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Panesar becomes genuine folk hero

india Updated: Aug 15, 2006 12:12 IST
Reuters

Even in a society in thrall to the cult of the celebrity, the emergence of Monty Panesar from obscurity to the heady heights of joint favourite for the BBC sports personality of the year is astounding.

The first Sikh to play for England won a place in the national cricket side through a career-threatening injury to left-arm spinner Ashley Giles. Over consecutive series against the Indian sub-continent sides, all renowned players of spin bowling, he has made the place his own.

Some perspective, though, on the 7/2 odds quoted by English bookmakers William Hill for Panesar to succeed Andy Flintoff as sports personality of the year can be gathered from the other favourite. He is comedian David Walliams, who featured on the sports pages briefly when he swam the Channel between England and France.

Panesar's quality as a pure left-arm orthodox spinner was evident immediately in India this year, where his first test victim was the great Sachin Tendulkar. A satisfactory series against Sri Lanka followed with his first five-wicket haul, albeit in a losing match.

Against Pakistan, Panesar turned into a match-winner, helping Steve Harmison to wrap up the second test within three days. In the third he produced what he believes to his finest delivery yet when he beat and bowled Younis Khan during another winning performance. Whether Giles is fit or not, Panesar will be on the plane to Australia this year for the Ashes rematch.

Panesar was first selected for England despite the misgivings of coach Duncan Fletcher, who feared his skill with the ball was overshadowed by his sometimes comical fielding. He was placed automatically at number 11 in the batting lineup.

The cheers which greeted Panesar each time he fielded, or missed, the ball during the first test against Sri Lanka at Lord's had a disturbingly sarcastic edge. Even those who admired his skill with the ball feared for his prospects in the harsh Australian environment where some of the barracking in recent years has had an undeniable racist tinge.

BATTING CAMEO

An entertaining cameo in the third test against Sri Lanka, when he swept Muttiah Muralitharan for six, showed Panesar had some ability with the bat. While he will never challenge Paul Collingwood's status as the best fielder in the England side, he took a fine catch running in during the third test against Pakistan. By then the mockery had ceased; Panesar was now a genuine folk hero.

In his weekly newspaper column last Sunday, England captain Andrew Strauss said he had been immediately impressed by Panesar's work ethic and desire to succeed during a fitness session before the tour of India.

"Since that first training camp, it seems the whole world has gone Monty crazy and why not?" Strauss wrote. "His bowling, both on the tour of India and this summer, has been right out of the top drawer.

"It has become abundantly clear that he is completely and utterly in love with the game."

Helping Panesar to win the third test against Pakistan was another 24-year-old bowler of Asian extraction, Sajid Mahmood, a cousin of Olympic silver medallist lightweight boxer Amir Khan.

Mahmood announced his presence in the test arena by taking three wickets in nine balls against Sri Lanka at Lord's. He found test cricket a lot harder thereafter, but after concentrated work to improve his delivery position he took four for 22 in Pakistan's second innings, bowling with searing pace from a relaxed, high delivery.

The tensions among disaffected young British Muslims were evident when Mahmood, whose parents arrived in England from Pakistan in the 1960s, was taunted with chants of "traitor" during his match-winning spell. Mahmood responded by cupping his ear, inviting the taunters to shout louder.

YORKSHIRE LEGGIE

Tellingly, there has been no repetition of the pitch invasions which disfigured the one-day series between the two teams five years ago and relations between the sides, often fraught in the past, appear convivial.

Asians have represented England before, notably three Indian princes headed by Kumar Ranjitsinhji who each scored centuries against Australia. More recently Nasser Hussain, born in Madras and brought up in Essex, was a driven and uncompromising England captain who helped to start the current England revival.

Now the Asian passion for cricket is at last being reflected in the county championship.

A notable example is Yorkshire, which has not enjoyed a reputation for encouraging cricketers from ethnic minorities. The county has also been historically mistrustful of wrist spinners, preferring to stick to strictly orthodox finger spinners.

It was a sign of the times, therefore, when 18-year-old leg spinner Adil Rashid was given his Yorkshire debut against Warwickshire this year. Rashid responded with six for 67 and was immediately called up for the national under-19 side.

If he continues to develop at the same rate he may well join Panesar and Mahmood in the national team and England may finally have found the wrist spinner they have been seeking for more than half a century.

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