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A Tale of Two Spinners

A Tale of Two Spinners

Cast your minds back, if you will, to August 8th 2006. An enthralling Test between England and Pakistan went to the fifth day, and it is a day which will be generally remembered for Monty Panesar spinning England to victory against Pakistan’s much-vaunted batting line-up. It is a perception which is not necessarily accurate – in fact Saj Mahmood took more wickets that day – but Panesar got rid of Younis Khan with a beauty that bamboozled Khan and removed his middle stump. He then took the crucial wicket of Inzamam ul-Haq (stumped by Chris Read), which also happened to be the final wicket. The victory ball, so to speak.

There was public euphoria for Panesar who had spent the summer building up a hero’s reputation for himself; he had taken his first five-wicket haul in the ultimately fruitless Test against Sri Lanka, and then shared the wickets with Steve Harmison as England massacred Pakistan at Old Trafford. Panesar was on top of the world and the aforementioned fifth day was the icing on the cake – the scale might have been smaller, but Panesar was as close as 2006 got to to the idolisation of Flintoff the year before.

As the following day’s newspapers rejoiced in Panesar’s heroics, another spinner, by the name of Graeme Swann, toiled away at Edgbaston. It was his second day in the field and he ended up bowling 38 overs for the one solitary wicket of Warwickshire’s Luke Parker. Swann’s team, Nottinghamshire, would go on to lose the match as they followed up their triumphant championship season of 2005 with relegation.

As Swann watched Panesar soak up the plaudits, one has to wonder what was going through his mind. Swann had had one chance at an international career, aged just twenty. He was selected by Duncan Fletcher to join England in touring South Africa. He had shown a lot of promise as a youngster, with Wisden touting him as a future star all-rounder; these were the days before Andrew Flintoff had made himself a national icon and as such the new Botham was what the cricketing public went to bed dreaming of.

The tour did not go well for young Swann, however. He infamously overslept and missed the team bus, not the kind of thing likely to go down too well with the selectively hardlined Fletcher. It is often speculated that this was the least of Swann’s misdemeanours – we’ll have to wait for the book to find out what else he got up to.

It seems grossly unfair for a cricketer’s international career to be written off because of something that happened when he was twenty, but you couldn’t blame Swann for thinking that that was indeed the case especially as Panesar’s celebrity-status grew. In the winter of 2006, Panesar was notoriously dropped for Ashley Giles for England’s spineless Ashes defence in Australia. There was absolute outrage at this piece of selection, Panesar found himself the subject of petitions which demanded his place in the side, and he even made it onto the shortlist for BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year.

Of course, Panesar reclaimed his place in the third Test (taking five wickets in the first innings before being hit all the way to Antarctica by Gilchrist in the second) while Swann looked ahead to a season of second division cricket. Panesar signed a central contract, Swann’s name was very rarely mentioned when discussions came up about the composition of the England side. It seemed there were two schools of thought; England play Panesar, or an all-seam attack. That was that.

It seems logical that Swann must have been thinking he was never going to get a second chance, but the following year Fletcher resigned from the England post. The recall of Ryan Sidebottom showed that second chances were available. People weren’t really questioning Panesar’s place in the Test side, but he clearly wasn’t working out as a one-day spinner. Swann hadn’t had a remarkable year (45 First Class wickets at a shade over 33, seventeen List A wickets at just over 25) but he had done enough to be selected to go to Sri Lanka for the one-day series in the autumn of 2007.

In the time since Swann’s debut, England had played a widly uninspiring list of spinners in the short game. There was Paul Grayson, who played a couple of games – he only managed to take wickets in one, which was against Zimbabwe. Jeremy Snape played ten games, his record isn’t shocking, but isn’t too clever when you remove five games against Zimbabwe. Ian Blackwell played 34 games and has a good record against Australia and the Netherlands. Look away when studying his form against the rest, though. Gareth Batty’s record is beyond woeful. Jamie Dalrymple and Michael Yardy weren’t the worst bowlers to play for England. but they were far from the best. And Alex Loudon and his fabled doosra played one game in the forgettable summer of ’06 – he bowled six overs for 36. He doesn’t play cricket anymore; these days he is a businessman. It’s not a pretty list.

England had a shocker in the first match so Swann was brought in and acquitted himself well as England won the next three matches. Swann took seven wickets in these three matches, and scored 24, 24 and 25 with the bat.

