(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
By Jamie Bowman
As Ben Stokes and Toby Roland-Jones were helping England seize control of the Third Test against South Africa on Saturday, the scene at another Oval, 200 miles north of Kennington, was very different.
Hosts Wallasey faced an uphill battle after the Wirral outfit were bowled out for just 74 in their Liverpool Competition clash with Rainhill. But as their opponents set about reaching the modest target, hopes were buoyed by the sight of a familiar figure taking the new ball.
“We couldn’t believe our luck when the opportunity to sign Monty Panesar came our way so we snapped it up,” said Wallasey skipper Danny Beaver, speaking after his side had eventually fallen to a five wicket defeat despite their high-profile debutant claiming 4-28.
“We found out through an external source that he might be available and we thought we’d give him a bell and see what he said.
“He was sound and keen from the very off. As soon as we told him about the club, the league and some of the other players who play in the competition he was massively interested.
“Quite apart from the fact he’s a quality bowler, to have such a big name and personality playing for the club meant it was a no-brainer. The positives are endless.”
It’s now over three years since the Luton-born spinner took the last of his 167 Test wickets for England but after a traumatic period which has seen Panesar dogged by mental illness and a career-threatening shoulder injury, the hunger to make a county comeback remains undiminished.
“I’ve been working with Monty for about a year now and he’s made tremendous strides in an effort to get back into the county game,” said the 35-year-old’s agent Clive Hart.
“There were commercial opportunities he could have taken if he’d stayed in England last winter but he went to Australia and played a lot of cricket. Athletically, I’d suggest he weighs less and has less body fat than when he had a central contract for England.”
Panesar has spent six months in Australia, coaching younger age groups at Campbelltown-Camden and working with Cricket Australia, and the gamble seems to have paid off, according to his new captain.
“We batted poorly but on another day his bowling performance might have won us the game even with such a small total on the board,” said Beaver.
“His input verbally was even better. He was always encouraging and positive and was happy to say a few words in the dressing room so he fitted in really well.”
Hart agrees that Panesar’s time away from the UK has benefited the former Northamptonshire tweaker after a frustrating time training with his home county but failing to secure a contract.
“He’s had one or two issues but so have many other players and more in cricket than in any other sport in the last few years,” said Hart.
“There were times last year when people would phone up looking for him to speak but we couldn’t get hold of him but since then his reliability has been 100 per cent so I don’t think any county needs to worry.
“His aim is to get back to a county and, dare I say, his ability is well beyond the average. There should be room for him in county cricket – I think Monty is being judged on a different scale to other players.”
Wallasey have seven more games this season and Beaver is hoping his new star turn can help the club improve on their standing in a competitive league which also sees the likes of Simon Kerrigan, Stephen Parry, Matthew Parkinson and Gary Keedy turning their arms over for various clubs across Merseyside.
“His ultimate ambition is to get back with a county and playing in the league we’re playing in exposes him to that,” adds Beaver.
“I’ve not really talked to him about long-term plans but I know he just wants to get fit and enjoy his cricket at a high standard. The competition is pretty fierce so it is a great opportunity for him to showcase his ability against some other very good spin bowlers.”
For Panesar’s agent, the proof is com-ing on the field as well as off with the spinner’s statistics beginning to add up.
“He is bringing home the bacon,” added Hart. “He’s played for Bedforshire, his bowling figures in the Hertfordshire League were very good, and he got four wickets for Wallasey on Saturday. He is producing.
“There are some good spinners about but I don’t accept that every county has enough good spinners to ignore the fact that Monty has something to offer.”