Peter Moores, the England coach, yesterday defended the bowling of Monty Panesar as Kevin Pietersen's side attempted to come to terms with Monday's remarkable defeat to India. Panesar was expected to spin England to victory on the final day of the first Test but he failed to take a wicket as the hosts reached their target of 387 for the loss of only four wickets, and by so doing completed the fourth highest run chase in the history of Test cricket.
Had the pitch not been dry and worn, and offering both spin and bounce to a slow bowler, accusing eyes would not currently be focusing on England's premier spinner. But the surface on which a Sachin Tendulkar-inspired India raced to victory should potentially have made Panesar England's match-winner.
The worrying thing for the team and Panesar is that the Chennai Test is not the only occasion this year where he has struggled to make any impact on the day when a spinner should be at his most effective – the final day of a Test. In the draw against New Zealand at Lord's in May he took only one wicket as England pushed for victory and, more memorably, he claimed just two scalps when South Africa successfully chased down 281 at Edgbaston. The defeat led to Michael Vaughan's resignation as England captain.
"I have sympathy for Monty," said Moores, as England travelled from Chennai to here for Friday's second Test. "He probably hasn't played in a competitive game for three months. We didn't have a warm-up game and that is difficult for a spinner who wants to bowl some overs in match conditions. He needs this to go through the gears and to get back some sort of rhythm. And that is quite challenging for someone faced with the task of trying to bowl out an Indian Test match team."
Removing the likes of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Yuvraj Singh and Tendulkar is a tough task for any spinner, as Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan have found out on their visits here. In nine Tests in India Warne took 34 wickets at an average of 43.1, whereas Muralitharan's 31 wickets here have cost him just under 40 runs each.
Even so there is a feeling that Panesar is not learning and developing as a bowler as quickly as he should. It is not that he is not a good bowler – he is – it is just that he is not making the progress many think he should.
Warne has criticised him for this, saying that Panesar does not look like a bowler who has played 30-odd Tests but like one who has played the same Test 30 odd times. It is the lack of variety and apparent nous that is of most concern. Rarely is he seen to go up to his captain, whether it has been Pietersen or Vaughan, with suggestions as to what he should do. He just seems to slip into automatic pilot mode when he gives his sun hat to the umpire at the start of an over.
Moores refutes such suggestions. "Monty's record in Test cricket, where he takes his wickets at an average of 32, compares very favourably to a lot of spinners at the start of their careers," he said. "He is still quite young . I don't think you can just flip somebody over and turn them in to something different. He is what he is. He has a very good stock ball that he can repeat easily, which is very important in Test cricket. And he can do that under pressure.
"People talk a lot about him developing and changing his pace etc, but those skills take time to develop and they take confidence. Bowlers have to add things to their game and Monty is in that position. I don't think it was easy as some people think to bowl spin on that pitch, otherwise the Indian spinners would have taken loads of wickets, and they didn't."
Panesar's problems, if indeed he has any – perhaps he is fulfilling his potential at this moment in time – are not technical. He has a beautiful high action and big hands, which allow him to wrap his long fingers around the seam of the ball and give it a big rip.
It could be that he currently struggles to cope with the expectation that is placed upon him in situations similar to those on Monday. Philip Tufnell, the former Middlesex and England left-arm spinner, did not enjoy bowling in the fourth innings of matches on turning pitches because everyone expected him to win the game for the team. But despite such concerns he managed to hold his nerve, averaging 29 in the fourth innings of Tests.
Panesar averages almost 35 in the similar stage of Tests, but he is a better bowler than Tufnell. Interestingly, Panesar is most effective in the third innings of games, a trend that suggests he thrives in setting up victories but does not yet revel in completing them.