Last time Monty Panesar played a Test match for England, he walked off the ground a hero. Over 11 gripping overs, during which he faced 35 balls with a vigilance befitting a sentry at the gates of heaven, he kept Australia at bay.
How the nation cheered. The draw was secured in Cardiff that July evening in 2009 and England went on to fight another day. And that was that for Monty. Not required again in the series, his career went into decline.
It took him a year or so and a change of counties to restore order. But his place in the Test team had gone, taken by Graeme Swann, who has become not only the world's leading spin bowler but a knowing cheeky chappy to match Monty's more eccentric loveability. But yesterday Panesar provided England with a genuine selection dilemma for the first Test against Pakistan, which begins here on Tuesday. In 29 overs of largely controlled left arm-spin, he took 5 for 57 against the Pakistan Board XI.
Swann, of course, will play in the Test match, one of the many names to be joint second on the England team sheet these days. The question is whether two spinners are needed in the match.
England have picked two only once since Panesar was omitted after the Cardiff match. That was in Bangladesh in early 2010 when Panesar was out of the squad rebuilding his game, and James Tredwell accompanied Swann.
In the only two previous Tests to have been played in Dubai, each side has played at least two spinners. England have not got where they are today by doing what others do, but if South Africa can play both Paul Harris and Johan Botha, neither of whom is barely fit to be in the same net as Swann and Panesar, as they did in November 2010, it will cross their minds. It seems certain that Pakistan will play Saeed Ajmal, who is being billed as a combination of Muttiah Muralitharan and Merlin, as well as their left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman. They will also have the opening batsman Mohammad Hafeez as an authentic third spinning option.
That being the case, it does not take much to work out that the pitch may grant the slow men a few favours. But as Panesar himself said after play yesterday: "We have got very skilful bowlers with our seamers as well. Over the last 12 months they have learnt how to reverse swing and they understand how to bowl in these conditions. We have got a whole squad balance where many permutations can happen and still be successful out here."
England's usual balance lately has been six batsmen, four bowlers and a wicketkeeper. It took them on a march of glory around Australia last winter, it toppled India from their perch last summer. They may well conclude that what did then will do now, though the pressure on Swann to produce would be enormous. The likelihood, too, is that he would have to bowl an enormous amount of overs, probably in both innings, because England do not expect to bowl out Pakistan much under 120 overs. A holding role in the first innings may well be followed by a more attacking one in the second.
But the seamers would have to take plenty of wickets too – and it can be done in Dubai, as Pakistan have shown. Umar Gul and Junaid Khan, who are both swing exponents, took seven wickets between them in the defeat of Sri Lanka in October.
If Panesar were to play, England could play him as part of a four-man or five-man attack. That means they could drop a batsman, probably Eoin Morgan, and ask Matt Prior to move up to six. Nothing wrong with that but it would mean Stuart Broad moving up to seven.
Given the state of their batting so far, they may be reluctant to take that particular plunge. The alternative is to play two spinners and two fast bowlers, which would still leave them with a lot of bowling to do. But it might ensure that the least England could expect would be a draw.
The absence of Tim Bresnan is suddenly looking especially unfortunate. Bresnan has developed into something more than a reliable performer. With both bat and ball he can have an impact at important moments in games.
Had he not had to leave the tour because of his injured elbow, Panesar would have been easier to fit into the side. As it is, the gut feeling is that England will stick with what they know.
But Panesar reminded us of some of his gifts yesterday. He bowled a beautiful length for most of his spell, which included 22 consecutive overs. He made sure the batsmen had to play forward to kill what spin there was and had his fielders placed precisely.
Three of his wickets fell to catches behind, to the wicketkeeper, one to slip, another went to a bat-and-pad catch, another was leg before. It was a mini-classic of its kind. The turn was gentle perhaps but turn it was.
He did not exactly outbowl Swann, but equally Swann has not yet repelled the suggestion that he is short of bowling. England should have finished the PCB XI off at 119 for 8 but they went on to make 200 for 9 declared.
In the evening, Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott put on 82 for 0 to extend England's lead to 151. Panesar will have something to bowl at again today.
Making room for Monty: England's options
Play five batsmen
This would mean omitting Eoin Morgan and moving wicketkeeper/batsman Matt Prior up to six with Stuart Broad at seven. Graeme Swann would bat eight and the tail would consist of Jimmy Anderson, Monty Panesar and probably Steve Finn edging out Chris Tremlett. The tail may look a little long but five bowlers could bring 20 wickets more readily.
Play four bowlers
England are likely to stick with the status quo, i.e. pick six batsmen (including Morgan), a wicketkeeper (Prior) and four bowlers. But they could ditch the extra seamer – Finn or Tremlett – and go in with just two pacemen – Broad and Anderson. The spinners, Swann and Panesar, would be expected to bowl perhaps 120 overs between them. It would be bold and defensive all at once.
Warm-up match, ICC Global Cricket Academy. Second day of three; Pakistan Cricket Board XI won toss
England XI: First Innings 269-9 dec (A N Cook 133, M J Prior 46; Shah 5-75)
Pakistan Cricket Board XI: First Innings (overnight: 23-0)
Jamshed lbw b Onions 12
Raheem lbw b Tremlett 17
Ayub c Prior b Panesar 33
Salahuddin c Prior b Tremlett 23
Fawad Alam c Strauss b Panesar 7
Sohail lbw b Panesar 6
Ahmed c Trott b Swann 0
Shah c Swann b Panesar 9
Hasan not out 50
Talha c Prior b Panesar 31
Mohammad Khalil not out 1
Extras (b3 lb6 w2) 11
Total 9 wkts dec (79 overs) 200
Fall 1-24 2-40 3-78 4-91 5-101 6-106 7-110 8-119 9-173.
Bowling Onions 13-3-52-1, Tremlett 14-7-30-2, Swann 21-5-49-1, Panesar 29-12-57-5, Pietersen 2-0-3-0.
England XI: Second Innings
*A J Strauss not out 36
I J L Trott not out 39
Extras (b4 w1 nb2) 7
Total (for 0 wkts, 22 overs) 82
To bat A N Cook, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, E J G Morgan, M J Prior†, G P Swann, G Onions, M S Panesar, C T Tremlett
Bowling Talha 6-1-32-0, Mohammad Khalil 5-2-12-0, Hasan 7-0-26-0, Shah 3-0-5-0, Ayub 1-0-3-0.
Umpires Ahsan Raza (Pak) and Shozab Raza (Pak).Reuse content