With World Test Championship points on the line, the Ajit Agarkar-led senior selection committee picked a full-strength squad for the longest format.
In the first Test against a touring England team at Nagpur in 2006, Sachin Tendulkar was caught plumb in front of the sticks to a top-spin delivery. Such special was the ball that even the “God of Cricket” had no clue and the bowler who produced the magic was none other than England’s turbaned spinner Monty Panesar, who was playing his maiden international match. During India’s second innings, the bowler bowled out “The Wall” Rahul Dravid and announced his arrival at the global stage.
Monty Panesar, the player who at 15 aspired to be a fast bowler before trying his hands on spin, amazed the world by his art of spinning the ball and trapping the finest batsmen cricket has ever seen.
The English bowler took 167 Test and 24 ODI wickets during his 7-year stint in the international arena before mental health issues kept him out of the game to end his career in an unexpected manner. However, in case he happens to make a return to the 22-yard pitch, the “Sikh of Tweak” wishes to take the wicket of India skipper Virat Kohli, arguably the best batsman in the world, on a flat pitch.
From his maiden international wicket to an abrupt end of his career, Monty walks down the memory lane to recall the turning points of his cricket life in an exclusive interview with The Statesman.
Q. Sachin Tendulkar was your first international wicket? How did you manage to get the great out and what was your feeling before and after the dismissal?
A. First, Andrew Flintoff announced the team and the last name was “Monty Panesar”. I went up to Freddie and asked if I was the 12th man for the first Test match and he said, “No, you are playing. I am backing you and I think you are going to do really well.” I couldn’t believe it as for me it was an overwhelming moment.
On the first day, I went wicketless but on the second day when I came out to bowl, I hit Tendulkar’s pad and couldn’t see the stumps, hence I appealed. To my surprise, umpire Aleem Dar raised his finger and I just started running down the ground celebrating the wicket in a wild fashion because for me getting my “hero” out was a precious achievement.
I thank Sachin Paaji for being such a great batsman because at least now people know in the world he was my first wicket.
Q. Indian players are considered to be the better players of spin bowling. What is your take on that?
A. I think the players I played with were better players of spin in comparison to the current batsmen. Newcomers are a myth! I don’t think they are good players of spin as the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, MS Dhoni, and Virender Sehwag. These all were better players of spin in comparison to the current batch of Indian players.
Q. Do you think playing with two spinners in the team would be the right choice in the World T20 next year?
A. A ball without pace is always harder to hit and hence spin plays a huge role in T20 cricket, especially if there is a finger spinner, the bounce he gets, it becomes tougher for the batsman to play. However, playing with two spinners is a bit risky and in case a team opts for two, a combination of finger and wrist spin would be an ideal choice.
Q. Name a batsman you wish to bowl to?
A. I would love to bowl to Virat Kohli on a flat deck and get him out. He is regarded as one of the greatest batsmen of the game and taking his wicket would absolutely be a moment of joy.
Q. Which bowler you think could have challenged you the most?
A. Jasprit Bumrah. I would love to face him with the second new ball with a leg slip and short leg, and all the people behind me saying “come on let us get the Sardar out” while I am just trying to hold in there.
Bumrah is an amazing talent!
Q. Which are the two teams you think will be playing the final of World T20 next year?
A. England has to be one of them and the second team is India.
Q. Comparisons were drawn between Graeme Swann and you. Did you feel awkward or uncomfortable when he started playing for England?
A. I knew there was going to be a healthy competition after Swann made a cut into the English squad. He was a better captain, better batsman, and bowling wise was pretty similar to me, but on flat tracks, he was a better bowler. Overall, he was a better cricketer than me and that is something I have to accept and I haven’t ever minded up being a second spinner in the team.
Q. How did you manage your nerves while playing crucial matches?
A. You have to take the importance out of the game. Yes, the media, the fans make it too much important for you, but you yourself don’t hype it so much. Just take the importance away from the game, be calm and treat it like just another game. This is my suggestion and this is what I used to do. The more important the game the lesser important I made it.
Q. Nowadays players are opening up about their mental health, but during your time, it wasn’t given much attention. What are the factors you think lead to a player’s mental trauma? What are the ways to counter it?
A. Mental health for me is the most important thing. I think that loneliness is the breeding ground for mental health issues.
People never used to talk about it earlier, but today it’s normal. Some days you feel great, other days you may not. So talk about it.
One should talk to their friends or family members before it gets worse. If you just stay alone in your room and don’t discuss your problems with anyone, I think it will get worse.
What happened to me was I probably started putting too much pressure on myself and then it started reflecting on my performance. It took me longer to take wickets.
Look, the way to counter such a problem is that you have to accept where you are. Even if you are taking 90 balls to get a wicket, be happy with it as long as you are fighting. And that is where sportsmen struggle, they deny to accept the fact. I need to accept that I am here and believe that I will get to my target someday.
Q. Do you think your career ended in an abrupt way and it was your off-field conduct that defined your career more than the on-field?
A. Yes, I think probably because there were times when I was not playing. I was too disappointed with myself. I was completely in denial. I wasn’t in a great place but I still kept it to myself and didn’t tell anyone about it.
People started thinking “why Monty has gone off the rails”. “The guy who used to love the game of cricket is a completely different character.” And then, I had to talk about it openly to the media as I didn’t have a choice. I just couldn’t keep it to myself and had to speak about it and what important is I did.