Monty Panesar: Spin bowler fights off demons

Countdown to the third test: After 83 wicketless overs at Lord's and Headingley, England's spinner is trying to recover his confidence. Stephen Brenkley talks to the crowd favourite who sees greater variety as the key to his bowling success
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The Independent Online

To have bowled 497 balls over six days in two Test matches without taking a wicket is to know the meaning of eternity. Monty Panesar can now offer a precise definition.

There were times between the third day at Lord's and the third at Headingley when he must have seen the horizon where wickets lay yawning ahead of him, and in between were batsmen letting the ball go, or patting it back, or scoring runs but never, ever getting out. Or much looking like it. This was an eternity bound to promote doubt and diminish conviction.

Panesar has clearly thought about this and been affected by it. But he will not succumb to any demons created by South Africa's batsmen in those 82.5 endless overs, 82.5 overs without his now celebrated celebrations. He dare not.

"There are times when you play against certain opposition and there is a sense of your own character building," he said yesterday at Lord's three days after England had lost the second Test and every session in it to South Africa by 10 wickets to go 1-0 down in the series.

"I have never been in a position before where I have bowled over 450 balls without taking a wicket," he said. "It was tough, I'll admit it. They're a good team but the mind starts playing tricks on you a little bit as well. It starts thinking 'can I do this?' "

The team's composition and performance can rarely have been more scrutinised, perhaps heightened by the fact that, for once, it is the biggest show in town. Panesar was perhaps fortunate that attention was diverted from him by clumsy selectorial judgement.

The parachuting in of the recent Nottinghamshire recruit, Darren Pattinson, to the England team dominated everything, including the players' thoughts. Pattinson is a 29 going on 30-year-old swing bowler who has spent four-fifths of his life in Australia, and after 11 first-class matches, six of them in England, was suddenly presumed to be the answer to England's Headingley prayers. As it turned out they spent four days on their knees. There could be no completely concealing Panesar's struggle.

"At Lord's it was the fact that I'd just bowled 60 overs in the second innings and I haven't taken a wicket when normally I take one every 60 balls. This is where the character building starts and you have to think that you're not going to let them make me doubt myself. You can't fall into that trap. All the great players combat that. They won't be tricked."

Panesar has come to terms with the fact and the effect of his singular celebrity which began two summers ago shortly after his unexpected elevation to the England team. Blessed with a beautifully classic and rhythmic left-arm spinner's action – honed by years of schoolboy practice in the mirror – he found himself taken into the nation's affections as much for his exotic appearance and his idiosyncratic fielding. He is the first Sikh to play for England and his patka is especially striking; he makes fielding howlers so primitive that they seem forgivable.

But the experience of being wicketless is a new sensation. From the moment he claimed Sachin Tendulkar as his first Test wicket in Nagpur in late 2005, he has been, a contentious interlude in Australia apart, a regular part of England's team, quite simply their spinner. But the events of Headingley have clearly left an impression on Panesar.

If he has not dwelled on it, he has been exercised by it. He is perhaps trying to rationalise it. He cannot let it harm his own confidence yet he is aware that he has to increase the variety in his bowling and balance that with South Africa's undoubted proficiency. In farming they call it diversify to survive.

"I have to improve, I know that, and with my passion for the game and the enthusiasm I will never stop trying" he said. "I couldn't rest if I didn't keep trying for that variety because then my passion and enthusiasm will go as well. But it's important as well not to get away from your stock ball so you don't get too carried away with the pace changes. But it's something I'm developing because otherwise I'm not going to improve as a bowler."

The barren spell embraced his last 25 balls in South Africa's first innings at Lord's, their entire second innings when he bowled 60 overs lasting more than two days and the first 18.5 overs of South Africa's first innings at Headingley. Only Maurice Tate who bowled 62 overs at Melbourne against Australia in 1929 and John Emburey who sent down 61 against Pakistan at The Oval in 1987 have bowled more wicketless overs in an innings for England.

So does he still think he's good enough? This line of questioning had gone too far. "You're trying to create doubts in my mind, I'm not going to let you," he said. "I'm not going to let you create doubts. You have got to think positive. You've got to help me."

But it was a horrible match for England in Leeds. At no point in it did they give South Africa a contest. Yet the duration and the aftermath have remained largely dominated by the team changes which the selectors introduced and which may still have deep and lasting repercussions on all concerned.

