Panesar, chess player and Tufnell fan, poised for battle with India's batsmen
England leave for the subcontinent on Sunday with a left-armer who will excite the crowds. Angus Fraser talked to him
Friday 10 February 2006
The honours board at the National Academy at Loughborough University is filling up. There are 55 names on the imposing wooden structure that dominates the entrance to the England and Wales Cricket Board's state-of-the-art indoor school. These are the lucky ones, the young cricketers who have been identified as potential England stars, and given the chance to develop their skills with many of the leading coaches in the game. Twenty-eight of those chosen in the past five years have a date next to their name, depicting when they went on to make their Test or one-day debut.
Monty Panesar, the left-arm spinner of Northamptonshire, will become the 29th if he impresses Duncan Fletcher and Michael Vaughan during the opening two weeks of England's tour of India and gains selection for the first Test on 1 March. England's 16-man squad leave for the subcontinent on Sunday and by the time they reach Nagpur it is hoped that the shy, modest 23-year-old feels more comfortable around his team-mates than he did in December 2002.
Panesar attended the National Academy in 2002-03, when it was based in Australia, and played in a three-day game against the touring England side in Perth. On one evening Kirk Russell, the then Northamptonshire physiotherapist - Russell is now employed full-time by England - invited Panesar to join him for dinner.
Panesar imagined it was going to be a quiet meal for two and was horrified to see several members of the England team sitting at a table with Russell when he arrived at the restaurant. His angst was not caused by the fact that he did not want to spend time in the company of established England players; it was that, at the time, he did not feel he deserved to mix with people he looked upon as heroes. Panesar felt he was only entitled to dine with them when he was part of the team, so rather than walk over and take a seat he returned to his hotel room.
After a successful summer with Northamptonshire, in which he took 51 wickets at an average of just 22.47, Panesar has earned the right to socialise with his heroes, but it is how he handles the challenge of bowling at Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag and not how he gets on with Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen that counts. Flintoff and Pietersen are the two players who create the biggest stir when England come to town, yet when Vaughan's squad arrive in Mumbai on Monday morning it is the sight of Panesar that will cause a wave of excitement among the fans of this cricket-crazy country.
Nasser Hussain, the Madras-born former England captain, was worshipped in India when his side toured there in 2001-02 and Panesar, a Luton-born Sikh whose parents moved to Britain in the mid-Seventies and come from Ludhiana, a city in the Punjab region of northern India, can expect the same reaction.
Panesar is a product of club cricket. As a 14-year-old he played with his dad for Luton Indians, but when they realised he had a special talent they advised him to go and play for a bigger club in Bedfordshire. And it was while playing for Dunstable Town that he was spotted by Northamptonshire. In those days he preferred to watch Graham Gooch, David Gower and Allan Lamb to Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Kapil Dev, and his bowling hero is, wait for it, Philip Tufnell.
It would be fair to say that the two do not have a lot in common. Tufnell relaxed by having a late night at a lively bar whereas Panesar prefers an evening playing chess. Contests between Panesar and Flintoff - another keen chess player - could be an all-ticket affair.
But Panesar's face lit up when he spoke of the former Middlesex and England spinner. "England have produced some very good spinners like Phil Edmonds, John Emburey, but Phil Tufnell was my hero," Panesar said. "He was a bowler I looked up to. I loved watching Tufnell bowl because he looked like he had the batsman sussed out. He looked like he had a plan of how to get a batsman out and he was just waiting for the moment to put that plan into action.
"When I played my first first-class game at Lord's Tufnell was playing for Middlesex. I watched how he bowled and how he set different fields for different batsmen. He bowled differently at different batsmen, and I sat there wondering how and why he did that. He looked like he had an extra sense. It felt as though he could read the mind of the batsman and change the way he bowled.
"I can see this a bit in players: it is something that comes with experience. Sometimes you can see a trigger pattern that gives away what they are trying to do. Some batsman grip the bat a bit tighter with their bottom hand or you see their feet start twitching and you feel they are going to come down the wicket at you. Other times it is just a gut feeling - you sense they are going to come down the wicket at you so you just drag one down a little bit shorter.
"There is nothing more satisfying than watching a plan come off and seeing the batsman play a false shot. Although it also feels pretty good when you turn the ball past the outside edge and it hits the top of off-stump."
Panesar must be aware of the reception that awaits him but he is understandably reluctant to admit it. He could do without the pressure. Instead, he prefers to talk about matters he can control, namely those that take place on a cricket pitch.
"The prospect of going on tour with England is an unbelievably exciting one for me," he said. "I have not bowled at any of the Indian batsmen yet but I know they are very good players of spin. I have watched how they bat on video, and looked at what they try and do to spinners. Bowling at them will be a huge challenge but it is the ideal tour for a spinner because they are the best players of spin in the world and I will find out a lot more about myself.
"I expect their batsmen to try and attack me and do not mind that. I need to be able to deal with that. When I was younger it used to affect me and I would become impatient, but now I have the confidence to back what I am doing and not get caught up with what they are trying to do to me. I know it will be hard out there but could not think of a better place to make my debut."
England's desire to have a long and capable batting line-up will ultimately determine whether Panesar plays in the first Test. Last summer's figures suggest that he was the best English spinner in county cricket, but his batting is nowhere near as good as that of Ian Blackwell, England's other left-arm spinner.
Panesar is also yet to find out exactly how England intend to use him. Fletcher, the England coach, has only just returned from his home in South Africa, but he expects to be told of his role as soon as they land in India.
"I am aware of the role Ashley Giles played in the England side and I am prepared to do it," he said. "If England want me to attack I will attack, if they want me to contain I will contain. I am a more patient bowler than I used to be. When I was younger I used to attack all the time. I used to try and bowl magic balls, balls that pitched on leg stump and hit off. But now I have learnt how to attack and contain.
"I have bowled over the wicket quite a bit in the last couple of years. It is a tactic I use to break the batsman's rhythm and mix things up. Sometimes it may be to keep it tight whilst a seamer bowls at the other end, on other occasions when things have not been going so well from round the wicket."
There is another board at the National Academy, placed on a wall at the side of nets, recording the achievements of those who have attended. It starts with Flintoff's 137 against New Zealand in Christchurch and finished with Ian Bell's century in Faisalabad. English cricket would smile if the next name on the list is that of Panesar.
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