Spin ball wizard – Monty Panesar

 

Monty Panesar has trouble explaining his unique wicket-taking celebration. When the umpire raises his finger, England’s star spin bowler leaps, then sprints away, arms flailing, hands flapping and eyes bulging in what seems to be utter, disbelieving joy. As team-mates surround him, he jumps like an electrocuted calf, trying to slap his hands against theirs in a series of, mostly missed, high fives.

CRICKET-AUS-NZL-ENG-PANESAR-JUBO“It happens in a moment,” he begins, “and I’m just flying, I don’t know what’s going on. My mates tease me when we watch it afterwards: ‘Look at that! There you go! What are you doing? You missed a high five! You missed another one! What are you doing now? Look at you!’ I watch with them, embarrassed, and wonder if it’s really me.”

Panesar has experienced this otherworldly, almost out-of-body feeling quite often in the 18 months since he made his international debut in a Test match against India in Nagpur. Remembering the game and his first senior international wicket – that of his childhood hero, the great Sachin Tendulkar – he says: “When I realised I’d bowled Tendulkar, it was like I was dreaming. I started running. It didn’t feel real. I was buzzing. To bowl Tendulkar, among all these players who’d won the Ashes… ” He shakes his head in happiness, “It’s a blessing.”

The pleasure is not all his. Panesar (more popularly known as Monty) has in this short space of time established himself as one of the country’s most recognisable and popular sportsmen. His feats as a bowler have demanded respect. His somewhat less awesome efforts with the bat and in the field have, so far at least, mainly inspired indulgent affection from his followers. But that is only part of his appeal. Panesar plays the game as he celebrates – like a man who cannot believe his good fortune. “The Barmy Army are fantastic!” he says of the England supporters. “They make a real effort with beards and patkas. It comes out of warmth and passion for the game. They love the game and that’s what it proclaims.”

In this respect, he and the fans are one. Indeed, perhaps the main reason for Panesar’s popularity is his own transparent love of the game. At a time when sports stars are often accused of prizing their wage packets and celebrity lifestyles above on-field achievement, this enthusiasm seems a rather rare and precious commodity. “I’m living a dream,” he says, as if still in a daze. “I used to play cricket on a pub pitch and now I’m playing for England.”

It is on England duty that we meet, in the awesomely bland lobby of Hampshire’s Rose Bowl cricket ground, where the players have gathered for a team meeting in advance of the one-day series against India, which will be decided today at Lord’s. Panesar lopes into view, his rangy frame clad in England colours, the logo of the team sponsor Vodafone across his chest. His never-cut hair is tightly bound under a patka (a black, bandana-style Sikh turban), and his face sprouts a never-shaved black beard. We shake hands and his remarkable 10in long hands, the tools of his trade, dwarf my average 7in ones.

He apologises for being late and we are escorted to a windowless classroom (for health and safety reasons, we can’t sit in the stands). Facing each other under fluorescent lights, we start at the beginning.

Panesar’s father Paramjeet moved to England from the Punjab in the 1970s. He met and married Gursharan, also from the Punjab, and the couple set up home in the Luton suburb of Stopsley. “They came to visit relatives, opportunities arose, and they settled,” says their eldest son Mudhsuden, who was nicknamed Monty soon after his birth in April 1982. A carpenter by trade, Paramjeet set up a construction business.

Questions about Panesar’s childhood, with sister Charanjit and brother Isher (now also a promising cricketer), quickly reveal a recurring theme. The 25-year-old says he was obsessed with cricket pretty much since birth. His first memory is picking up a cricket bat and being told his hands were the wrong way round. The unkind might say his batting hasn’t improved much since.

Earliest school memories? His cricket coach. Holiday memories? Beach cricket in Brighton. Birthdays? Having all his friends and family around and playing cricket. Was he ever in trouble as a child? Yes, he sometimes broke windows with a cricket ball. His punishment? Banned from playing cricket for a while. What was it like moving from a local state school to a private school (aged 16, he won a sixth form sports scholarship to Bedford Modern, which was renowned for its sporting prowess)? Interesting to see a different world, he says, but not scary – he already knew many of the other pupils, through cricket.

“We had a community in Luton where different ethnic minorities played cricket – Luton Caribbeans, Luton Pakistanis, Luton Indians – with a mini World Cup every August. We understood each other. I never had the feeling of being different,” he says.

