Tomorrow morning Alastair Cook will stride out in front of an appreciative full house at The Oval, captain of England, leader of an Ashes-winning side, a man at the pinnacle of his career. Some 65 miles to the east of London, Monty Panesar will leave the pavilion at Castle Park in Colchester, a club ground dressed up in its festival best for the annual visit by Essex, and trot out before a handful of spectators.
It is a humbling time for Panesar. A few days ago he rang the England captain to apologise for his recent behaviour, culminating in a drunken incident outside a nightclub. "It was not a pleasant call to make," said Cook.
Seven years ago the two had sat in a Nagpur dressing room contemplating their England debuts in the first Test against India. Cook scored a century and Panesar claimed Sachin Tendulkar as his first Test wicket. He still has the ball with which he trapped the big little man leg-before.
It is Panesar's hope that, having been released by Sussex, his move to Essex – Cook's county, and that of two close friends, Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara – and the Second Division will help open England doors once again.
Panesar was given a police caution for urinating on a nightclub bouncer in Hove earlier this month. His behaviour has reportedly grown increasingly erratic with the collapse of his marriage. There has been concern within the England set-up surrounding his off-field behaviour and readiness to play international cricket, as well as the nuts and bolts of his form on it. But he was included in the 13 for the Old Trafford Test in a summer that prior to today had brought only 23 wickets in 11 games.
"He has that side of his life he definitely needs to get right because we know what an off-field life can do to you," said Cook.
It was only last winter that Panesar was helping Cook to a landmark series win in India, a success sealed with a draw back in Nagpur. Panesar took 17 wickets. He played in New Zealand earlier this year with Graeme Swann sidelined, his status as England's second spinner restored.
The 31-year-old's career had once promised better than that, but it is a status he would happily reclaim right now. Tomorrow is day two of his Essex career; a new start with a county that once specialised in overhauling struggling spinners and, once mended, sending them off to England duty as John Childs and Peter Such would testify. Panesar has worked well with Such, now the England and Wales Cricket Board's spin coach, and will come into contact with Childs, now a coach at Essex. Part of the reason Neil Burns, a former Essex wicketkeeper and professional mentor who is helping Panesar, was keen on a part-time move to the county was the presence of the likes of Childs, as well as Shah and Bopara – settled and friendly surroundings.
Panesar spoke before his Essex debut of having to banish any thoughts of making the Ashes party this winter – although that is the aim – and by the end of a long, hot toil in the field they will have been scattered to all corners of Castle Park by Northamptonshire's batsmen. His first wicket, caught by Bopara, arrived in his 30th over. At least he was in the middle, playing cricket, even if it was on a batsman's paradise of a surface. "The sun is out," he said beforehand. "I want to move on."
He plans to do so by combining playing – life is simpler in the middle – and taking advice from Burns, who runs London County, part-cricket club, part-mentoring body.
"I was contacted by him about eight weeks ago, saying he was having challenges and explaining some of the difficulties in his personal life," said Burns, who coincidentally was Panesar's first first-class wicket a dozen years ago. "Things were starting to show signs of improvement, he was included in the England team for Old Trafford, and then sadly after he returned he went for a night out which was unforgettable. One of the contributing factors is his frustration that his career isn't going quite as he would like it to, and he's had the breakdown of a marriage.
"I've seen what a quality individual he can be [Panesar has helped Burns run coaching programmes for disadvantaged children] and I hope we can support him through a difficult period."
With time running out – the England squad for the winter is chosen in the middle of next month – Panesar has probably two more games and around four weeks to convince the England coach Andy Flower that he has stopped his life from spinning out of control.
"He recognises he needs change in his life, which is always the first step," said Cook. "The bottom line is we need Monty back bowling as well as he can. The way back is wickets and he knows that."
In a spin: Monty's decline
March 2009 Fined 25 per cent of his match fee from fifth Test against the West Indies for over-appealing.
June 2011 Held by police and questioned after an alleged public argument with his wife (they are now divorced).
August 2013 Urinated over nightclub bouncers in Brighton while celebrating England retaining the Ashes, leading to departure from Sussex.
Since losing his place as England's front-line spinner to Graeme Swann in December 2008, Panesar has taken 50 wickets in 15 Tests at 37.94.
Before Swann's debut, Panesar's record stood at 114 wickets in 33 Tests at 31.95.
This season Panesar has taken 23 wickets in 11 County Championship matches for Sussex at 40.39. Last year he took 53 at 23.15.Reuse content