Saturday, June 23, 2007

The prince of spin

The first Sikh cricketer to play for a team other than India has bowled over fans with his spinning heroics. Ramandeep Singh on England’s lethal weapon Monty Panesar, who’s gearing up to trouble Indian batsmen in the upcoming series

Monty PanesarMONTY Panesar is fast emerging as the next ‘big thing’ in cricket. He has the talent and charisma to not only rival Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan but also outshine them. Panesar, the first Sikh to play for a cricket team other than India, firmly underscored his worth to his team when he bowled England to victory in the third Test against the West Indies recently by grabbing 10 wickets — the first English spinner to do so in 10 years.

Initially a medium-pace bowler, he shifted to spin when he was 16. Panesar, who represents Northamptonshire, was 19 when he made his first-class debut in 2001 against Leicestershire. His appearances over the next few years were limited, partly because of his commitment as a full-time student at Loughborough University. After graduating, he became a more important member of the team and had a fine season in 2005, taking 46 County Championship wickets at an average of just 21.54. This was followed by a stint at the Darren Lehmann Academy in Adelaide, Australia.

Panesar was in top form in 2005 and was on the verge of being selected for the tour to Pakistan but somehow missed the bus. But in January 2006 he was included in the squad for the tour of India. Panesar regarded this as a spiritual journey to the birthplace of his forefathers. He made his debut in the Nagpur Test and scalped the prized wickets of Sachin Tendulkar — his first Test victim — and Rahul Dravid.

When Pakistan toured England last year, Panesar was ready for them. He took three wickets in the first innings of the Test at Old Trafford. His wicket-taking was overshadowed by Steve Harmison, who took a six-wicket haul to bundle out Pakistan for just 119 in the first innings.

However, in the second innings, Panesar took 5-72 while Harmison got 5-57. The pair took 19 of the 20 Pakistani wickets in the match (the other being a run-out) in an innings-and-120-run victory. This was the first time two bowlers had taken all wickets since Jim Laker’s staggering match figures of 19 for 90 against Australia again at Old Trafford.

In the second innings, Panesar took the wickets of five of the six specialist batsmen, including Inzamam-ul-Haq, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf.

In the first innings at Headingley, Panesar picked up three wickets, which included that of Inzamam-ul-Haq. In the second innings, Panesar had figures of 3 for 39. Pakistan lost the three-match series 3-0.

With this outing against a side which plays spin very well, Panesar announced his arrival on the scene big time. In no time, he took over the mantle of being England’s premier spinner replacing Ashley Giles and was soon being compared with the legendary Bishen Singh Bedi.

Panesar celebrates with wicketkeeper Matt Prior after the fall of a West Indian wicket during the Old Trafford Test
Panesar celebrates with wicketkeeper Matt Prior after the fall of a West Indian wicket during the Old Trafford Test

Despite his performances in the Tests, Panesar was overlooked for the 2006 Champions Trophy in India.

As the Ashes approached, the mind games started in earnest with some Australian players indicating that they would take an aggressive approach towards him. Australian captain Ricky Ponting said they would try some sort of strategy on him early on in order to stop him from getting on top.

Ponting, however, was all praise for Panesar as well. The Aussie skipper said Panesar was not scared to throw the ball up a little bit and had good, subtle changes of pace and a really good arm ball.

Some commentators observed that Panesar was probably a more attacking bowler and wicket-taker than Ashley Giles — the top English spinner at that time.

Because of his poor fielding and the tough attitude of the Aussie crowd, Panesar sought the advice of a sports psychologist to prepare himself mentally for the task ahead. He also talked to former England left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell, who too was poor at fielding.

Panesar was inexplicably left out of the England team for the first two Ashes Tests, which the touring team lost, and this led to a virtual outcry to include him in the team for the next Test.

Panesar was eventually selected to play in the third Test at the WACA in Perth. He finished the first innings with figures of 5 for 92 off 24 overs, with Justin Langer, Andrew Symonds and Adam Gilchrist among his wickets. This haul made him the first English spin bowler to take five wickets in a Test at the WACA. He also performed respectably with the bat, finishing at 16 not out as part of England’s best partnership in the innings.

He quickly became a favourite with both Australian and English fans, eliciting cheers from the crowd when fielding, bowling and batting.

He remained in the team for the rest of the series, finishing with 10 wickets at an average of 37.90. Even though he played in just three of the five Tests, he emerged as the third highest wicket taker for England behind Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff. He shared this position with Steve Harmison.

After the Ashes series, Panesar was selected in the England squad for the Commonwealth Bank one-day series, which had Australia and New Zealand as the other participating teams.

Panesar’s attacking bowling style worked well. He bowled economically and aggressively in equal parts. He made his debut against Australia at Melbourne and played in nine matches in the series, taking nine wickets and conceding just 4.6 runs per over.

Though England were whitewashed 0-5 in the series, Panesar returned home with his reputation intact and was selected for the World Cup squad. His performance in the Caribbean was mediocre but he came back with a bang in the home series against the West Indies.

A devout Sikh, who has uncut hair and sports a beard, Panesar believes that it is his religion which makes him disciplined towards his sport and also inspires him to do his best. That explains the extra time he puts in at training ground honing his cricketing skills long after his team-mates have left. He is always the first to reach the ground and the last to leave.

Panesar is just 25 and has at least a decade, if he keeps on performing at the level he is performing now, to go before he can think of hanging his boots. In the latest LG ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers, Panesar has shot up 27 places following his 23-wicket haul in the Test series against the West Indies.

Panesar, who was ranked 33rd in the world at the start of the four-Test series against the West Indies, has shot up to the sixth spot, which he now shares with team-mate Matthew Hoggard.

He is now the third-ranked slow bowler in the world behind Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble. But Panesar has the wherewithal to not only catch up with their records but also surpass them.