Blessed are the meek
Emma John meets Monty Panesar, the shy boy who became a national hero
Monty Panesar is speaking, in his usual quiet way, about the people he looks up to. Which, it turns out, is pretty much everyone.
"Even when I go back to the Northampton dressing room I feel just like a young kid among the senior pros," he admits. "Lance Klusener, David Sales, Usman Afzaal - they've all played 150-plus first-class games."
Not many people would admit to feeling "a bit star-struck" on arriving at Wantage Road. The man sitting opposite me has surpassed Andrew Flintoff as the most talked-about cricketer in the country. On the evening that we speak, he is second-favourite for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. And yet he can still get excited at the memory of bowling to Mike Hussey in the Northants nets at the age of 19. "I would go home and tell my mates and that would make my day," he smiles.
While some members of last year's Ashes-winning team were still counting their bling, Monty appeared on the scene like an ingénu. The only artful thing about this 24-year-old is the finger-spin that, a matter of weeks ago, was bamboozling several Pakistanis old enough to know better. He finished the summer with 27 Test wickets at just under 27 but he talks with a humility that suggests he's just happy to be in the side.
The snorting turner he bowled Younis Khan with was "quite pleasing" because it came on a Headingley shirtfront. And hitting a six off Murali is going to stay with him for a while (you can bet it will stay with Murali too). He almost skips past his two five-fors. Then a sudden rush of warmth. "Just being around the England team, I've really enjoyed that." You get the impression that for Monty, it doesn't get any better than playing darts with Freddie and Harmy in the dressing room.
If all you know of Luton is its airport, its doomed Vauxhall plant and its once-famous AstroTurf football pitch, you might not credit it with a beautiful green space like Wardown Park. Among the park's attractions are a quaint, red-brick museum full of hats and corn dollies, and behind it, an avenue of beech trees, which rustles all the way to the boundary fence of the Luton Town & Indians Cricket Club.
You can see Monty here most weekends, when club and country commitments permit. Behind the sightscreen is a smart, detached house, home to one of his closest childhood friends, Nitin Parsooth, and Nitin's dad, who is also Monty's manager. "Even if he has a day off, he'll be here, practising," says Nitin. "So, really, he won't let himself have a day off."
Since last winter's India tour, where Monty's fielding and batting raised more attention than his bowling, he has spent every spare moment here, practising his catching or putting in the hours in the nets. Sometimes he's alone, but more often he is accompanied by his 'guru', Hitu Naik.
When Panesar Senior took his 10-year-old son along to Luton Indians, Naik became the little lad's first coach. A family friend, Naik gave Monty the most important piece of advice he ever received. "He used to emphasise turning the ball," says Panesar. "He said it didn't matter where it pitches, just turn it as much as you can." He was a young lad with the handspan of a concert pianist. He didn't need to be told twice.
That was only the beginning of Naik's influence. Now in his 60s, Naik has a reputation at the club as a hard taskmaster but in the studious and determined Panesar he found his ideal protégé. "Hitu was very passionate about cricket," says Panesar. "I think as he coached me, he drove that passion into me. I'd go to a game, maybe get a few wickets, but he never seemed to be satisfied. It made me want to do well." The desire to please his coach grew into something even more rewarding.
Everyone at Luton talks with awe about Panesar's commitment to his game. Those who grew up with him remember Monty in his first years at the club as a "flat-footed young lad". "Monty would say this himself - he wasn't even the most talented guy at Luton," says one former team-mate. "Nitin was the one with real flair. But Monty was the one willing to put in the hard work."
He was the first to turn up for practice and the last to leave. The Luton manager, Viren Patel, remembers driving past the club's snowcovered ground one December and seeing a young Monty, alone, bowling at the fence. And the teenager always knew his goal. "I wanted to play for England straight away," says Monty, recalling his naivety. "I didn't think you had to play first-class and stuff like that." At 17 he was spotted by Bedfordshire development officer David Mercer and lured away to Minor Counties cricket. An England Under-19 berth promised a fast-track to a county career but, with his parents keen that he went to university, he chose to join Nitin at Loughborough, on a computer-science course. As a practising Sikh Monty was never a drinker; as a practising sportsman he wasn't much of a raver either. While his fellow students succumbed to the munchies, Monty would be cooking himself his family's Punjabi recipes. He kept a strict diet and a tight timetable.