Andrew Flintoff was recalled after a gap of 17 Tests spanning 14 months which was greeted with universal acclaim. Pattinson was picked for the first time after a gap of almost 30 years, most of them spent in Australia, to almost universal derision.

The fall-out has been spectacular and to understand fully the nuances of the statements from the protagonists involved in the selection would require careful study, preferably followed by a thesis. By now, the subject of Pattinson and his effect on the team must be fraying the tempers of the England and Wales Cricket Board – administrators, selectors, and players.

It is therefore safe to assume that when an England media relations man emerged two minutes before Panesar was due to be interviewed and asked it he could have a quick word with the player it was not about hotel arrangements for the third Test in Birmingham. Panesar, resplendent in his sponsor's Asics Gel-335s, duly obliged. He dead-batted team questions as diligently as the South Africans had played him. A breakthrough was looking distinctly improbable.

"We played six matches with the same team and you begin to get a sense of a settled team beginning to develop," he said. "When you have a change it's going to mean a slight imbalance but our energy should be more focused on the next game.

"It is the selectors' job to decide who they think should play. They obviously felt that for whatever reason he was the best person to play in the match. He was welcome and we were happy to have him. If you start looking at other things it can affect your own performance and that could have an impact on the team."

The fact is, of course, that Panesar took four wickets at Lord's and another three in Leeds, sufficient, just, to retain self-belief. But South Africa are not New Zealand, the first tourists of the summer. Against New Zealand on the Sunday afternoon of the Old Trafford Test, Panesar took 6 for 37. The Kiwis did not know whether to stick or twist, whether the ball was going to spin or stay straight. Panesar mesmerised them. He still has a perfectly respectable 108 wickets from 31 Tests.

The reaction of the crowds to him is not fading either. They cheer when he comes on to bowl and every time he touches the ball in the field. If he makes a mess of it, they cheer all the more. He will be forever Monty.

"When it first happened it happened so quickly," he said. "It was just everywhere. I have got myself accustomed to it. I have adapted myself to it, knowing it is out there. When the ball trickles down to fine leg they still cheer and do it again if I move to third man. There are still massive noises, even when I'm practising in the morning I am a bit more laid-back now and have a bit more of a laugh about it now. And I'm making a lot less errors in the field. It's going in an upward direction."

But at Headingley, there was one delicious moment. Panesar threw the ball underarm to the bowler, Flintoff. It was from a distance of only 10 yards or so and it went past Flintoff by almost as many. He must have felt like he had never been away, as Monty went to scamper after it.

But England have a job on their hands. They can take succour from the fact that they came from 1-0 down to beat New Zealand in the spring, and that they have three times gone behind to South Africa at home in the three series in this country since the Proteas' re-entry to international cricket. Three times the tourists have failed to go on to win.

"Credit should go to South Africa," said Panesar. "They have played 12 months of good cricket. But we still have belief and confidence. We're happy. We've got to play better and we can. But I think it's a bit unfair to make a judgement straight away. I think the end of the series is a better place for that. It's only one Test match.

"I don't mind if it's a four- or five-man bowling attack. I will relish the challenge of a four-man attack. I like the responsibility and the pressure. There's no point saying that we cannot do it, we can. If you start doubting yourself you may as well say you're not going to bowl in the third Test match. You simply can't do that. You have to give yourself the best chance."

It is as well that England still believe. They need all the faith that there is in cricketing heaven and they cannot, simply cannot, afford another 497 wicketless balls from their engaging spinner.

Monty Panesar is an Asics ambassador. For more information:

Out of left field: Left-arm spinner with right statistics

Age: 26

Date of Birth: 25/4/1982

Place of Birth: Luton

County: Northamptonshire

Test debut: vs. India at Nagpur, 1-5 March, 2006

Test match appearances: 31

Test wickets: 108

Test bowling average: 32.27

Test runs: 164

Test batting average: 5.85

One-day international (ODI) debut: vs. Australia at Melbourne, 12 January, 2007

ODI appearances: 26

ODI wickets: 24

ODI bowling average: 40.83

ODI runs: 26

ODI batting average: 5.20

On 11 June 2007, Panesar became the first English spinner to take 10 wickets in a match since Phil Tufnell when he returned match figures of 10 for 187. This was achieved against the West Indies in the third Test at Old Trafford. He took his 100th Test wicket on 25 May 2008, against New Zealand, also at Old Trafford.