to Sussex to help rekindle his career, but the prospects of an international recall in the near future don't look good. His last performance in an England shirt remains a match-saving one as he and James Anderson survived 69 deliveries against Australia at Cardiff. Without Panesar, the Ashes series would probably have gone the other way. But not for the reasons that anyone ever imagined.
But, however much the batting of No. 11s has become vital for England with the recent efforts of Graham Onions, Panesar just wasn't performing well enough with the ball to merit his retention in the side. Graeme Swann has now made the No. 1 position his own with a stellar series in South Africa, to follow a productive season in England, and Adil Rashid was selected as his No. 2 for both the Test and one-dayers.
When Swann was a minor injury worry with a side strain, James Tredwell, the Kent offspinner, was the man called up as cover because the selectors wanted "a like-for-like" replacement. Panesar, it seems, didn't even enter into their thoughts even though he was already in South Africa, because when the selectors wanted a third spinner for the recently named Lions squad - albeit for a one-day tournament - they went for Yorkshire's David Wainwright.
Last year, prior to the Ashes, Shane Warne said that Panesar hadn't developed at all during his career - "He's stayed the same, he's one of those guys that has played one Test 30 times" - while Michael Vaughan has said how he would set "university fields" when left to his own devices.
Although Nosworthy believes Panesar has "been able to find his own game" during his stint in South Africa, he feels he still needs to do more for himself. "I think he relies on people telling him how to bowl and what to do and he's the sort of guy that needs to be making his own decisions at this time in his career," he said.
"He needs to start deciding what fields he wants and how he wants to get batsmen out. Every spinner is different so he's got a uniqueness to himself which he must try to make as good as possible without trying to be anyone else."
The one glimmer of hope for Panesar has been the lack of opportunity for Rashid during the South Africa tour, after he was dropped following one expensive over in a Twenty20. With a Test series against Bangladesh in March, England will want the option of playing two spinners and it's ideal if they turn the ball opposite ways. However, it is still a long shot for Panesar and his stint in the nets is likely to be as close to the England set-up as he gets for some time.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo