Thursday, 18 December 2008

A Different View on Monty

Monty Panesar has been the subject of countless articles in the last few days. No sentient being who has ever watched an England cricket match could possibly fail to have heard the conclusions that Monty has no variations, his bowling isn't improving (if Shane Warne had royalty rights over his "same Test 34 times" remark, he'd have made another million by now) and that he doesn't take enough interest in his field placings.

Apart from being staggeringly lazy, boring and repetitive journalism, and without in any way trying to suggest that Monty had a good match or has even had that good a year, I'm not sure about these points. And I'm certainly not sure that they should be repeated as gospel truths.

I think Monty's trouble is that he has no idea whether the powers that be want him to be a strike bowler or a stock bowler. Should he be brought on to take wickets, with the risk of a few balls disappearing? Or is he coming on to tie up an end whilst the fast bowlers rotate in strike mode from the other? In my view, he started off as a strike bowler. He was too raw for anyone to expect him to tie down big name batsmen, but they recognised that he spun the ball miles for a finger-spinner. So they threw the ball to him, and told him to see what he could produce - and he produced some sensational spells of bowling that brought him some of the biggest scalps and best players of spin in the game. But then things happened to change his approach.

He was dropped in Australia for Ashley Giles, the very definition of an uninspiring, unthreatening bowler. Monty had spent nearly a year bowling in a way that caused sober analysts of the game (to say nothing of the more exciteable ones) to label him the best finger-spinner in the world. Then he was dropped for England's most important series for a long time for a guy who made a career out of holding up an end, and in some ways he has made himself into a bowler of that type.

One of my abiding memories from watching the car crash of a defeat in Adelaide was the ease with which Giles was milked for four an over on the same pitch that Shane Warne had made look like a minefield. In the same way, Monty was milked by Tendulkar and co on a pitch that actually looked like a minefield. Granted, neither were helped by their inexperienced captains, who set in-out fields rather than forcing the batsmen to take risks by hitting over the top, but the comparison remains relevant. That Test was the last Giles played and if England drop Monty tomorrow, with Swann in situ and Rashid coming through, it may be the last he plays for some time as well.

He has also had to play totally different roles in the team depending on whether he was part of a four-man or five-man attack. Specifically, in a four man attack, he was used to tie up an end so that the pace bowlers could rotate through the innings. In a five man attack, he could be thrown the ball and told to toss it up and see if he could make things happen. In the last year, he has been mostly in the hands of Michael Vaughan, a brilliant, brilliant captain, and one of my personal favourite cricketers - but he was in Vaughan's hands at the worst time, when his captaincy was on the wane. Vaughan used Panesar like Giles, and, again, Monty has responded by trying to make himself into what he perceived was wanted. This says a lot about him as a team man, but I would have preferred him to say "sod you, if you want a bowler like that then get Robert Croft out of retirement - I can actually turn the ball".

I'm not going to make a separate point out of it, because it's well trodden ground, but the same pattern is obvious when you think about Monty and ODIs. In a typical English way, with typical suspicion of unorthodox talent (parallels with Wayne Rooney, anyone?), we have turned an enthusiastic young finger spinner who can turn the ball like a leggie into a typical, dour containing bowler who looks at his economy rate rather than his wickets column to find out how well he has bowled. There aren't many bowlers who can bowl any team in the world out on a good day, and we should celebrate the fact that Monty is one of them rather than complain that he doesn't keep the runs down in the meantime. Hopefully, KP and his attacking instincts will take this approach and take Monty in a different direction.

At the same time as all of this, Monty was forced to focus on his fielding and batting instead of his bowling - again whilst suffering constantly in comparison with Ashley Giles. Hasn't anyone worked out yet that he will always be a terrible fielder and batsman, regardless of how much work he does (and his work ethic is not in question)? Thinking about his bowling, as we should, he didn't come into the team as a hard bitten county pro who had toiled for summer after summer and had learned all that he was going to learn. What he needed was a mentor, one who believed in his talent and who could nurture that talent into full bloom, his Terry Jenner. He still doesn't have that - in fact, England don't even have a spin bowling coach. Why the hell not? How can the cast of thousands that follows the team around not include a spin bowling coach? Is it therefore any wonder that Monty doesn't understand the metagame that should accompany his bowling, and hasn't developed dangerous variations? Where are the stories of him spending hour after hour with pool balls or oranges, seeing what new things he can do with them, or sitting at the feet of the greats of the game, lapping up their insights? Is he supposed to learn his trade by osmosis? If you'll excuse the flood of rhetorical questions, he has been horribly mismanaged by England.

If you want an example of this dysfunctionality, Mushtaq Ahmed was due to be appointed as spin bowling coach - why? Mushy was a great bowler and is an admirable man in many, many ways, but Monty is currently our premier spinner, and he is a finger why are we appointing a leggie as his coach? Perhaps David Gower should teach Bell to bat left-handed, and Marcus Trescothick should work on Matt Prior's wicketkeeping. England have a terrible record with young spinners recently - Richard Dawson all but gave up spin bowling after being handled abysmally during a tour of Australia, and Chris Schofield almost gave up cricket after his experiences. Ever since the Gatting ball, we have been searching for so desperately for our own Shane Warne that it has destroyed a number of careers - so god help Adil Rashid.

As one final thought, there is one other spinner in the world who is quiet and a bit eccentric off the field, who seems born to bowl and has help from a quirk in his physique, has had no renowned mentor but has created devastating variations, has always been a rabbit with the bat and a dreamer in the field and who keeps runs down whilst taking hatfuls of wickets. But if we're now criticising Monty for not being Murali, then the world really has gone mad.


Nick Gammons said...

An excellent post, full of sensible insight. I have long been an admirer of Panesar, calling for him to be picked a couple of series before he finally was.

I honestly believe England don't know what a talent they have in him and they are in serious danger of wasting it and discarding a proven match winner. When he succeeds he is damned by faint praise - the pitch helped spin, the opposition were weak, etc. When he fails it is because he has too few variations or is naive, etc.

As you rightly point out the truth is that he is unsure of his role and he is not allowed to show his attacking talent. Pietersen and the England management need to put faith in his ability to take wickets and say to him you're job is to destroy the opposition, not contain them. If he is shown that kind of faith and fails then so be it, but at least he will have been given the chance to show what he can do.

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