June 2007 May 31, 2007

Monty must find his inner artist

Kevin Mitchell
Kevin Mitchell on the challenges facing Monty Panesar

Monty Panesar appeals successfully for leg-before against Shiv Chanderpaul on his way to six wickets at Lord's © Getty Images
Every time Monty Panesar floats up to the bowling crease it is impossible not to put in the mind's eye the finest left-arm spinner most of us have had the privilege of watching, Bishan Bedi.

It is what Monty strives for. He has spoken with the great man and has absorbed the teachings. Like Bedi, he is balanced, fixed on his target, calm, metronomic and, at his best, mesmerising. There are few flourishes or idiosyncrasies. The art comes in the repetition and the tiniest changes in angle, flight, turn, pace. It is like watching a coaching manual come to life.

But Panesar is in a minor dilemma of sorts. Bedi operated in more conventional times, before jumbo bats, flat tracks and reverse sweeps, before Twenty20 and four-runs-an-over Tests, before the energy level of batting rose and spinners saw their best deliveries irreverently swatted into the distance. Patience is not the virtue it was and subtlety is neither appreciated nor much understood. Increasingly, spinners are required to produce magic. For the first months of Monty's rapid rise, wickets came as regularly as the praise - and economically, which pleased Duncan Fletcher. Panesar bowled to instructions and did little wrong. But the reason he did little wrong might also be the reason his effectiveness dissipated over the winter. Monty's gifts of control and incremental changes were respected but not menacing. At the World Cup, he did not surprise good, adventurous batsmen.

Panesar's tidy, formulaic bowling - seven wickets at 40 in eight matches - was respectable, workmanlike. Muttiah Muralitharan, who has no textbook, finished second only to Glenn McGrath. It is not comparing like with like, but that only serves to underline the challenge that faces Panesar: at the highest level of the modern game, in the long or short form, spinners have to reinvent themselves. Monty is aware of this. For all his droning soundbites at press conferences, he is a thoughtful cricketer. But he is innately conservative and unless he grows as a bowler, he runs the risk of turning into a machine.

Panesar, like Daniel Vettori, is a classicist. Yet, when we spoke last year about how he regarded his art, Monty talked more like a tradesman. Time and again, he repeated his mantra: "I don't want to get too complicated or do things too fancy. Keep it simple, do the basics." Yes, he said, he had been experimenting with a left-arm doosra, but, no, it would not be getting an airing. And maybe the odd chinaman? Yes, he'd bowled a couple against Pakistan last summer, but, no, he'd be keeping it "nice and tight".

I got the clear impression this pressure on Panesar to conform, to play it by the book, came from the top. Fletcher (who would later praise Panesar as the best finger-spinner in the world), at first ham-fistedly aired doubts about the bowler's credentials as a "multidimensional" Test cricketer. What Fletcher wanted was an Ashley Giles substitute, another Mr Reliable.

A jubilant Monty Panesar celebrates dismissing Mohammad Rafique during the World Cup © Getty Images

This, I think, inhibited Panesar. If he had no other strengths (and that dropped catch in his third Test in Mumbai reminded him of his frailties), he was determined not to fail as a bowler, to meet at least some part of Fletcher's expectations of him as Giles's stand-in. That insecurity must have been fed on the Ashes tour when Fletcher opted for Giles in Brisbane. That Panesar emerged with credit had as much to do with circumstance and desperation as any Damascene conversion by Fletcher.

This is not to say Panesar has to come up with a new mystery ball every season. His control is his strength - but, now that Fletcher is gone, he might feel he has the freedom to experiment. Just a little. He is good enough. He has the shoulders for a wicked armball and the long, strong fingers and supple wrist for a doosra.

The game has moved on fast in so many ways. Cricket has become a more intuitive exercise. Players, even very good ones, who do not respond to the shifting rhythm of the game are becoming paralysed by their method. Batsmen have shrugged off caution and spinners are, increasingly, having to do so.

It was painfully evident at the World Cup that orthodoxy is dying. England's one world-class performer, Kevin Pietersen, kept them in the game with textbook watchfulness, but powered them to the line with his 'flamingo', his charges down the wicket to the fast bowlers. Down the order, rare successes sprung not from expected sources but newcomers with nothing to lose. While Andrew Flintoff painfully disintegrated in front of us, his instincts neutered by self-doubt, it was the cool-eyed resistance of Ravi Bopara and Paul Nixon's almost obsessive reverse-sweeping that got England over the line, or at least near to it.

Everyone says Peter Moores is an excellent coach. He has all the qualifications, some of the results, the trust of those who employed him and nowhere to go but up.

But whether or not he succeeds will not be down to his certificates, his sterling work at Sussex and the academy, his cheery demeanour and stop-start soundbites. It will have much more to do with his instincts. If Moores lets the players express themselves, if he abandons the conservativism that did for the team in the final days of Fletcher's otherwise exemplary reign, he will give himself the best chance of turning England around again.

And the bowler he has to nurture is the one with the most potential, Monty Panesar.

Kevin Mitchell is chief sports writer of The Observer.