From figure of fun to Montymania

First he was a clown, now he's a superstar: the reaction to Monty Panesar is another example of our manic-depressive relationship with England teams.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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The English sporting public is a peculiar breed. We veer from wide-eyed over-optimism to valium-munching self-loathing – the only constant being our chronic inability to keep things in perspective. Rooney breaks his toe and we’re shuffling around with a sandwich board proclaiming ‘The End of the World is Nigh’. Rooney is declared fit and we’re crowning ourselves world champions.

Now, after the obligatory penalty shoot-out failure in Germany, our propensity for over-reaction has attached itself to England spin-bowler Monty Panesar. After 14 wickets in consecutive test matches the nation has been gripped by Montymania. Or, to be more precise, that sub-section of the nation that follows cricket has been gripped. England’s test series win over Pakistan hasn’t quite captured the public imagination in the way that the victorious 2005 Ashes series did. This time last year cricket was being celebrated as the new football but an indifferent winter tour combined with injuries to key players, including the talismanic Freddie Flintoff, has considerably dampened Ashes fever.

But, just as we were re-acquainting ourselves with the traditional English batting collapse, along comes Monty. His thirty-one wickets in 9 test matches represent a promising start to an international career. But, let’s be honest, it is only a start. The way Monty has been lionised by some over-excited commentators, you’d have thought we’d unearthed the Sikh Shane Warne.

The great Warney himself is a convert to the Monty cult. ‘If I was an England supporter – which I’m not – I would be getting very excited about Monty Panesar,’ wrote Warne in The Times (London). ‘He has a real chance of being successful in international cricket, and by that I mean consistently over a long period, not just in the odd game here and there’ (1). Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer compared Monty to another great Sikh cricketer, Indian spinner Bishen Bedi. ‘I thought his control of flight, pace and spin was excellent and the highest praise I can bestow is that it was some of the best slow left-arm bowling I have seen since the days of Bishen Bedi,’ said Woolmer (2). Even England coach Duncan Fletcher, who is seen as a Montysceptic, has started using superlatives. ‘As a finger spinner there is probably no-one to match him in world cricket at the moment – his control is very, very good, ’gushed Fletcher after Panesar’s wickets at Headingley helped England to clinch the series.

But it’s not just the cricket experts who have succumbed to Monty Mania. The 24-year old from Luton has become a cult hero amongst English cricket fans. Alongside the assorted nuns, superheroes and Elvises, the Monty turban and beard has become this year’s fancy dress costume du jour on the cricket terraces. Panesar is already being tipped as a leading contender for BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Panesar’s cult status initially owed more to his comically inept batting and fielding than to his cricketing ability – in much the same way that Peter Crouch’s public standing was transformed by a stupid dance. The Aussies adore winners but the English simply can’t resist a big-hearted clown. But his bowling performances against Pakistan have changed public perceptions of Monty. No longer the new Phil Tufnell, another amiable jester who enjoyed cult status, Monty is now seen as a lethal weapon in England’s bowling armoury. ‘At this rate there will be riots if Panesar is kept off the plane to Australia for the Ashes this winter,’ declared a Guardian leader.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not auditioning for the next series of Grumpy Old Men, but you won’t see me wearing a novelty turban in homage to Monty. Of course I think Panesar should be on that plane to Australia but I’m not convinced that he is a shoo-in for the starting eleven if Ashley Giles is fit again. The ‘King of Spain’ bowls flatter, more defensively and can’t turn the ball like Monty but crucially he can bat a bit – his test average is 20.72 compared to Monty’s 12.75. In the modern game specialist spin bowlers who are useless with the bat are a luxury that the top test teams can ill-afford.

The eight-wicket haul against Pakistan at Old Trafford ignited the current outbreak of Monty-related hype but let’s not forget that it was a turning wicket. Headingley, admittedly, is not traditionally spin-friendly, so Panesar’s six-wickets there were probably more impressive. But, a couple of decent test matches does not a great spin bowler make. The two truly great spinners of our generation Shane Warne (685 test wickets, average 25.25) and Muttiah Muralitharan (657 wickets, average 21.96) have taken wickets consistently year after year in every country and on all types of pitches. Both men have pioneered new types of delivery – Warne’s slider and Murali’s doosra. Shane Warne was the reason last year’s Ashes series was such a nailbitingly close contest – his mesmerising bowling was quite simply a joy to watch.

Monty’s spin bowling might appear revelatory when contrasted with the pragmatism of Ashley Giles, the man once derided as a ‘wheely-bin’. But he has a long way to go before we can start comparing him to the top class spinners like Warne and Murali. Let’s see how he performs on flat, lifeless pitches. Let’s see how he copes against the Aussies who will certainly develop a game plan for dealing with him. And let’s see how he responds to being hit all round the park. Only time will tell whether he is Shane Warne in a turban or yet another false messiah.

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Monty can prove a wizard in Oz, The Times (London), 4 August 2006

(2) Spin when you’re winning – Panesar star turn was up there with Bedi, The Times (London), 3 August 2006

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