You’ve got to hand it to the Aussies. Recruiting Monty Panesar to mentor their spinners in advance of the Test tour to India may have seemed at first like a long, loud raspberry to successive England managements who have, for various reasons, decided their most effective left-arm spinner for years was not only un-selectable but borderline unmentionable. Mind games, surely.
Following Australia’s massive victory in the first Test in Pune, however, and the brilliant display of fellow left-armer Steve O’Keefe specifically, it looked like a masterstroke.
Already Down Under playing grade cricket for Cambelltown in Sydney, the 34-year-old, currently without a county back here, accepted the offer from Cricket Australia to coach their spinners.
He told us in advance that: “The hardest role for a spinner is to bowl 30 overs in a day, go for three an over, and give (the captain) control from one end and build pressure, and that’s going to probably be one of the things they are going to ask me.”
And after O’Keefe – recalled for his fifth Test since his debut in 2014 – had completed his 12-wicket demo job on Virat Kohli’s men, the best ever by a visiting spinner, the hits just kept on coming.
Panesar told Reuters: “When I first saw him, he asked me, ‘What do you think of my spin bowling?’
I said to him, ‘You’re like a Hyundai i30, you’re very much unassuming. You’re reliable. You get from A to B and you get the job done’.
“He sets up batsmen and looks to get them out. He’s an intelligent cricketer. He knows his limitations but he’s happy with what he’s got and he just tries to make the best of that.
“I remember telling (the Aussie team management) before they left for India, ‘I feel like O’Keefe will have the most impact’. That was my judgment and sometimes these things happen in cricket.”
In the circumstances, the fact that Panesar has been giving the benefit of experience, know-how and skill gained over 50 Tests in which he took 167 wickets to Australia, who now go into the second Test in Bengaluru on Saturday 1-0 up, rather than England, who finished their series there before Christmas 4-0 down, starts to look somewhat inconvenient. Not to mention bonkers.
More so when you consider the last time Panesar visited the subcontinent he took 16 wickets on Alastair Cook’s victorious tour to India in 2012, that success based largely on his partnership with Graeme Swann.
The catalogue of misdemeanours that have persuaded first England, then a number of county clubs, that they cannot pick Panesar is long and does not make for great reading, ranging as it does from urinating on a nightclub bouncer to turning up late for a match, to letting himself get out of shape and all else in between.
Last summer Panesar spoke honestly and movingly of psychological issues that beset him once he felt he was no longer wanted, of crippling anxiety, paranoia and loss of self-esteem and, in his case, amateur psychologists have surmised his problems boil down to not being able to cope with instant adulation and ‘Sikh of Tweak’ cult status first, then, as the spotlight faded, not being able to cope without it.
Yet, and with all due respect to them, it goes without saying that, given the choice between selecting Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Gareth Batty, Zafar Ansari, or going back through the list of others recently tried, Scott Borthwick or Steve Kerrigan, and a fit and happy Monty, there would be only one winner – seemingly the ready-made replacement as England’s top rank spinner once Swann packed up on the 2013-14 Ashes tour.
Indeed, whatever the reasons, it just seems bizarre that Panesar has not played since then either.
All of which raises once again the wider issue of how poor England appear to be at managing those players who need a bit more management than others, a bit more care and attention, a bit more looking after and a bit more love.
It could be argued, more strongly by some than others, admittedly, that the case of Kevin Pietersen fits into this category. Many believe the continuing saga of the ‘unelectable’ Steven Finn certainly does.
Think of Samit Patel, given the flick because of his inability to conform to the required body-shape even though he was hardly a gym-bunny when they picked him in the first place, and how he must have felt about public criticism from inside the camp to that effect.
It was only sheer love of the game that kept Swann himself from packing up after years spent in the wilderness caused, in part, by a disinclination to forgive his behaviour on the 2000 tour to South Africa as youthful silliness.
Add to taste, from the following: Phil Tufnell, David Gower, Mark Lathwell, Phillipe Edmonds…and I’m sure I’ve missed a few more too.
Sports scientists will tell you there is a lot to be said for the ‘our way or the highway’ philosophy, but any rule has to have exceptions and it is interesting to speculate how England might have benefited over the years from a slightly less rigid approach to individual cases.
When identifying players in which to invest for the future, coaches often talk about the whole package, which, in shorthand, comprises things like talent, technique, tactics, fitness, awareness, commitment and character. And they get very excited when they find one that confirms to this ideal, presumably because it makes their job far more straightforward.
Maybe, however, when considering how much Australia’s spinners appear to have benefitted from working with a man England will currently not touch with a barge pole, it’s time for them to think about redrawing the blueprint, or at least colouring it in with a shade of humanity.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, March 3 2017
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