In spite of this successful series, Swann’s place in the one-day side didn’t seem secure and this proved to be the case as he played just one match in New Zealand and then did not figure at all in the second ODI series of the English summer. This was against South Africa and his case wasn’t helped by England romping to a 4-0 victory and Samit Patel making a decent fist of things.

However, more significantly by this time than what Swann was doing was what Panesar was doing. Fans and critics were becoming increasingly frustrated with him; it appeared that he hadn’t developed his game at all, his bowling was lacking in variation and didn’t seem the threat that it had done two years previously. His failure to bowl England to victory against South Africa had enormous consequences; England lost the series and Michael Vaughan resigned. However what seemed to annoy people most of all was Panesar’s over-appealing. As a youngster who was green and making his way in the team, people could accept and live with it. However it now seemed to be costing England, Graeme Smith got a clear inside edge onto a delivery from Panesar as South Africa tried to chase down the target. It was given not out and that was probably the moment the series was lost. However whereas normally there are calls for technology and/or better umpires, the blame was placed squarely on Panesar. His reputation came before him, it was a classic case of boy who cried wolf.

Swann hadn’t seriously been talked up as a Test proposition, but when England needed two spinners in India, he was called upon. It was here that he began to make a real name for himself; he took two wickets in his first over and Kevin Pietersen clearly preferred him to Panesar – Panesar got more overs in the first Test, but in the second Test after Pietersen had had a good look at them both, Swann bowled a staggering 29 overs more than Panesar. Panesar’s honeymoon period was a distant memory as he irked cricketing fans with his lack of variation, over-appealing and steadily incompetent batting and fielding. All of a sudden people realised that Swann was a bowler who knew his limitations but worked hard at his game, and could score you a highly useful twenty or thirty. It was suddenly dawning on people that Swann was a serious spin-bowling option and Panesar’s place was under real threat for the first time since the highly controversial selection of Giles in 2006.

In spite of this, Panesar was selected for the first Test in the Carribean last winter, but by the time the ‘third’ Test came along (the second having been farcically abandoned) the selectors had lost it with him. Swann was in. Five games later, it looks unlikely he’ll be going anywhere anytime soon.

A year ago Panesar would have been one of the first names you’d have tipped to feature on the England teamsheet for the Ashes, yet it seems that for the second time in a row he will miss out on the biggest one of them all. It could be argued that he only has himself to blame, but you have to give credit to Swann. He, like Ryan Sidebottom before him, is an inspiration to all county cricketers who think that their chance has been and gone, or even just gone. The place in the team may have been Panesar’s to lose, but make no mistake about it, Swann is in the team on merit. It has been said that he doesn’t do anything magical but he gets the fundamental basics exactly right – it is hard to remember an English offspinner who has earned such subtle praise. He has earned plaudits for his bowling so far, but also for his batting. He played a huge role in forcing the first Test match result in Lord’s for almost four years (Australia where the last team to do so) against the West Indies, taking three wickets in each innings and staying unbeaten for 63 when England batted.

At this point every four English summers it is mandatory to mention a certain series that is on the horizon; yes indeed, the Ashes. This summer’s contest will be the first one in recent memory between the two sides where England will have a clear edge in the spin department. Australia may not actually play a spinner in the forthcoming Ashes (Hauritz has been named in the squad), such is the weakness in their stocks. Additonally, their plight in batting against spin has been well documented in recent times; there is a decent case to be made for Graeme Swann in comparison to South Africa’s Paul Harris, and rumour has it that the Aussie batsmen still cry themselves to sleep about the number Harris did on them on their own turf last Australian summer. And of course, lest we forget, Swann goes to bed dreaming of bowling to left-handers, the Australian line-up contains numerous lefties.

Monty Panesar will sit and watch Graeme Swann bowl at Australia in the Ashes, and this time round there will be no petition, there will be no outcry. For all his criticisms, Panesar is a level-headed cricketer and you can’t help but hope that the recent success of Swann is driving Panesar to try and reclaim his previous status as a hero. For now, the spin-bowling berth is Graeme Swann’s, but you have not seen the last of Monty Panesar. Of that, I am sure.


Wow, what a trully brilliant piece. I mean that is scarily good, brilliant article, well done Martyn.

Comment by Simon | 12:00am BST 22 May 2009

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