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December 15, 2008

Why Monty Might Want to Bin the Twin

It was often said that Shane Warne didn’t like having a spin-twin. That is, he preferred to be the sole specialist spinner in the line up and not have to share the spin bowling duties. Indeed, this view is vindicated by the statistics – in matches where Warne played alongside Stuart Macgill (his long term legspinning understudy) his bowling average rose from its usual 25 to almost 30. Needless to say, when two spinners were played one would expect the pitch to be conducive to turn and for his statistics to be more favourable, not less. It would not be too outrageous at this point to suggest that the great SK Warne quite possibly has something in common with England’s very own MS Panesar.

When Monty Panesar burst onto the scene in 2006, claiming Sachin Tendulkar as his first Test wicket and started to win matches for England many were filled with hope. One commentator humorously noted that ‘the thing with Monty is, he turns the ball’. Although it is questionable to what extent they intended humour, it was still an odd comment to make. Spinners are meant to turn the ball – it’s what they do. Yet it was indeed true that for years it was something that English spinners had resolutely failed to do.

This is not to say they didn’t put on an England jersey and play with all their heart, Ashley Giles for example took his place in the side with great pride and took criticism very much to heart. Unfortunately though, for Ashley is the nicest of chaps, he wasn’t the most naturally gifted of cricketers and his late-in-life switch to spin bowling from average left arm seamers didn’t help him make the most of the limited ability he possessed.

There have been other England prospects of late that have had more natural ability but have squandered it – Philip Tufnell for example whose attitude and approach to the game rarely found favour with senior members of the set up. Similarly, Chris Schofield was sounded out by Duncan Fletcher as a young spin bowling talent and was even handed one of the first ever central contracts. Schofield was, sadly, poorly managed though – he was thrust into the deep end by making his Test debut at the age of 21, went wicketless for 2 Tests and discarded. Scarred from the experienced, his game suffered and within five years he was dropped by Lancashire and playing club cricket as a specialist batsman.

Monty though is unfortunately shaping up to be a further unfulfilled England spinning potential unless he heeds the advice coming to him from all quarters. Monty’s figures currently stack up quite well – 117 test wickets from 34 matches at an average of 32.58. Not figures to set the world alight but steady figures at least. Indeed when measured up against Daniel Vettori, who is widely regarded as the best left arm finger spinner of the modern age, the stats are actually quite favourable: Vettori currently has 282 wickets from 88 matches at an average of 32.98. in fact, if one compares Monty’s with Vettori’s at the same stage in their careers Monty’s figures are remarkably adjacent to the Kiwi’s – Vettori had 119 @ 32.75. From this many will undoubtedly infer that Monty is on the right track, that he is following in the footsteps of Vettori, that he can be England’s Vettori.

This argument has its flaws though. Monty has more natural ability than Daniel Vettori, who is without a doubt one of the hardest workers and most committed cricketers on the scene at the moment. Monty has massive hands and the ability to get big turn off any pitch. If the pitch is responsive and offers a little bit of bounce as well as turn the Sikh of Tweak, as he is affectionately called, can trouble the world’s best. Monty is a match winner.

The problem though, is that match winners do not average 32 with the ball. Shane Warne averaged 25.

Glenn McGrath averaged 21.

Stuart Macgill – 29.

Anil Kumble - 29.

Bishan Bedi - 28.

Match winners average in the twenties and Monty Panesar averages 32 (and rising). The difference is Monty can be a match winner but he isn’t one often enough. For well over a year now cricket commentators have been comparing, quite rightly, Monty with Vettori because although their figures are very similar the Kiwi left armer is very much the better bowler and troubles batsmen on a more frequent basis.

Vettori, although he can’t spin the ball as big as Monty can nor can he extract as alarming bounce as his England counterpart, thinks about his bowling more. He uses more variation, he changes his pace subtly and isn’t afraid to toss the ball up. The way to extract the bounce that troubles batsmen playing spin is to get the ball to leap up unexpectedly and this is done by flighting the ball up higher so that it falls down more suddenly – more vertically. Not only does the dip make the ball harder to hit, it gives the ball more momentum to bounce back up again.

Vettori’s art of clever variation means that the batsman is always kept guessing; never quite sure how to play the next ball. Monty on the other hand, seldom varies his pace or trajectory. This allows the batsmen to settle into a rhythm, confident that the next ball will do something similar to the last. His stock ball is about 56-57mph when he should be looking to bowl about 52-53mph – a speed he rarely even bowls his slowest balls at. He rarely flights the ball and thus rarely troubles the batsmen with unexpected bounce.

So why make the comparison with Australia’s great former legspinner? Monty has been plodding along as England’s sole spinner for some time now and, despite frustrating many at his lack of variation, has survived on the back of a few bright performances on helpful pitches and the potential everyone sees in him. Yet today Monty played his first test match in tandem with another specialist spinner since the last time England toured India almost 3 years ago. Back then Monty, playing in only his third Test match, was significantly outbowled by 37 year old Shaun Udal who took 4/14 to bowl India out for 100 to win the Mumbai Test by 212 runs. This week, Monty played alongside debutant Graeme Swann and again he came out looking second best.

Back in 2006 the excuse will have been inexperience; today, many will call on his lack of match practice (Monty hadn’t played a first class match for almost 3 months). Match practice cannot be Panesar’s excuse for this is not a recent problem. For at least a year many in the media have been commenting on the metronomic and predictable nature of Monty’s bowling, Shane Warne even commented that Panesar hasn’t played 30 Test matches, he’s played 1 Test match 30 times. It is difficult to believe that the England management do not agree with the almost universal criticism of Monty’s bowling and thus the only conclusion can be that either the coaching staff are not taking it upon themselves to have a word in Monty’s ear and help him vary his bowling slightly or Monty is simply not listening.

One of the most important aspects of improving in sport is to learn from your mistakes, learn from your achievements and learn from those around you. It appears that Monty is not doing this; it appears that Monty looks at his 6/37 at Manchester this year against New Zealand, his 5/72 against Pakistan there in 2006 or 5/78 against Sri Lanka in Trent Bridge and tries to repeat it by bowling as he did there in every match. Unfortunately Monty, this won’t work – to succeed in international sport you need to adapt to your situation.

Daniel Vettori averages 32 but Daniel Vettori averages 32 in a different situation. Vettori plays for New Zealand – a team with, without wanting to allude any disrespect to the black caps, a vastly inferior depth in cricketing talent. One of the keys to successful bowling (and spin bowling in particular) is building up pressure and this is not something that can be achieved alone. Bowling with a below-average pace attack around him, Vettori cannot apply the same pressure to batsmen through his bowling as other teams can simply because as tidily as he bowls, runs will come easily more often than not at the other end.

Likewise, with New Zealand’s batting also leaving much to be desired, Vettori often has fewer runs to play with than Monty has and cannot apply scoreboard pressure nor cramp the batsmen with men around the bat.

It is for this reason that Vettori’s 32 average represents a failure to live up to talent that is a result of circumstances out of his hand but Monty’s 32 average represents a failure to live up to his potential that is a result of his own reluctance to learn from the advice regularly offered to him by very experienced old-pros.

Monty would perhaps prefer to bowl alone as the sole spinner in the England line up in future because, on the few times when he has had a spin twin, he has been shown to be still, after three years, not quite as good. The question is though, next time England play one spinner will that spinner be the left armer or the off-spinner who impressed so much on his debut this week? We’ll have to wait and see...

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