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The making of Monty

By Sam Lyon

England have been crying out for a spinner of genuine class for so long, it might on the face of it appear churlish to pick holes in Monty Panesar's game so early into his career.

The 26-year-old has a fine action, gets good spin, works as hard as any member of the squad on their game and is already a cult hero among supporters after just two years as an international cricketer.

Monty Panesar
His action is very, very good but he needs to get that little bit of craft into his bowling. That canniness is absolutely fundamental on the subcontinent

Tufnell on Panesar
With the first Test of England's tour in India merely a night's sleep away, he is currently ranked the third best spinner in cricket today (behind Muttiah Muralitharan and Harbhajan Singh) with 114 wickets from 33 matches at an average of 31.95 and a strike rate of 67.5.

Put simply, Panesar is good - very good.

However, the accusation from some is that the Northants star just has not progressed as he should have.

Shane Warne, arguably the finest exponent of spin in the history of the game, summed up Panesar's critics when he said recently: "Monty is good but he urgently needs to add some variation. He hasn't so much played 33 Test matches as the same Test 33 times."

Damning words, and ones echoed by former TMS commentator Mike Selvey, who once surmised: "He began as a very good bowler but he remains just that, stuck on the same level at which he started."

And so, with many hoping Panesar plays a key role for England in the spin-friendly conditions of Chennai and Mohali this series, how can he go about realising his undoubted potential?

Former England left-arm spinner, Phil Tufnell, told BBC Sport: "First and foremost you have to say that Panesar has come into world cricket and done very, very well. What do his statistics show? That he's bowled very well and been an integral part of winning Test matches.

"But the Indians are the masters of spin. Panesar will learn very quickly that you can't just bowl one way all the time - if you do, the Sachin Tendulkars and Virender Sehwags of this world will batter you.

"His action is very, very good but he needs to get that little bit of craft into his bowling, a bit of guile and a change of pace here and there. That canniness is absolutely fundamental on the subcontinent."

It this "canniness" that Panesar's critics claim is missing from the 26-year-old's game.

The Northants spinner's stats in India and Sri Lanka suggest they are right - his average leaps to 55.15 and his strike rate to 116.7, compared to 27.68 and 61.3 at home.

"Bounce is key to Panesar's game in England," added Tufnell, "but he won't get much of that in India. Instead, he will have to outthink the batsmen a bit.

"The ball will turn over there, it will go off straight, so getting it 'in the right areas' - as we all know Panesar can - will help him. But he must fiddle it about a bit otherwise these boys will line you up.

"As soon as that happens, you can lose control of matches within the space of an hour. If Sehwag or Tendulkar is climbing into you, the innings can slip away like sand through your hands."

A crucial series, then, but one which has been preceded by a series of upsets to Panesar's preparations - even before the atrocity of the Mumbai attacks and subsequent to-ing and fro-ing over whether the tour would go ahead.

Plans for Panesar to go and play warm-up games in Sri Lanka for a month fell through, his desire to work with renowned spinner Mushtaq Ahmed ahead of the India tour were blocked by the former Sussex man's failure to get a work permit, and his continued omission from the England one-day side all mean he is almost certain to go into the Chennai Test 'cold'.

You know how to bowl, so go out there and do it. You have to enjoy yourself or you won't have a chance of doing anything.

Phil Edmonds
However, another former England left-arm spinner, Phil Edmonds - speaking to BBC Sport before the Mumbai attacks - said Panesar's reaction in such adversity could be key.

"The absolute key is to forget all the other stuff," he said.

"You know how to bowl, so go out there and do it. You have to enjoy yourself or you won't have a chance of doing anything.

"The first time I saw Panesar bowl, I thought 'woah, this guy is good'. Success as a spinner is having absolute control over where that ball is going every single delivery and, to my mind, he has that.

"He has been accused of being a bit of an automaton but that isn't necessarily the worst thing. The same was said about Derek Underwood but I know for a fact that of all the bowlers they ever faced, Greg and Ian Chappell hated playing him the most because they knew he wouldn't give them a thing.

"Batsmen are perhaps a little more innovative now, granted, but with the odd variation, if Panesar can extrapolate that extra bit of guile, he can be a match-winner, most definitely."

Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag
Tendulkar and Sehwag will provide a stern test of Panesar's skills
So could the upcoming two Tests prove key in Panesar realising his undoubted potential?

Chatting with the man himself a fortnight ago, one might have hoped for an outspoken response to his critics, a reply full of intent, of conviction, and determination to prove his worth against the form team in world cricket.

Instead, in a 10-minute conversation, Panesar used the word "learn" or phrase "learning experience" 27 times to describe his feelings ahead of the tour.

What he might have learned already, says Tufnell, is that India will punish him if he is not on top of his game.

"The one-day series (which England lost 5-0) showed an India side at the very top of their game and Panesar will have seen what happens if you let them get on top of you," he said.

"Every match and every series you play for England is big, simple as that, but after the one-day mauling the pressure will be on Panesar - as our number one Test spinner - to go out and do some damage."

Panesar enters the series as England's primary spinner, although he should benefit from bowling in tandem with debutant off-spinner Graeme Swann.

"He will be bowling a lot so he has to be physically and mentally prepared for long, long spells, and thrive on the pressure of being able to change matches," says Tufnell.

I agree that he perhaps still has to learn and become a bit more flexible in his bowling

Phil Tufnell
"He must be patient and not panic or wilt if the batsmen start getting on top. He must concentrate on every ball, mix up his deliveries and not bowl the same ball in the same place every time - that's a must over there.

"People think he's been around a fair bit but he hasn't really. He made his Test debut barely two years ago and I agree that he perhaps still has to learn and become a bit more flexible in his bowling.

"If he does that, though, he has it all to become a major, major force in all forms of the game."

Given the circumstances surrounding the tour, it might be too much to expect Panesar to lead England to victory in these two Tests.

But should he put into action the advice of Tufnell and Edmonds, the spinner could go some way to silencing his critics and, with the Ashes series against Australia just seven months away, that would be no bad consolation at all.

Warne and co, no doubt, will be watching.

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see also
England opt for Swann and Prior
10 Dec 08 |  England
Jonathan Agnew column
10 Dec 08 |  England
Jonathan Agnew column
07 Dec 08 |  England
England to tour with full squad
07 Dec 08 |  England
England set to resume India tour
03 Dec 08 |  England
England in India 2008
01 Dec 08 |  Cricket
Coach Mushtaq denied work permit
15 Nov 08 |  England

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