Monty Panesar: 'I’ve had ups and downs'
On the morning of his first match in the India versus England Test series, Monty Panesar bowled the Prince of India with a jaffa. Pitching before middle and leg, the ball teased Sachin Tendulkar forward, before spinning viciously off the pitch in an entirely new direction. The most prolific batsman in Test history was left bent double in rather unregal fashion, peering through his own legs to check if it was indeed his off-stump that had been firmly uprooted.
Panesar celebrated what he told Sport is “probably my best ever Test wicket” in traditional fashion. He hared off, eyes wide, high-fiving teammates visible and invisible as he went. It isn’t this moment, however, that illustrates the changes that Monty Panesar has undergone.
Instead, pick one of Panesar’s six wickets in the second innings and see his reaction there. The look of wild surprise, as if a wicket was the last outcome he expected when the ball left his hand, has been dialled down.
It has instead been replaced by a grin and a big round of applause. Well, he has earned it. This is a man who has spent two and a half years in the international wilderness, returning in 2012 more confident, more aware, more controlled. All this without losing any of the boyish enthusiasm that made him a cult hero to England supporters. Not that his rejuvenation has been easy.
COMEBACK DOWN UNDER
“I’ve had ups and downs,” Panesar told us when we spoke to him in the aftermath of England’s stunning second Test victory in Mumbai. “During that time away [from the Test team], some people questioned my cricket. They regarded me as a luxury player, because I’m far from the world’s best batter or fielder, despite my effort and improvement there. But I believe that in first-class and Test cricket, you’ve got to pick quality bowlers if you want – on a regular basis – to take the 20 wickets needed to win matches.”
Despite an heroic batting display in the final Test before his 29-match absence – the last-wicket stand with James Anderson that helped England salvage an unlikely draw with Australia in the 2009 Ashes – Panesar was in poor bowling form at the time. The solution was soon clear to him. “I decided to go back to basics and work on my strengths as a bowler,” he says. “I wanted to get better at what I do best, rather than trying to become something that I’m not.”
As part of this process, he decided to move from Northamptonshire to Division One county Sussex, where he took on the “responsibility of being the leader of the attack”. In the 2011 county season, Panesar topped the Division One bowling table with 69 wickets.
He also made the decision to travel to Australia and play Sydney Grade Cricket last winter. “The fans were really hospitable,“ he says of his time down under. “They gave me a bit of stick for being a Pommie, but in a nice way. I still had a laugh with them. Obviously the cricket was great, but I enjoyed the whole experience out there. Singing with the Mike Whitney Band was good fun as well.”
The event Panesar refers to is when he joined former Australia international Whitney on stage at one of the gigs he now performs with his rock band. Panesar was only supposed to provide vocals for one song, but ended up on stage for the best part of an hour. The idea of this once-shy man actually belting out Jessie’s Girl to a heaving Aussie bar is the kind of event you’d think might occur only in the dreams of Geoffrey Boycott after he’d eaten too much Wensleydale.
It really did happen, though – and the fact that it did is testament to Panesar’s new-found confidence. The now 30-year-old Panesar partially attributes his growing self-assurance to the professional mentoring he’s undergone with the London County Cricket Club organisation, under the guidance of former Somerset cricketer Neil Burns. “It focuses on developing performance and the mental side of things; developing a stronger sense of identity in yourself,” he explains. “They’ve helped me to believe more in who I am and what I can bring to a cricket team. Now I’m more confident in myself in certain contexts. I used to defer to the captain, the coach and other players because I was unsure of myself as a person – apart from when I was bowling a ball.”
As well as the mental fortification, Panesar has also put in the hard graft physically. He talks of five weeks spent “integrating training circuits between my bowling overs“. He explains: “I’d do physical training between bowling overs to challenge me; to see if my bowling could maintain its quality over a long period of time and pressure.
“I think the kind of work and time I’ve invested in myself, on and off the pitch, has led to a greater belief in myself. That’s the key to producing consistently top performances.”
Despite all of his hard work and diligent preparation, Panesar naturally admitted to nerves when he underwent what he referred to as his “second debut” against Pakistan in the UAE in January. His comeback performance was a triumph, Panesar taking 14 wickets in just two Tests and claiming the England man of the series award despite missing out on selection for the first match.
Since then, he’s had to get used to life as a drop-in player, never sure whether he will play. In a repeat of the situation in the UAE, he missed out on the first Test of this current series before being picked for the second.
“Even in the Mumbai Test, I felt under a lot of pressure coming into the match,” he says. “But it’s the kind of pressure that I kind of enjoy now. I love playing for England. I love bowling against the world’s best batters to test myself. But I knew I had to perform at my best if I was going to stay in the series beyond Mumbai – and I was thrilled I was able to produce career-best figures. I think me and Swanny were able to dovetail nicely, and help the team get the result. It sets up the series nicely at one-all.”
Graeme Swann – the man Monty calls his “spin twin” – is someone he looks upon as an ally, his right-arm finger-spin working in a natural tandem with Panesar’s southpaw variety. “He’s obviously set the bar very high over the past couple of years, but I love bowling with him,“ he reflects. “We bowled together back at Northampton, and we really complement each other’s styles.”
Is it tricky that the pair are often in competition for what is largely seen as a single spinner’s place? “It’s up to the selectors,“ says Panesar. “In this last match, they went with the policy of two spinners, so I hope they go into future Test matches with that. But I don’t take things for granted. I’ve learned not to take things for granted. I just want to remain emotionally calm, focus on my preparation and be ready for the opportunity, should it present itself.”
SPINNING AND WINNING
A monkey now removed from his and Swann’s back was the fact that England had never previously won a Test match that the pair had started together. They took matters into their own hands in Mumbai. After the second ball of the match, when James Anderson removed Gautam Gambhir, the pair’s bowling accounted for every Indian wicket. As was widely lauded, they became the first England spin pair to share 19 wickets in a single Test since 1958.
“I think it was quite a memorable Test for both of us,” says Panesar. “We’ve played in, I think, seven Test matches and hadn’t won one together. Partly, you know... maybe the batters in the second innings... because we kind of set it up…”
Panesar starts to reference the second Test against Pakistan this year, when England capitulated while chasing a modest 145 to win in the second innings. He clearly has no intention of openly blaming his teammates, however, and quickly changes tack.
“Hopefully this was the first of many wins for me and Swanny,“ he says. “But, to be honest, Mumbai is history. Now it’s about preparing for the next step. Yeah, I did enjoy it, but I’m wise enough now to acknowledge that there will be plenty more challenges ahead of me. Remaining humble and being ready for the next step must always be the focus.”
He may now be more self-assured, but remaining humble is something that will always come easily to Panesar. If he keeps bowling as he has in 2012, however, what England might find is that this so-called luxury player is a luxury they cannot do without.
Alex Reid @otheralexreid
Investec, the specialist bank and asset manager, is the title sponsor of Test Match cricket in England. Visit the Investec Cricket Zone at investec.co.uk/cricket or follow us on Twitter @InvestecCricket
Saturday December 8
India v England: Third Test, Day 4
Sky Sports 1 3.25am