"He had to work hard for his grades," says Nitin. "So he would really get down to it. He had quite a hectic life, studying and then practising every day, he was always busy. He didn't do much socialising." A thoughtful pause. "He's been rewarded though, hasn't he?"
How did we get it so wrong? Within a handful of Tests, we thought we knew Monty Panesar. We defined him by his shortcomings - both fielding and batting - and missed the reality. Clownish, we said. Not England material. I wonder how frustrated and hurt he must have felt, written-off as the punchline to a joke that bore no relation to his life. He shrugs it off. "I just concentrate on what I need to do." But what about when even the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, was so publicly withholding his support? "I don't think that ever was the case. He has always known that I'm a good cricketer and I know that."
Maybe. But even Fletcher seemed to miss the point. Here was a devoted and determined man who used to practise so hard at Northampton that Nick Cook, his 2nd XI coach, would to have to send him away. "He'd say listen, no more bowling now, go home," says Panesar. "But I see it as fun, something I enjoy. I don't see it as practice." Monty never deserved to be lumped alongside Phil Tufnell.
Obsessive about his sport, compulsive about his practice and fanatical in his enjoyment of the game, he is better compared with Jonny Wilkinson. And playing for England has only whetted his appetite. "It makes me want to train a lot more. I become more motivated, it just makes me more hungry."
He's hungry to learn, too. It's impossible to satiate Monty's curiosity, his desire to absorb new information, as the England team have discovered. His presence in the dressing room may be a mild one - he enjoys listening to the banter, rather than doling it out - but he's not too shy to quiz his team-mates on every aspect of the game. He's always had the spongey qualities of a super-mop. Here's an example. Having heard that Kepler Wessels practised martial arts, Monty asked him why. "He told me, it's good for co-ordination. I thought I might as well take that on board." So he signed up for taekwondo classes.
For the same reason he loves to watch finger-spinners on TV. On the India tour he sought out Harbhajan to chat spin; earlier this summer he cornered Murali. And Ashley Giles? Surely there are some awkward silences when the King of Sp(a)in limps into the dressing room for a spot of massage. "He's a world-class cricketer and I just hope I can maybe be like him one day," replies Panesar. "When you look up to someone in that way I don't know how I could compare myself as a competitor." Steady on, Monty. You don't want to talk your way out of the Brisbane Test.
Like Giles, Monty didn't start as a spinner. Paul Taylor, the former England bowler who coached him at junior level, claims to be the one who first persuaded him to give up on his "horrible little leftarm seamers" (Taylor's words). But however horrible they were, the experience had its use. The result was a delivery speed - averaging 55mph - that can unsettle even assured players of spin. Of course, pace itself isn't enough. Monty himself struggles to define how he achieved such control over big-hitters like Inzamam - his constant return to the words "rhythm" and "areas" would make Kevin Shine proud. And of course, he gives much of the credit to Steve Harmison, with whom he shared so many wickets at Old Trafford. "He knows what he's doing, how to set batsmen up."
But he does offer another suggestion, courtesy of one more glance into that back catalogue of good counsel. "When I was first at Northants Nick Cook said: 'Just get the captain's confidence. If your first few overs get hit for runs you may not have a chance to bowl for longer. Maybe have an in-and-out field, just to stop the boundary, so you can maybe get a bit more control of the game.' I think his words were very wise."
So do we, Monty, so do we. Who knows where England would have been this summer if Northamptonshire's 2nd XI coach had not protected Monty's fledgling talent from the jaws of impatient captains. Now Monty just needs to deal with the impatience of a nation who think they've finally sighted that lesser-spotted breed, the fledgling English mystery spinner. It will be no less forgiving.
I wonder if that's how he sees himself. Does he secretly hanker after a mystery ball? Is there anything he is trying to copy from those hours of study? Panesar shakes his head and laughs. "No. I just want to keep it simple. Get the ball to the other end, that's it." Hmm. That's not what we've heard. We're all hanging on for a doosra and he knows it. But he's not budging. "I think if you look to complicate things too much you may lose the basics. I gradually add on things but I think it's dangerous to rush things. Someone like Murali is a world-class spinner and it took him so many years to develop another ball. I'm just a young kid trying to bowl spin."
And the meek, as the saying goes, shall inherit the earth.