The first Sikh to play cricket for England – to play cricket for any country other than India – Panesar is in at least one sense different to those in the team. Teetotal and vegetarian, he is a devout Sikh and fluent in Punjabi and Hindi. Nevertheless he has a very short reply to any questions about his ethnic allegiance. He says simply: “I am English.”

He is patriotic too. Today he’s wearing a “Support our Troops in Iraq” wristband. He says he doesn’t feel strongly about Iraq. I suggest that he must feel fairly strongly, since he chose that wristband above hundreds of possible alternative wristbands. His eyes flash: “I’m English. We all support our troops.” He leans forward: “Don’t we?”

Does his Sikh heritage produce any conflicting feelings in him?

“In what regard?”

In any regard?

“No. I’m just an English lad who tries to bowl left-hand spin.”

And with that, he is back to his favourite subject.

Panesar was in his mid-teens when he realised that he might be good enough to play for England. “When I was 14 I played for under-16s teams. When I was 16 I played against full men’s teams. That gave me the idea that there could be a chance.”

Still at school, he was selected to play for minor county side Bedfordshire, then given a trial at neighbouring first class county, Northamptonshire. David Capel, head coach, recalls his first meeting with the young Panesar. “He was a bright, effervescent, likeable young man. I could tell he was going to be something special. I asked him his ambition and he replied it was to play for England and to be the best spin bowler in the world. I meet a lot of people who say that kind of thing but I could tell he really meant it.” Is he the best spin bowler in the world? “If he isn’t, he’s pretty close to it,” says Capel.

After his first trial, Northamptonshire gave him a contract. However, Panesar also followed his parents’ advice and, in case cricket didn’t work out, decided to combine cricket with studying computing and management at Loughborough, Britain’s sportiest university. He spent four happy years there playing cricket and earning a decent 2:1 degree. And his wildest memory of this time? When the cricket team were treated to a day’s golf.

In the season he graduated from Loughborough, Panesar broke into the first team at Northamptonshire and, having helped the side win promotion, the call came to play for England against India. Though both his parents were born there, he insists that facing India is for him no different to playing any other team. He had played there before in an under-19s tour in 2000 when he was followed round by crowds fascinated by the idea of a Sikh playing for England.

Panesar plays down any idea that he might be a unique, uniting role model for Sikhs at home and abroad but nevertheless he glows with happiness at the memory of his experiences in the country. Even recalling the moment in Mumbai when he dropped an easy catch off Indian batsman Mahendra Dhoni doesn’t make him despondent: “It landed two metres in front of me. In front of millions of people. I felt very odd – everything went still… ” Luckily, he held on to a similar catch just three balls later. His team-mates congratulated him so exuberantly that he had to leave the pitch to readjust his patka.

Excited as they were, however, the other players never get as excited as him. “I don’t know why. Maybe I’m overexcited…but to watch cricket on TV as a youngster and to think, ‘Am I going to play for England?’ And get closer and closer, and then it happens… ” At this point he is smiling too much to finish his sentence.

Panesar’s humility is balanced by a lack of false modesty when talking about what he feels he has achieved. Asked whether he felt he deserved his recent accolade as one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year for 2007, he doesn’t shake his head in demure denial. Instead he replies that whatever criteria it was judged by, he must have fulfilled them (see panel below).

He doesn’t mention his haul of eight wickets for 93 runs that helped take England to victory over Pakistan at Old Trafford in July 2006; nor his first 10-wicket Test haul, against the West Indians at the same ground in June this year. Indeed, his favourite wicket ever wasn’t a crowd-pleasing match winner but the one that he feels was technically best, bowling Denesh Ramdin in this summer’s third Test against the West Indies at Durham with “the perfect delivery you dream of as a left arm spinner.” Modesty prevents him from mentioning his five for 46 in the same match.

Before we finish, I make one final clumsy attempt to get some non-cricket stories from childhood. What else does he remember about school? After an almost embarrassingly long silence, he replies: “Teachers.” He is never less than polite but it’s clear that, for now, cricket – and only cricket – is all that really animates him.

“To be as good as Monty, you have to verge on obsession,” explains David Capel. “[Brian] Lara and Tendulkar are the same I’m sure. It’s not just a daily thing, it’s an hourly thing. But I do think he has a life outside cricket. He has a good set of friends away from the game, and a girlfriend from the Essex area… But I’ve never met her. He’s very private that way.”

As we leave the interview room, a small boy appears. Can he please ask Monty about spin bowling? Now this is Panesar’s idea of a good question. I leave them deep in conversation, animatedly discussing the only subject in the world that really matters.

 

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd