Monty Panesar: Devoted modern pro with just a hint of the mystic

No cricketer works harder, few have a better rapport with the fans, even fewer use yoga. Stephen Fay talks to an unlikely cult hero

Climbing out of his silver VW Chelsea tractor, Monty Panesar is the image of a successful athlete. He is well built, over six foot, strong in the shoulders and thighs. The odd thing is that he looks more the part off the field than on it, where his movements can look nervous and uncoordinated.

He is a thoughtful, sympathetic 24-year-old English Sikh who has inherited a zest for yoga because it helps to create a state of mind in which his bowling action can become a model of consistency, and he can acquire the patience required of an English orthodox left-arm spinner. And no one tries harder on the field than Panesar.

His fielding was not conspicuous in last week's Lord's Test, but another facet of the image is of a disconsolate figure doing his damnedest but being undone. This is what has turned him into the summer's most unlikely phenomenon. Test crowds applaud when he comes on to bowl, scores a run, fields a ball - or not, as the case may be. David Parsons, England's spin-bowling coach, says: "I wondered at first whether it was mickey-taking or genuine. But I've walked with him after a net and watched him signing autographs, chatting and smiling. People think he's a nice guy, and they connect with him."

Panesar remarks that his singular reception has been a pleasant surprise: "It's positive energy, and we can take it into the team." Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, may not concur.

Panesar is the best spin bowler in England. He bowled more overs than any English bowler in Pakistan's second innings at the Lord's Test, for two wickets. "If a couple of decisions had gone our way, we would have had a chance in the last session," he says. He does not criticise the timing of the declaration.

But his place in the Test team is not entirely secure. Fletcher makes no secret of his preference for all-singing, all-dancing players, brilliant in the field, able to bat and also to bowl a bit, or vice versa. That is the modern cricketer, and Panesar can appear to be a throwback to the era of specialisation.

He is conscious of this: "I see that a multi-dimensional cricketer has more impact on modern cricket. That's what I want to be and that's what I train to be." He has some way to go, but another pleasant surprise is how far he has already come.

Exactly a year ago, Panesar was playing for Northamptonshire against Worcestershire in a game unlikely to cause a stir, even in Northampton. It was only his second game of the season after his graduation from Loughborough University - in computing and management rather than a sports-related subject. He had found the 14-hour days of cricket and academic study arduous, but when he returned to county cricket, he felt ready for it mentally. The degree provided security; he was more experienced too, after playing four years for the university.

Panesar took nine wickets in that game, and the rest of the summer turned into a brilliant purple passage, with 46 wickets at 21.54. The selectors were sufficiently interested to send him to Adelaide to improve his batting and fielding. When Ashley Giles needed an operation before the Indian tour, Panesar was chosen ahead of the older generation of spinners.

Destiny had dealt him a fine hand, and he responded splendidly by dismissing his hero Sachin Tendulkar to take his first Test wicket. He recalls the episode vividly: "I had a man at bat-pad, but I took him out because Sachin was driving me easily. I shortened my length, but bowled in the same area, and it was a stock ball pitching on middle and pretty well holding its line that hit his pad." Tendulkar, lbw b Panesar 16. Delirium and high-fives.

He was, however, no less famous for missing completely a towering catch shortly before the end of the Bombay Test. He is philosophical about it: "I've done the worst thing. It can't get any worse than that. So I've got nothing to lose." Fletcher might growl that he has a place to lose.

But he was chosen ahead of Shaun Udal when the team came home, and took 5 for 78 in the third Sri Lanka Test. In less than five months he has played against the finest players of spin in the game. (He admires Rahul Dravid above all the others.) Panesar is in at the deep end, and, though he may have looked like sinking sometimes, he is still there, a credit to his family and to his bowling technique.

Mudhsuden Singh Panesar - known as Monty - was born in Luton on 25 April 1982, the son of a carpenter who liked cricket and took his small son along to score in his club games. Next he went to Sunday-morning practices: " My first teacher said spinners need to bowl for hours and hours, and that's what I did." He was playing for Bedfordshire at 17: "I once bowled 60 overs in one innings, starting with the new ball and finishing with a very old one."

