The Brian Viner Interview: Sikh spinner Monty Panesar just can't hide his enthusiasm for his sport

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The Independent Online

My encounter with Monty Panesar does not get off to the best of starts. The publishers of his autobiography, Monty's Turn, have organised several one-on-one interviews on the terrace of a hotel overlooking the Thames at Hampton Court, and after The Daily Telegraph it is my turn. But first of all the Telegraph's photographer, for reasons known only to himself, wants his man in a rowing boat. Looking understandably bemused, Panesar clambers into the boat and rows out to the middle of the river, the photographer snapping away frantically as they almost come a cropper in the wash of a passing pleasure cruiser. Mudhsuden Singh Panesar, it has to be said, is no Steve Redgrave.

This surreal episode concludes after almost half an hour with their safe return to shore, but by then heavy clouds have started to invade Panesar's naturally sunny nature. Who knows, maybe that was the Telegraph man's fiendish intention. Whatever, I make what in retrospect is an unwise attempt to introduce some humour into the situation. For The Independent's photograph, I tell Panesar, we would like him to swim to the opposite bank. As an attempt to break the ice it is a spectacular failure. He glares at me. In his dark brown eyes there is fiery pride and indignation, which, were they not directed my way, I would be pleased to see. There is steel in this man, as well as sunshine.

Swiftly changing the subject, I ask whether he goes to Sri Lanka for the forthcoming Test series feeling the burden of expectation. After all, when he last played against Sri Lanka in a Test match, at Trent Bridge in June last year, he took 5 for 78 in the second innings. And one of the five was the barnstorming Sanath Jayasuriya. The Sri Lankans know his capabilities.

"No," he says, "I still have a lot to prove to earn expectations. With more experience there will be expectations of me, but I don't feel it."

Whatever he says, his reputation already precedes him. In just 20 Tests, he already has six five-fors and one 10-wicket haul. His first Test wicket was that of his childhood hero Sachin Tendulkar. His first Ashes wicket was that of Justin Langer. His 73 Test victims also include Rahul Dravid (twice), Younis Khan (twice), Inzamam-ul-Haq (three times), Adam Gilchrist (for a duck), Matthew Hayden, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul (twice). And he snared Tendulkar again, lbw for 16 at Lord's this summer. It is by any standards an impressive set of scalps, although it is less the identity of the batsmen than the manner in which he celebrates their downfall that has endeared him to the English public; whirling dervishes are less animated than Panesar when he takes a wicket.

In Sri Lanka, on turning pitches prepared for Muttiah Muralitharan, there will doubtless be more of the euphoric high-fiving. Not that he is counting any chickens, let alone wickets. "They [the Sri Lankan batsmen] are very skilful players of spin," he says. "It will be very testing for me. But it's really exciting. I'll be bugging Michael Vaughan a lot. He's toured Sri Lanka before and he's a great player of spin. He's scored a hundred against Murali, so I'll be picking his brain all the time. I hope he doesn't get annoyed. I'll be bugging him so much."

Panesar still has limited experience of Vaughan's captaincy; it was Andrew Flintoff who held the reins at the start of his Test career and Flintoff who told him, in the team meeting the evening before the first Test against India in Nagpur in March 2006, that he was going to make his debut the following day. In his book he recalls, sweetly, that he went straight back to his room, lay on the bed with his eyes closed and whispered to himself again and again that he was about to play cricket for England. He then found some sheets of paper and started marking down the fielding positions he wanted for each batsman. These he took along the corridor to Flintoff's room. In the book he records the captain's response.

"When I knocked on Flintoff's door and handed over the results he seemed a bit bemused. 'This is what I'm thinking of doing,' I said. 'Ah, OK,' he replied, sounding as puzzled as he looked. 'No worries at all, mate. I'll take it on board and you have a good night's sleep.' I decided I ought to leave quickly because I wasn't sure whether he wanted me in his room."

Vaughan, I suppose, might have been less thrown by the debutant's uncommon diligence. "He is different to the other captains I've had," Panesar says. "He sets different fields. Like for example, he has two men on the drive. Normally you will have an extra cover and a drive man. He has a drive man and an extra cover as a drive man. When I bowled at Trent Bridge to Dravid, he pushed one out and got caught at extra cover on the drive. That shows Michael Vaughan's thinking. It's amazing. Sometimes I'll be thinking, 'I want a gully', and I'll turn round and he's already got a gully in. I have total faith in what he says. Blind faith."

The 25-year-old is plainly sincere in his wide-eyed admiration for the most accomplished of his team-mates and the disbelief that he belongs in their orbit is diminishing only gradually. As for the adulation that he gets from the fans, it is hard to imagine him ever taking it as his due.

"It has been unbelievable," he says. "I treasure it, because it doesn't happen to everyone. When I'm fielding, I turn around and see people with fake beards and bandannas. So much warmth and love. I enjoy every minute of it."

