Northants 2nd XI v Leicestershire 2nd XI, Wantage Road, 18-20 April 2016
“As Monty Panesar looked around the almost deserted stands at a chilly Wantage Road on the first day of the 2nd XI game between Northants and Leicestershire on Monday it must have seemed a long way from the searing heat and deafening noise of Nagpur, where he made his Test debut, and a long time since he began what looked set to be a glittering career by taking the wicket of the great Sachin Tendulkar.”
Or so many a journalist would begin a report on this game. Or how about this?
“As Monty Panesar stepped on to the familiar turf at Wantage Road on Monday his mind must have turned back to when he had first turned out there out as a shy and awkward teenager so many eventful years ago.”
“As he looked out from the balcony of the pavilion at a windswept County Ground on Monday, Panesar’s mind must have strayed back to that fateful evening when he had ended his career at Sussex by weeing over another balcony on to the bouncers who had just thrown him out of a nightclub.”?
I doubt whether Panesar would have volunteered that this was how he was feeling, but, if asked, no doubt he would have smiled and said “Yes” (to the first two anyway).
I don’t pretend to know what he was thinking, though that isn’t going to stop me speculating; there are few players who attract more speculation about their mental processes than “Monty” Panesar. This might be because, when grazing in the outfield, he appears sunk so very deep in thought, without giving much indication off-field of what those thoughts might be, or much sign on the field that he has put much thought into what he is doing.
For every theory about him there is an equal and opposite school of thought. On the one hand – it is said – his failure to progress at Test level was down to a lack of variation in his bowling. Another school holds that it is because he sacrificed his natural virtues in a vain search for variation. He listens to too much conflicting advice say some, others that he takes no notice of anything anyone says to him. He blindly follows instructions (say some), he won’t do a thing he’s told to (say others).
Then there are the contradictions between his on-field persona (or the way it is perceived, particularly by “England fans”), his real personality and the way he perceives himself. There are some players (a Boycott, perhaps, or a Botham) for whom the first two, at any rate, are one and the same. There are some (Stuart Broad, for instance) who are canny enough to tolerate, if not cultivate, an unflattering on-field persona at odds with their real personality.
Then there are those who struggle with the contradictions. Fred Trueman seemed, at times, to revel in (and certainly wasn’t above cashing in on) the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, womanising, borderline-racist cartoon character who appeared in the newspapers, while railing bitterly against it in his various autobiographies. It is one thing, though, to have reservations about being depicted as an ale-swigging, toff-bashing rake-hell, but more difficult to come to terms with being seen as some kind of clown, which is pretty much how Panesar was perceived by some “England fans”.
There is a long tradition of English spinners, from Peel, Parkin and Wardle, down to Tufnell and Swann, being granted a certain licence to act the goat and make the crowds laugh (though, as most of them discovered at some point, a not irrevocable licence).
Panesar certainly did that, but, unlike them, I doubt it was intentional. I imagine he found it bemusing to find his every fumble and trip greeted with howls of affectionate amusement from a crowd of drunks, many of them dressed as Elvis Presley, and disturbing to his mental equilibrium to look out into a sea of masks of his own face, reflected as some grotesque cross between Noddy, Big-ears and one of the Goblins. particularly as his own self-image (if not his real personality) appears to be a synthesis of Ranjit Singh and Chris Gayle, half warrior-hero, half playa.
The last time I had seen Panesar at Wantage Road the club shop was fully stocked with Monty merchandise – “I Love Monty” and “Sikh of Tweak” t-shirts, the ill-advised “Monty’s Cricket Madness” DVDs (a compilation of cock-ups, whose cover made him look as though he had just been pulled up for driving a minicab uninsured), those masks. The Northamptonshire crowd were still behind him (in so far as they are ever unanimously behind anyone) but the pitches were turning against him (by not turning for him) and so, by all accounts, were his team-mates. The dressing room was heavily Afrikaans-accented in 2009, and they had a spinner of their own in Nicky Boje who may not have generated much in the way of t-shirt sales, but could bat and field and could never have been described as a “space cadet”, whatever that is in Afrikaans.
So, to return to idle speculation about what he must have been feeling as he turned up for this fixture, I should imagine that he was relieved not to hear the melodious tones of the High Veldt, slightly abashed to find himself back where he had been fifteen years before, surrounded by team-mates mostly a decade younger and, perhaps, pleased to see that his Captain for the day was to be Graeme White.
White is a rather suave Old Stove (his orders in the field were delivered in the tones of John le Mesurier) from Milton Keynes, who was displaced from Northants at about the same time as Panesar, spent five years at Trent Bridge, before returning to Northants on loan in 2013. He generally dispenses flat and accurate, not excessively spinning left arm spin and has, resultantly, become something of a T20 specialist, while playing a lot of 2nd XI cricket.
At the time they were ejected from the Eden that is Wantage Road, Panesar alluded to the sadness of two locally produced spinners leaving at the same time and to a stillborn future where they might have formed a productive partnership on a hard and dusty track. The romantic in me hopes that might still come to pass – given the supermodel slimness of Northants’ pace-bowling – but the realist suspects it will not.
Understandably Panesar looked “short of full fitness”. He has bulked out rather than up since his heyday and now has something of a builder’s physique (to complete the picture you’d only need a rolled-up copy of the Sun in his back pocket and a fag on). His approach to the wicket has lost some of its Tiggerish bounce, but he bowled with pace and accuracy and was unlucky to take only a single wicket.
(Fans of the old, comic, Panesar will be pleased to hear that he was bowled first ball having a myopic heave at a straight ball from Atif Sheik.)
I have no doubt that he could, as they say, “do a job” for Northamptonshire, in tandem with White or alone, for several seasons to come, if that is what he wants to do. The problem with this happy fantasy is the suspicion that he is returning mainly in the hope of playing for England again, and that if that does not happen (as I doubt it will) then the meagre salary that Northants are in a position to offer him (he is currently playing as an amateur) will not be enough to satisfy someone who is, after all, well-qualified outside the game and who should have accumulated enough reserves of goodwill and contacts to see him through to a more lucrative career in business.
When he strayed near the boundary (deep in thought as always),
one of the spectators made an attempt to establish contact (“Earth to Planet Monty“).
Q. “All right, Mont?”
A. [No response.]
Q. “Looking good, Mont!”
A. [Vague, appreciative wave.]
A. [Turning and smiling] … “Yes!”.
Well, let’s hope so (at Wantage Rd. or elsewhere).