James Lawton: Panesar's artistry offers England a turning point

The Panesar argument is partly about how England sees itself
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The Independent Online

It was not for any excessive or irrational belief in a young man of splendid heart and charming disposition, but still modest achievement, that made so many yearn for the sight of the bright blue patka of Monty Panesar when England started their attempt to fight back in the second Test which started here today.

Panesar's selection was expected but not guaranteed overnight, a fact which could only increase the sense that a whole dimension of cricket, and maybe its most beautiful one, was still for the English game the most dangerous ground.

England did not believe in Panesar's potential to spin the ball to any real purpose before the first Test in Brisbane that turned into an ordeal of both failed performance and nerve, and here the agony of indecision, crisis of faith - call it what you like - was taken to the ludicrous lengths of an audition in the nets for the 24-year-old left-armer.

At a time when Panesar should have known his fate, and perhaps been steeling himself for the most important challenge of his exuberant life, he was asked, rather like some X Factor candidate who had just walked in from the street, to prove himself to the coach, Duncan Fletcher.

This is maybe not the way you usher in a player who might just change your destiny and here, in a land which so quickly scrubbed up the beach boy larrikin Shane Wane and thrust him into the heart of Test cricket, the process has been received with some predictably dark hilarity.

The leading newspaper The Age captured prevailing Australian opinion with a front page which asked: "Did you hear the one about the Englishman who walked in to bowl? Panesar to play, but can we take English spin bowling seriously?" More relevantly, can the English? All the evidence suggests not. Ashley Giles, widely derided here for his lack of ambition at the bowling crease, got the nod in Brisbane because of his superior potential as a tail-end batsman. The Age, seizing on the fact that in eight Tests against Australia Giles averages just over two wickets per match at a cost of 55 runs each, chose mirthfully to list the names of leading England spinners since the 1970s, starting with the current England selector Geoff Miller and finishing with Giles. The statistics are not uplifting. In 64 Tests, John Emburey mustered roughly two-and-a-half wickets a match, similar to his Middlesex team-mate Phil Edmonds. Phil Tufnell, perhaps the most talented occupant of the wasteland which spread in the days after Laker and Lock and Underwood and Illingworth, but so often obliged to bowl defensively, got closest to the mountain top of three wickets per match - something that Peter Such did manage, albeit over the shorter haul of 11 Tests.

No one would claim seriously that Panesar has yet made even an infant claim on the tradition of the world's best spin bowler, Shane Warne, who has claimed 689 wickets in 141 Tests, but when Warne was conspicuously unsuccessful in his first Test as a 22-year-old, taking 1 for 151 against India, there was no question of standing him down.

Panesar, two years older than Warne at his debut - and five older than Neil Harvey when the teenager made his maiden Test century in Sir Don Bradman's team at Headingley in 1948 - has taken 32 wickets in 10 Tests at an average of 32.40. It is also interesting to note that half his wickets serve as a working guide to the aristocracy of modern batsmanship, the scalps of India's past and present captains, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, and the hard core of Pakistani run-getting, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf.

These were the most brightly lettered of calling cards and yesterday they prompted warm words of encouragement from Stuart MacGill, the fine Australian leg-spinner whose misfortune has been to operate in the age of Warne. This has not prevented MacGill compiling a superb record at the highest level of the game, claiming 198 wickets in 40 Tests at an average 27.21.

Said MacGill: "I hope Monty plays, and I hope we see someone being himself and not copying Ashley Giles. You should never walk in somebody's else shoes. They don't fit. Monty has an amazing opportunity to dominate England's spin-bowling landscape for years to come. He can make a real mark - if he remembers to be himself and gets the right encouragement."

The argument goes beyond Panesar's ability to help shape this Ashes series. It is partly about how English cricket sees itself. The broad question before the team was announced officially asked if England were finally prepared to break out of the habit of making spin bowling not cricket's ultimately intriguing art but a conservative function of failed nerve.

Panesar's fellow Sikh, Bishen Bedi, once duelled for a large part of a day with England's former captain, Brian Close, before a rapt crowd at Taunton. It was, said enchanted witnesses, the essence of cricket.

Panesar may never be Bedi - with his endlessly beguiling arc of arm and ball - he may never get to the foothills of Warne, but here, now, it is impossible to understate what he has come to represent. It is the difference between defence and attack, doubt and belief, between locking the door - or going out in search of a little beauty and, who knows, something as fundamentally important as a win.

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