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Monty is England's newest poster boy

Panesar is a frontrunner to bag the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. Is Monty the best English spinner of all-time?

india Updated: Aug 06, 2006 12:14 IST

Monty Panesar, the first Sikh to play for England, has become an icon and poster boy of cricket here after he captured eight wickets last week in England's Test match victory over Pakistan at Old Trafford.

According to media reports, Luton town in Bedfordshire, which became associated with Islamic extremism as one of the July 7 London bombers worshipped there, has now embraced 'Monty Mania'.

As popular for his eccentricity as his guile with the ball, Monty is a frontrunner to bag the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award and could even rival boxer Amir Khan as the most popular British Asian sportsman.

"They've all gone mad for Monty," screamed The Luton News on its front-page to coincide with the start of the third Test at Headingley.

As a teenager, Monty had a poster of Sachin Tendulkar on his bedroom wall. So in January, when he was picked for the England squad, he was thrilled that he would be playing India.

On March 3 in Nagpur, he faced his hero and dismissed him.

"When it happened, I just felt like I was flying," he wrote recently. "I didn't know what to do with myself. I just thought, 'this cannot be happening to me'. I was literally jumping with joy.

"I didn't know how to respond - I wanted to dance, I had so much energy; I wanted to run around to all my team-mates. I had no idea how to react, so I just ran and jumped and went crazy. I do it all the time now when I take a wicket."

There is a postscript to his meeting with his hero. After the match in Nagpur when he had calmed down, Panesar plucked up the courage to enter the Indian team's dressing room carrying the ball. Tendulkar signed it for him.

Of his 25 Test wickets to date, 20 have been big-time batsmen -- players who had scored Test centuries. In the current series against Pakistan, he has three times outfoxed their batting lynchpin Mohammed Yousuf, whose average tops 50.

The oldest of three children, whose parents emigrated from Punjab, Madhusuden "Monty" Panesar Singh, 24, still lives with his family near the Luton and Dunstable Hospital and commutes to play for England and his county, Northamptonshire.

Since he made his England debut this winter in India, interest in cricket has rocketed among Luton's youth.

Monty's talents were honed at the town's Luton Town and Indians Club, where a waiting list has now started for junior memberships.

Among the new junior members are large numbers of youths from the 500-strong Sikh community.

According to a report in The Independent, Monty's rise to prominence has been welcomed by community leaders in the area, who consider him a role model for racial integration.

"A lot of people look up to him, not just from our religion, but other religions," said Ranjit Singh Dubb, 52, a committee member of the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, one of Luton's two Sikh temples.

"Local kids go round to his house and knock on the door for autographs. These are Muslim kids as well as Sikhs."

At Monty's local club, deputy groundsman Hitu Naik, Monty's long-time mentor, said "Monty is a hero here. There's no denying it."

Monty's father Parmjit, wearing a white turban, said "Monty offers me tickets and tells me to come to watch matches. It's a very proud moment when your son represents England. But, when I do go to watch him, I get very nervous and he never seems to get any wickets."

According to a report in The Times, while England's cricket fans hail a new hero, by turns adulated for his spin bowling and mocked for his field, Britain's half a million Sikhs are celebrating a breakthrough.

"The Sikh religion emphasises equality and respect. We have no difficulty integrating into any community," Indarjit Singh, the director of the Network of Sikh Organisations and the editor of the Sikh Messenger, said.

In a few weeks, Panesar has evolved from a promising player into a national phenomenon. On the eve of the second Test against Pakistan at Old Trafford last month, there was still doubt over his selection.

Yet he emerged before an ever more enraptured crowd to take eight wickets, each sparking an ecstatic, leaping celebration.