Mastering Monty

The England-India Test series comes replete with its many sub-plots and battles within battles but the one that looks most intriguing will be between Monty Panesar and the Indian batsmen. One school of thought has it that the Indians, masterly players of spin, will dance down the track and put him in place. The other points to Indian batsmen's vulnerability to left-arm spin - think Ashley Giles, Ray Price, even Nicky Boje and Michael Clarke - and believes Panesar will be a handful.

Certainly, he's already been there, done that. Remember that dismissal of Mohammad Kaif at Nagpur last year? Kaif was cruising on 91 when Panesar stunned him with a Youtube moment: The ball drifted in from wide round the stumps, landed on the middle and spun past the defence to peg back the off stump.

That was Panesar's debut series and, as has been well chronicled, he's gone from strength to strength. The flipside is that the element of surprise has gone; India's batsmen will (presumably) be more wary of him and would have seen more of what he does. Yet they will be without Virender Sehwag, the one batsman who could have taken Panesar to task. So how will the contest shape up?

Bishen Singh Bedi, one of the greatest exponents of left-arm spin, believes he poses a real threat to India. "Previously, the Indians have tried to see of the seamers and had a crack at average spinners. England have a pretty decent seam attack so they will keep up the pressure from one end. The batsmen could then make the mistake of trying to go hard at Monty. But he is almost a complete spinner. He can block and attack. He will make everybody earn their runs. It won't be an easy outing, as many people seem to believe."

VV Kumar, a former legspinner and a contemporary of Bedi's, believes that the Indian batsmen will go for their shots and, far from deterring Panesar, feels that will help him. "He is a bowler who will make the batsman drive and produce mistakes. The Indians like to play their shots and if he can continue to loop, flight, and spin well, they might spoon catches while driving. Any good spinner will trouble any batsman. The current lot of Indian batsmen have not played high quality left-arm spin. So I feel Monty is certainly going to be among wickets. But I hope he gets the right support from the other end. That will be the key."

"My greatest fear is they will try to attack him in desperation," Bedi says. "To score freely of him may not be that simple. It won't be too easy to hit him out of the attack." Ask Andrew Symonds; the big-hitting Australian had attempted all-out attack as a course of action during the Ashes, lofting Panesar over the ropes a few times, but the bowler held his nerve to prise out his wicket.

So should the batsmen defend and risk giving the bowler too much respect? Bedi is wary of that too. "Playing from the crease is one way of accepting that this bowler is perhaps too good to jump out to. That's a defensive ploy. No bowler likes to be attacked. If you attack, you don't do that by staying at home."

So neither over-attacking approach nor a defensive one is prescribed. What Bedi advocates is a simple return to the basics: play on merit. "Indians are good players of spin. You have to maintain a fine balance between attack and defence. It is going to be a psychological battle."

There, too, Panesar has the patience to graft it out, nagging the batsmen with the mundane before suddenly surprising them with a work of art. It's a quality that has impressed Bedi. "As a spinner, it is tempting to go after all these fashionable variations too soon and forget the importance of the stock ball. Monty doesn't do that. Ball after ball, session after session, day after day, he can rip the ball across and land in the area he wants. He has his variations: the arm-ball, the floater, change in pace, and the variations in flight but he knows the importance of the orthodox delivery. He can bowl it at will and now you will see him bring in all the other variations. He is improving every game."

Unlike Bedi, he bowls slightly quickly through the air. "It suits the sluggish conditions in England", says Bedi. "In England, you have to bowl a little quick. Not that he bowls at Derek Underwood's pace - and he shouldn't. The two are quite different bowlers. Monty has got his basics right; a balanced run-up, a nice side-on position prior to the release, and he gives it a good tweak."

Kumar believes Panesar doesn't yet have the drift that Bedi possessed. "And it's very difficult. It will take time and lots of hard work. Bedi used to spin it much more too and Monty doesn't have a nasty arm-ball yet. But I am very impressed with the boy; he rips it well and gets it to loop nicely. He has the flight and the variation. He has improved mightily on his flight, his release and ability to pivot. He has long fingers and he can and should develop the arm-ball more."

The story goes that after he dismissed Sachin Tendulkar for his first Test wicket last year, Panesar went to get the ball autographed. Tendulkar is supposed to have told him, "It won't happen again." We don't have to wait too long to find out if that prophecy comes true.