England’s most successful spinner believes the twin threat of Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann could turn the series against India, starting with the Second Test which begins in Mumbai on Friday.
Derek Underwood has taken more wickets than any English bowler on Indian soil and watched on incredulously as Swann was left to carry the spin burden in the opening Test of the series in Ahmedabad.
Swann bowled 58 overs as England slumped to a nine-wicket defeat against MS Dhoni’s men, with only Samit Patel’s left-arm spin providing support.
Unlike Swann, the Nottinghamshire all-rounder rarely troubled India’s rampant batsmen, taking just one wicket in 37 overs.
England coach Andy Flower admitted that he may have erred by omitting Panesar from the side for the opening Test of the series.
Now, with Panesar likely to return for his first Test in eight months, Underwood is backing the Sussex player to take the pressure off Swann and pile it on to India’s batsmen.
“You should be looking to play the bowler who is most likely to bowl a side out,” says Underwood. “I think Monty is the best-qualified spinner that we have, other than Swanny of course.
“I don’t think they would have got 500 if Monty had been bowling at the other end and given England 20 or 30 overs.
“If he’s bowling at the other end to Swanny then Monty would benefit considerably. Bowlers work in pairs and that’s particularly true of spin bowlers. When Swann bowls on his own he has the seam bowlers at the other end and he misses out.
“When you’ve got two spinners bowling in tandem the volume of overs goes up and they can devise their own plans. When you’re bowling on a wicket like that [in Ahmedabad] that can make a huge difference.”
Panesar took three wickets in England’s warm-up match against Mumbai A and has taken 16 wickets in his last three Test appearances, including two five-wicket hauls against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year.
Then, as now, Panesar was left out of the side for the First Test of that series in the Gulf as England stuck to the three-seamer policy that has served them so well in recent years.
After being recalled, Panesar comfortably out-bowled Swann as Andrew Strauss’s side fell to a 3-0 series defeat.
Despite that loss, the pair still managed to pose Pakistan’s batsmen the kind of questions that were too rarely asked of India in Ahmedabad as England fell to a defeat that has already left them playing a furious game of catch-up.
“Bowling in India is as tough as it gets for a slow bowler,” says Underwood. “The Indian batsmen are superb players of spin, mainly because it’s something they’re so familiar with. Monty has the variations to make life tougher for them though and Swann showed in Ahmedabad that he is at least the equal of India’s spinners.”
The twin-spin approach certainly did the trick for England on their tour of India in 1976/77 when Underwood, who was bowling alongside the off-spinning Tony Grieg, took 29 wickets in a famous 3-1 series victory over India.
He also took 25 wickets on two other tours to the country in a career that saw him finish as the leading English spinner in history.
After he overtook Jim Laker’s tally of 193 scalps last week, Swann is now 101 wickets shy of Underwood’s England total of 297.
And with Swann now working his way back to something like his best form, the 67-year-old former Kent left-armer wouldn’t be surprised to see that record fall by the time Swann calls time on his career.
“Jim [Laker] was amazing really, because he didn’t have that great a record overseas but Swanny is obviously a very, very high-quality performer,” says Underwood. “He now knows his game so well and has proved that he can take wickets anywhere in the world.
“He has a little way to go to beat my record, and there’ll be times when whatever he does he won’t be able to get a wicket, but if he keeps going then why not?”
With Panesar alongside him he might get there sooner rather than later.