Panesar's poser: take the magic, live with the farce

The bowling is an asset, but does it outweigh the fielding?

Spectators in the RES Wyatt stand at the City End may be quieter and more soberly dressed that the colourful mobs in the Eric Hollies Stand that runs down the square-leg boundary at Edgbaston, but Monty Panesar, has captured the imagination of both these stands in the second Test.

In the Wyatt Stand, they picked up a refrain that had been used in Panesar's first Test at home, at Lord's earlier this month: "Monty, Monty, give us a wave." Panesar, reluctant to disappoint, but anxious not to appear to his colleagues not to be concentrating, gave a discreet half wave while looking purposefully toward the bustle in the square. When he jogged down to fine leg when he had finished an over, the noise from the Hollies Stand was not quite so fond. "Monty, Monty, scratch your beard," they yelled at the first Sikh to play cricket for England. Yesterday, as the level of expectation fell, all they could think of was a rhythmic chant of his name, but it was the only one that excited them.

The Panesar phenomenon - is the newest addition to English cricket so far this summer: Mudhsuden Singh Panesar, aged 24, born in Luton, is playing only his 38th first-class game, having played his first Test in Nagpur on 1 March. But there is an ambivalence about the attention that is paid to him.

When the first evidence of this appeared at Lord's, Matthew Hoggard said he did not know whether the crowd was backing Panesar, or putting him under pressure. The answer from Birmingham is that they are doing both, even in yesterday's muted performance - no Panesaric mistakes in the field, but no buzz off the wicket in a first spell of eight overs for 29 runs.

Monty Panesar is good news. He is a left-arm spinner with greater variety and much more spin than Ashley Giles, whom he replaces while Giles recovers from his multiple injuries. Of the two, Panesar is the attacking spinner with a lovely action, and the greater natural talent. The other difference is that Giles is a sound batsman, with a Test average of 20.72 at No 8, and a fine fielder in the gully. The bad news is that Monty is a natural No 11 batsman.

Worse, as a fielder, he is a joke. The crowd laughs out loud when Panesar simply forgets how to stop a ball short and concedes two runs unnecessarily. His colleagues do not share the joke. Andrew Flintoff shakes his head in disbelief - when Panesar dropped a simple catch at mid off in Sri Lanka's first innings, Liam Plunkett looked faintly sick.

On Friday evening, Muttiah Muralitheran was asked about Panesar's prospects. "It's too soon to say," he said. "It's a question of how quickly Panesar learns about Test cricket, and that only happens to a bowler who gets plenty of chances."

No doubt about the talent, but there's the rub. How long will the coach and the players tolerate the debit side of the Panesar balance sheet? Panesar's problem is clear from watching him closely when he is fielding. He comes forward tentatively, and, instead of stopping, picking up and throwing in one easy movement, every action is uncoordinated. Put simply, Panesar is not an athlete.

Other teams have tolerated incompetence in the field from their bowlers. Phil Tufnell tried without noticeable signs of improvement, while Peter Such may not even have tried. Courtney Walsh became celebrated for his incompetence in the field, though historians of Test cricket claims that no fielder has ever been worse than India's own Sikh left-arm spinner, Bishan Bedi, who played in 67 Tests and took 266 wickets.

Bedi makes the case for perseverance. It receives influential support from Derek Underwood, who pleaded with the selectors to persist with Panesar. Underwood declared that Panesar is an attacking spinner capable of bowling sides out twice. His fielding and batting may improve, but they are unlikely to meet Duncan Fletcher's high standards for tail-enders. To justify his place, Panesar will have to start taking more wickets, and to do so pretty quickly if the laughter is not to turn to tears.