Monty Panesar - 'Andrew Flintoff gave me the belief to play Test cricket'
Former England spinner recalls the events of his maiden Test tour of India in 2006
A tour of India is one of the hardest for an England cricketer, both in terms of the cricket and the culture. We all know that cricket is seen as a religion in India. And we all know Sachin Tendulkar is its God. So, when your first Test wicket is Sachin, you know 1.2 billion people will immediately detest you.
England's tour of India in 2006 was one of the best experiences of my life. You know the quote: "Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away"? Well, that's how it felt when I dismissed Sachin. Ecstasy. Exhilaration. I ran wildly towards point, a sense of pure joy coursing through my body. Nobody could stop me. It was everything I had planned for and dreamed of for years. For various reasons, I probably didn't fulfil my promise. But that was a perfect moment.
My first encounter with the great Andrew Flintoff was at the ECB's centre of excellence at Loughborough University. I remember he was wearing his Manchester City sky-blue socks. He said "alright, lad?" in that heavy Manchester accent of his. I could barely understand him, but I soon realised he meant "How you doing, mate?" It was the beginning of my relationship with a man who seemed to be larger than life in every sense.
When we arrived in India I was completely immersed in my training and trying to get the best out of myself as a cricketer. I had just signed a two-year contract with Northants and, to be honest, I didn't expect to play in the Test series. But Flintoff had other ideas.
When the squad was announced, the day before the game, my name was the last to be read out. I concluded that meant I was going to be 12th man for the first Test match in Nagpur, but that wasn't the case. I felt Flintoff's huge hand rest on my right shoulder as he whispered, "You're playing, lad".
I rushed to my room. This was to be my first international game. I wanted to lay out my field settings for each player and I wanted to give them to my new captain.
I went to his room. He was playing Fifa with other 'lads' - his best mate Steve Harmison was always with him - and he asked me "What's this lad?"
I told him "It's the field settings for tomorrow, mate". I wasn't sure if he was impressed or thought I was being over the top. He found the game easy and probably expected the same from the rest of us. I wasn't very confident as a bloke, but his encouragement and backing really helped me to believe in myself as an England cricketer.
Both Flintoff and Harmison were laid-back guys off the pitch. Always approachable; always easy going. But, once they were on the pitch and you gave them the ball, this beast of a character appeared. I remember thinking, 'this is what killer instinct looks like'.
When it was my turn to bowl, I recall Flintoff saying: "C'mon lad. No more fairytales. This is the real thing: bowl like you have during practice and the warm-up games and get these guys out."
I was thinking: 'how do I get Sehwag, Kaif, Laxman, Tendulkar and Dhoni out?' These were their pitches and they played spin so well. I thought I had no chance.
But this was one of Flintoff's strengths. There was something about him, in the heat of the battle, that made you want to rise to the challenge. You didn't want to let him down. You didn't want to disappoint him. He had put his trust in me and now it was my turn to repay him. Indeed, so much confidence did he show in me, that it gave me greater belief. 'If this lion of a man believes in me, I must be pretty good,' was the way I saw it. Time to switch on.
Spin bowling is different from fast bowling. You can't hurt the batsmen, but you can be astute in your pace, trajectory and field settings. I remember Flintoff shouting "Come on, Monty, lad: spin it!" and giving me a look that left me in no doubt that this was time to deliver. I'd never experienced this level of intensity before. I don't think I had ever concentrated that hard before. I suddenly understood what was required to succeed at Test level. I knew I wanted more of this experience.
It was a great tour. We drew the series 1-1 and I felt I gave a good account of myself. I showed I could bowl on sub-continent pitches and I showed I could play at that level of the game. I knew I had a future in Test cricket after that. I even recognised who Johnny Cash was when we sang "Ring of Fire" during the lunch session. Somehow it gave us all a bit of energy and inspired us to bowl out India cheaply. I loved every moment of it.
Playing with Flintoff was very special for me. He believed in me as a person and a cricketer. Without him, I wonder if I would ever have taken that first Test wicket. I'm incredibly grateful for his belief in me.
Maybe I will follow his footsteps off the pitch, too. I'm currently studying a Masters in International Sports Journalism and would like to emulate him in having a successful TV career as part of the next chapter of my life. Maybe, one day, I'll have my own chat show. Even now, all those years since my debut in Nagpur, Freddie's example is still inspiring me.
Monty Panesar played in 50 Tests for England between 2006 and 2013, claiming 167 wickets at 34.71