I ask him whether he has occasionally felt in danger of becoming a figure of fun? After all, it is not every cricketer whose autobiography contains a reference in the index to catches, dropped. It is a subject covered on pages 39, 105-106, 109, 111, 112, 114, 123, 124, 127 and 140. Catches, held, by contrast, gets only page 112. And here is his description of a skier not so much dropped as mislaid in Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium.

"I ran forward, looked up and saw a bit of sky, a lot of sun, but no red dot. Eventually I spotted the ball... And then I lost it again... I put my hands where I thought the ball would come down, held them there and felt nothing. I've read that it landed between two feet and three metres to my right."

He has been working hard, he tells me, to excise such moments of comic haplessness from his game. "I'm doing a lot of catching stuff with [the England coach] Peter Moores and [team analyst] Mark Garroway. We use these new fusion bats, which has a kind of cushioning on the bat and sends the ball so much higher than a normal bat. I'm getting closer [to becoming a decent fielder, I think he means, not to the descending ball]. But I'm not a natural athlete. I know it's something I need to keep working on."

Let's turn to what he is very good at already: orthodox left-arm spin. I ask whether he has developed a doosra (the off-spinner's delivery that turns from leg to off) for the Sri Lankan tour, in honour of its greatest exponent, Murali? He laughs delightedly, showing perfect, preternaturally white teeth.

"No, I haven't tried bowling the doosra. It will take time. It has taken Muralitharan time. It's good to have a doosra, definitely. But you can work on some new things so much that you forget what you've already got." Which is what? "An orthodox stock ball, with different variations of pace and different angles at the crease." Is there no secret weapon, then, like Murali's doosra or Shane Warne's flipper? He chuckles again; he appears to have forgotten his rowing-boat tribulations. "Not unless you know something I don't..."

There must have been times, though, when he has breached a batsman's defence by sheer guile, outwitting him? "To be honest, I'm still learning to really outwit batsmen. I'm not there yet, not like Shane Warne, bowling off stump, off stump, off stump, then slider ... lbw."

Panesar's modesty becomes him, but he is a fellow, I remind him, with 10 wickets in a Test match to his credit. "Yes, well, the man upstairs helps out, a few blessings from him. All I do is bowl stock ball, stock ball, stock ball, with little variations of pace. Outwitting a batsman is a different skill and I'm still only 25, which is pretty young for a spinner.

"I wouldn't say I've ever outwitted a batsman. If the ball kicks a bit more at pace and there's a chance for a bat/pad [catch], I might move a fielder close to get a bat/pad, but I think outwitting batsmen is a different kettle of fish. Bowling wide, wide, wide, then hitting off stump with the arm ball, that's an amazing skill, such a subtle art. David Parsons [England's spin-bowling coach] is helping me with that."

Is there anyone whose repertoire he covets? "Daniel Vettori; if I could be half as good as him ... or Bishan Bedi, you know. My father has talked a lot about him. His flight, his smoothness of action, all that artistry."

He considers the best spinner he has ever faced, however, to be Warne. "He makes you wait between deliveries, and you just feel his presence. In Sydney I came out as a nightwatchman, and Kevin Pietersen said to me 'Watch out for his slider, he'll beat you lbw with the slider'. He tossed it wide, wide, wide, then the slider came. Such a skill he has. Amazing."

There is a lovely story in Panesar's book about an episode during the third Test in Perth last year, when, while batting against Warne, he got so excited about picking the googly that he shouted "Googly" as the ball travelled towards him. The Aussie fielders made hay. "You're finished Warney, Monty's sussed you out," called Ricky Ponting. But when the series was finished, Warne sat with Panesar in the Australian dressing room at the Sydney Cricket Ground, sharing his insights into the art of spin. "I was a little bit afraid to ask him," Panesar tells me. "But Terry Jenner [Warne's coach] was in there, and I know him a bit, so I said, 'Do you think he'll talk to me?' He talked for about half an hour. He's a great, great man."

Panesar is endearingly eager to heap praise on all spin bowlers bar himself. He admits to studying Phil Tufnell scrupulously and adopting some of his methods. It's a good job, I venture, that he did not also adopt Tufnell's famously relaxed work ethic. Nobody will ever be able to criticise Panesar for not putting in the hours. On which subject, does he think it fair to conclude that his Sikhism, and the self-control it entails, has intensified his discipline as a cricketer?

"For me, religion is a faith and cricket is a dream; they are separate," he says, with a frown. Nonetheless, the discipline of teetotalism, for example, must be useful for a sportsman? Especially in the light of certain revelations about England cricketers getting tanked up.

"Any religion gives a sense of discipline," he says, impassively, "and that helps in cricket, just as the discipline in cricket helps in religion. They complement each other." He does not disapprove of occasional carousing on tour, he insists. "There is nothing wrong with a drink. We all want to enjoy ourselves sometimes, but it is not good in anything to go overboard." Especially in a rowing boat on the Thames, I almost add, but think better of it.

'Monty's Turn – Taking My Chances' by Monty Panesar is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £18.99

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