Five-star Panesar makes his statement of intent
Sri Lanka Board XI 169 England XI 6-0
Suddenly, Monty Panesar can do no wrong again. The way things are going, he will be fully restored in the nation's affections by the summer, on the shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year in the autumn and with plans resurrected for a statue in Luton town centre shortly after that.
Yesterday, for the fourth match in succession since his England career resumed, Panesar took five wickets in an innings. Since he had looked all washed up with nowhere to go things are now going as well as could have been reasonably expected. Not only is the spinner fit for Test cricket once more, as he demonstrated when recalled to the colours in the United Arab Emirates two months ago, he is beginning to ask serious questions about his status in the side.
His 5 for 37 yesterday on the first day of the first tour match, against a Sri Lanka Board XI, perfectly supplemented the form he has shown this winter. Finding his rhythm early, and vastly helped by Jimmy Anderson's capture of the first four wickets, he bowled numerous maidens (11 in 23.3 overs), which created their own difficulties.
Sri Lanka's senior team will be a different proposition, of course, but Panesar has 27 wickets in the four games he has played for England since being recalled for a practice match in Dubai, 14 of them in two Tests against Pakistan. Compare that with the 11 taken in those matches by England's resident spinner, Graeme Swann, who took over the role from Panesar.
Both men are expected to feature prominently in the mini-series against Sri Lanka. The composition of the side yesterday suggested that England are of a mind to play a four-man attack as usual, consisting as it did in the UAE of two fast bowlers and two spinners.
Since they bowled out their opponents for 169 in 83.3 overs yesterday, that thinking might not have been radically altered. But it is bold and it is risky because four bowlers in the kind of heat and humidity which prevails in this country will be easily drained. The conundrum then is whether Ravi Bopara has what it takes to be an authentic fifth bowler, capable of bowling, say, 15 overs a day in a Test match.
There will come a time when Swann's position is not secure. Panesar was comfortably the better performer yesterday – as he has been in each innings in which the pair have bowled together this winter – and Swann will need to make mincemeat of Sri Lanka's left-handers in the Tests to erase nagging doubts.
"Swanny's the No 1 spinner, absolutely," said Panesar. "We work together as partners out there and I'm guided by him. I ask him 'Should we do this?' or 'What should we do here?'"
There is no doubt that Swann is a smarter cricketer but, equally, no doubt that Panesar is smarter than he was. Panesar has become more restrained, an attribute perhaps enhanced by having to wait almost three years for a return to the Test team.
"You've got to look for patience, not over-attack because you see a couple turn quite big," he said. "I used to do that, now I don't. If things aren't happening for a long period then I know that later on you do catch up. If it happens quite early you mustn't get too excited and start bowling magic balls but keep your discipline, because you can get carried away with both extremes. Since coming back, I haven't tried to get too far ahead of myself in my spells. I have tried to take each spell as it is and Mushtaq Ahmed, the spin coach, has helped a lot in terms of me repeating my overs. Do that and from there wickets will come. It's a simple process."
So it is and it worked to perfection yesterday. England rarely looked like being detained for long once Anderson had made the initial incisions with some early movement. He was partnered with the new ball by Steve Finn, not because of a revolution in selection but because Stuart Broad sprained an ankle when stepping on a boundary rope in pre-match fielding practice.
It is no discredit to Broad that he was barely missed. It is a tribute to England's plentiful fast bowling stocks – and maybe no matter where they are playing and who they are playing against they should play to their greatest strengths.
Ashen Silva, a neatly structured 21-year-old left-hander who has scored four hundreds in his last seven matches, played the best innings of the day. He and Roshen Silva ensured that the Board XI's innings did not collapse in a heap, taking it from 11 for 2 to 65 for 2, but when Anderson returned to the attack after lunch he immediately took two more wickets.
Another batting interlude followed but Panesar, apparently wheeling away accurately if without menace, then seized the moment.
Colombo (day one of three): England XI are trailing Sri Lanka Board XI by 163 runs with all first-innings wickets in hand
Sri Lanka Board XI won toss
Sri Lanka Board XI First Innings
Runs 6s 4s Bls Min
W A A M Silva c Prior b Finn 66 0 8 179 97
F D M Karunaratne c Prior b Anderson 0 0 0 12 1
P B B Rajapaksa c Trott b Anderson 1 0 0 13 1
A R S Silva b Anderson 21 1 1 69 11
*†H A P W Jayawardene lbw b Anderson 2 0 0 6 0
S P S C Serasinghe c Anderson b Panesar 31 0 3 66 66
M D K Perera lbw b Panesar 0 0 0 9 7
K G Alvitigala b Panesar 4 0 0 12 7
H M C M Bandara c Swann b Panesar 6 0 0 41 46
T P Gamage not out 14 2 0 33 45
W G H N Premaratne b Panesar 1 0 0 5 5
Extras (b12 lb2 w5 nb4) 23
Total (73.3 overs) 169
Fall 1-5, 2-11, 3-65, 4-67, 5-132, 6-134, 7-134, 8-138, 9-168.
Bowling J M Anderson 11-3-19-4, S T Finn 16-7-33-1, R S Bopara 5-0-19-0, G P Swann 18-4-47-0, M S Panesar 23.3-11-37-5.
England XI First Innings
Runs 6s 4s Bls Min
*A J Strauss not out 6 0 1 6 0
A N Cook not out 0 0 0 1 0
Total (for 0, 1.1 overs) 6
To bat K P Pietersen, I R Bell, R S Bopara, I J L Trott, S T Finn, †M J Prior, G P Swann, M S Panesar, J M Anderson.
Bowling M D K Perera 1-0-6-0, S P S C Serasinghe 0.1-0-0-0.
Umpires R A Kottahachchi and R R Wimalasiri.
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