Monty Panesar has had an amazing impact as both a player and a personality in his relatively short Test career. With his excellent bowling, his exuberant wicket celebrations and sometimes comical fielding it is little wonder that cricket fans, particularly those who support England, have taken him to their hearts. But how good is Panesar as a Test cricketer?
In my view Panesar is a wonderfully gifted bowler, who has already shown himself to be a match-winner, and who can become great if he continues to learn and improve his game. It is fair to say that his batting and fielding are distinctly average, though he has progressed in these disciplines after being laughably poor at the start of his Test career. How much he can improve in them is a matter of conjecture, though with his spirit and willingness to work there is no reason why he can't make himself a decent fielder and show good resistance in his batting. But it is as a bowler that Panesar shows his cricketing class.
Starting his Test career in India, arguably the hardest of all places for a spinner, Panesar showed good heart and no little skill. He claimed some notable wickets, including that of the legendary Tendulkar. Under the heat and pressure of his first series Panesar fell away towards the end, but showed enough to know that England had a rare talent on their hands.
Panesar followed this up with two excellent series' at home against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, taking 10 and 17 wickets, respectively. This was significant because it showed that Panesar could be a match-winner, that he could bowl well against top players of spin and that he could handle the pressure of his home crowd's expectations.
On a high after these 7 successful Tests at home Panesar had every right to believe he would have a crack at the Australians, as England looked to defend the Ashes in the lion's den. Instead, in one of the most foolish of many foolish moves by the England management on that tour, Panesar was dropped in favour of Ashley Giles. By the time Panesar was recalled England were 2-0 down in the series, having just capitulated at Adelaide, a pitch that Pansesar would have loved to bowl on.
Thrown into the action on a bouncy Perth wicket Panesar bowled brilliantly, claiming 5 for 92 in the first innings. Sadly, this wonderful effort was wasted as England failed to get the big first innings lead they so desperately needed and the match was lost as the Australians obliterated England's bowling in their second innings. Panesar still managed to get 3 wickets in the second innings, despite being targetted by the Australian batsmen. The series was lost and Panesar's efforts, like England's, tailed off in a series that ended in a 5-0 humiliation.
Far from suffering any signs of shell-shock after such a heavy defeat, Panesar bounced back in the next series at home against the West Indies. He took 23 wickets @18.69 in just 4 matches, claiming the player of the series award. It is true to say that the West Indies were a weak Test team, but their batting line-up still included Gayle, Sarwan, Chanderpaul and Bravo, all good Test batsmen. It is also worth remembering that Panesar had only played 13 Tests at the time and would be rightly considered to be still learning his trade. To so dominate an international side was a great achievement for a young bowler. It also showed that Panesar could bowl consistently well through out a series.
After his most successful series Panesar faced the most difficult time of his Test career, when there would be unbelievable calls for him to be dropped. It was at home against a resurgent India that things started to go wrong. In fairness, though, Panesar's problems in that series, which England lost 1-0, were mirrored by most of the other England bowlers. He still managed to claim 8 wickets and only really failed at the Oval, which was a bore draw on a ridiculous batting paradise, where even Kumble was able to score a chanceless century.
The next series was a forbidding trip to Sri Lanka, against a team who thrived on home soil and who had the best bowler in the world in their ranks, the incomparable Muttiah Muralitharan. To compare Panesar to such an all-time great as Murali is unfair in the extreme, but that is what happened in the hype leading up to the start of the series. Clearly the Sri Lankan batsmen had targetted Panesar as England's danger man and they attacked him from the start. Early on, though, Panesar bowled well and took wickets, but as the series wore on he struggled more and more.
Unable to take enough wickets against such wonderful players of spin, Panesar started to fiddle with his game and lost some of his confidence. The Sri Lankans dominated England and Panesar could not make the breakthroughs he would have expected to. His economy rate was still good, but the Sri Lankans batted patiently against him, accumulating winning totals. It was a lesson for Panesar on what was only his third tour, all of which had been to places where England traditionally struggled. He certainly did not disgrace himself, though like in India before his performances tailed away, suggesting that he still needed to work on his stamina to keep bowling long spells in the heat and humidity.
Finally, against a relatively weak New Zealand, Panesar regained his verve and form, taking 11 wickets in generally seam friendly conditions on England's tour. He has followed that up with 9 wickets in two matches in the current home Test series against the Kiwis, including a man of the match winning, Test best 6 for 37 at Old Trafford just two days ago.
Those who were writing Panesar off should note that he has taken 101 Test wickets in just 28 Tests, including the tough tours of India, Australia and Sri Lanka. It is also revealing to compare Panesar's record after 28 Tests to that of Warne and Muralitharan at the same stage in their careers. Warne had by then established himself as a match winner for the dominating Australians, but had still only taken 125 wickets @24.35, much better than Panesar, but still not out of sight. Interestingly, Warne had only had 6 five wicket hauls to Panesar's 8, with both of them having had one 10 wicket haul. Murali, however, had only taken 107 wickets @30.64, with 7 five wicket hauls, a very similar record to Panesar after 28 matches.
Now, I am not going to say that Panesar will go on to be anywhere near as great as these two legends. For a start he is a finger spinner and does not have the mystique that surrounds Murali and Warne, nor the variety of wicket-taking deliveries. What I will say is that Panesar should improve and continue to take a lot of wickets for England. That he is a proven match-winner already and that it would be foolish in the extreme to consider dropping him unless his form dips alarmingly for an extended period of time, not just a handful of matches.