The family are religious. "Since I was born I've been into religion. That's what helps me, being a Sikh. Trying to practise any religion creates discipline, and then I can channel that discipline into my cricket."

He has not been conscious of racism: "I am pretty thick-skinned, to be honest." One corollary is that he never contemplated playing for anyone else. "I was born in England. The people who helped me with my cricket are all from England. So I wanted to be an England player."

The one word coaches use to describe Panesar's action is "repeatable". John Abrahams, his coach in England's Under-19 team, likes its simplicity. "Consistent in delivery; high arm action gets the ball up and down; strong thighs needed to drive through the delivery, and strong shoulders." Abrahams says he is reminded of the legendary Indian spinner Bishen Bedi.

Tales of Panesar's obsessive hard work are becoming familiar. When he went to the Academy in Adelaide in 2002-03, he had a box of cricket balls under his bed, and he would get up early to bowl by himself in the nets until breakfast time. At Northamptonshire, David Graveney noted that only two players were left in the dressing room at the end of a formal day's training, the Australian Mike Hussey and Panesar: "Right, Monty," said Hussey. "I'm batting and you're bowling, and we're going to spend the next three hours in the nets." Mother's milk to Monty.

At the start, the work did not extend beyond bowling. "He thought fielding was for other people to do," recalls the veteran of Headingley 1981, Graham Dilley, Loughborough University's coach, but this was a bit of a joke. Dilley speaks fondly of him: "Fun to be around."

Panesar himself has a range of adjectives to describe his technique. (He calls it "process".) "Co-ordination" for the hips, the shoulders and the front arm, so that the ball lands where he intends it to whenever or wherever he delivers it. "I see the body as a system that doesn't recognise days. If you keep doing the same thing every day, hopefully your rhythm will be the same every day."

"Rhythm" is another key word. "Shape" is the flight, flat or tossed up, and the vertical drop the left-handed off-spinner seeks before the ball pitches. "If the shape of the ball is good for me, then I feel a batsman will struggle to read me."

Parsons is happy with what he sees. "The basic package is a good one. I don't think there's any huge modification to be done. Just a bit of tinkering at the edges." Panesar is already tinkering, looking for things to add to the recipe to do with variation in pace, field settings and maintaining discipline. He is flirting with a top-spinner, working on different positions of the wrist, starting to experiment fairly close to the stumps, before gradually moving back until he is 22 yards away.

One essential ingredient is missing from the story so far. He is not a gym fanatic. He reports that he uses Pilates to strengthen his stomach, and yoga to lengthen his spine. Being supple helps his bowling, and it seems to work, because he has never been badly injured. But now the emphasis in on yoga.

It helps to calm his nerves, and it balances his physical passion for endless bowling. He took it seriously after he had graduated last year and now allocates liberal amounts of time to it. "Close friends say that cr icket is played between the ears, that 90 per cent is in the mind, and 10 per cent is physical. I now tend to concentrate more on the 90 per cent."

He takes guidance from his guru, the Mahararji from Luton's Sikh community, and it seems to have developed a remarkable detachment. Talk about the future and he is not engaged: "I try to live each moment as it comes. I don't think ahead and I don't think about the past. For me to prepare for a Test I've got to focus on the present. Do that, and the future will look after itself." We did, however, both touch wood.

LIFE & TIMES: Monty's flight to the limelight

NAME: Mudhsuden Singh Panesar.

BORN: 25 April 1982, Luton.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 1in, 12st 7lb.

STYLE: Slow left-arm orthodox bowler, left-hand bat.

PRINCIPAL TEAMS: England, England U-19, Northamptonshire, MCC, British Universities, Loughborough UCCE.

COUNTY CAREER: Debut 2001 v Leics: 8-131 in match, 4-11 in 2nd innings. Best season 2005: 46 Championship wkts at 21.54. First-class record: 42 matches; 144 wkts at 31.15 (best 7-181); 254 runs, av 7.93 (best 39no).

TEST CAREER: Debut 2006 v India. 7 matches; 17 wkts at 39.70 (best 5-78); 38 runs at 9.50 (best 26).

OTHER SPORTS PLAYED: Tennis, badminton, snooker.

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