Monty Panesar throws his head back and laughs at his own description of himself as a fielder under a high catch.
“It was like watching Edward Scissorhands coping with a cricket ball coming down at him from a great height,” he says, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “It’s a nickname I got at school and it’s fair enough.
“I know some of the fans laughed with me when that happened in a game. I also know that many more laughed at me. My way of dealing with it was to laugh with them but don’t ever think the context of the match, and what that dropped catch might mean, was lost on me.”
Perceptions. They can take one incident to be created, and a whole career to erase.
The 30-year-old Sussex and England spinner recalls something the late and much-lamented Graham Dilley said to him when he was Panesar’s bowling coach at Loughborough.
“He said: “Monty, you can field for 49.5 overs of a 50 over match and then, because you don’t do well with one ball, people say: “Oh yeah, of course, it’s Monty.”” Panesar’s smile deserts him. “RIP Graham. And he was right.”
Henry Blofeld once referred to him on air as “Monty Python,” an utterance the veteran broadcaster insists was a mistake. It didn’t help.
Then there was the numbing critique by Shane Warne, who knew a thing or two about spin bowling, when the Australian proclaimed that everyone could predict exactly what Panesar was going to bowl next, and that he had absolutely no variation in his game. He had not, not to put too fine a point on it, played 33 tests, but one test 33 times.
“At the time he said that I thought it would have been nice if he’d mentioned it to me, and not gone public with it,” is Panesar’s response to this.
In 2009, having played in the first Ashes test and, against expectation, helped save the match with a stubborn, 11-over, last wicket partnership with James Anderson, he was dropped.
Three, long years’ later, he returned to take a stack of wickets in the losing UAE tests against Pakistan in 2012 before then shining for England in India before Christmas to play a major part in a first test series win there for 27 years. He leaves for New Zealand later this month for the three test series, very much back in the fold and pressing Graeme Swann hard for the possible one spinner’s place in the side.
Moreover, the once shy Panesar, tongue-tied, self-conscious, nervous and a bit of an unwilling clown at times, has blossomed into an assured sportsman who has found himself.
So how has this happened? What has been the making of Monty Panesar? In part the venue for this interview, a gym in Gravesend used primarily for martial arts where a junior kickathon is taking place to raise money for charity, is the answer.
Monty has turned to jujitsu and martial arts and this, he says, is one of the reasons why he responded to not being selected for the first test in India by collecting 11 wickets in the winning second test in Mumbai, and five more in the winning third test.
“Let’s face it, I’m not one of life’s natural athletes. I have to work at it. I started working out in a North London gym in mixed martial arts and jujitsu in particular last September because I wanted to be quicker, fitter and more explosive. I also wanted to work on my mindset more. Martial Arts helps as much mentally as it does physically. I felt the benefits almost immediately. I’m sharper in body and sharper in mind and I have no doubt that it helped me a great deal in India in the heat, the long days bowling and the challenges the Indian batsmen presented.
“I’ll continue to work on this over the next few weeks until I fly out to New Zealand. I hope nobody will ever question my fitness again.”
He’s found another way to work on his mind, too, having taken a first exam last week for an MBA in International Sports Management at Loughborough University. “It’s all about the globalisation of sport and my case study was Manchester United,” he explains before adding: “bearing in mind I’m an Arsenal fan that wasn’t great.”
The transformation of Panesar began before these latest developments, however. In 2010 he joined Sussex having made a decision.
“When I was dropped by England in 2009 I could have just said to myself: “Well, you’ve played for England, you’ve done alright, and it’s more than most cricketers get to do. Your time’s been and gone.” But I wasn’t ready to accept that. My failures were getting me down, I was putting myself under too much pressure and I wasn’t developing when out of my comfort zone. I thought about what Shane Warne had said. I didn’t like it, but I also knew he was right. It was a kick up the backside.”
Once he was ensconced down on the south coast he sought the help of Neil Burns, the former Essex wicket-keeper turned sports mentor, and sports psychologist Ken Jennings.
“They taught me to be open to all possibilities, to develop an emotional resilience and a coping mechanism. It brought decision-making into my game, and into my life. Before, I was afraid of questioning authority or putting suggestions to people in positions, like the captain or the coach.
“Now I’m happy to make the decisions I want to make. I’m comfortable exchanging ideas. And I’ve developed a cricketing intuition I never possessed before. It’s made me a better cricketer, and a better person.”
Panesar’s personal journey took another step when he spent the winter of 2010-11 in Australia playing Sydney Grade cricket with Randwick Petersham or, as they are known locally, the “Randy Pete’s.” For three months he had former Australian test bowlers, Mike Whitney and Greg Matthews, badgering him to be more assertive, and to act as if the cricket ground was his own personal stage.
“Mike and Greg made me come out of my shell. I needed to do this if I was ever going to improve. You look at how Warney bowled. Now there was a guy who never had any problems with confidence. I returned home a different person.”
How different? One night he was press-ganged to going up on stage during a night out with the team in Sydney. Whitney’s band was playing and suddenly a well-known, hitherto shy, patka-wearing English spin bowler began to sing.
“It was “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield. I surprised myself that night. There’s no way I would have done that three years ago. No way. But now? Well, you never know, I might even release a single in a few years’ time.”
Panesar is laughing again at the notion and seems unperturbed at the prospect, despite his heroics in India, of once again sitting out test matches in New Zealand in deference to Graeme Swann.
“Swanny’s been very, very good over the last few years, hasn’t he?” he points out. “I have enormous respect for him. He’s set the bar very high. When we do play together we seem to work well. My relationship with him off the field is really good, too.
“I’m hoping England may go for two spinners in New Zealand. It’s not the sub-continent but they may still have turning or slow pitches. Besides, the days of me being a luxury spinner are gone. I think I’ve proved in the past year that I can bowl on any surface and at any time of the match.
“I don’t think anyone can say my fielding hasn’t improved, nor my fitness nor batting, although I don’t get much chance with the bat for England. If they stick with one spinner then I must do all I can to gain that selection by continuing to work hard and by taking my chances.
“But if the selectors decide on picking Swanny and him alone then I will continue to work and be ready for when I’m needed. My appetite is huge for this game. I love having the ball in my hand. It’s my passion. If I don’t play in that first test then it will simply spur me on even more to do everything I can to play in the second test, and to be as much help as I can to the team.”
And what of the Ashes in the summer? Panesar played three tests in the 5-0 hammering down under in 2006-7, and then the one, solitary test in 2009 in Cardiff, missing out on the victory in Australia in 2010-11. Surely this must be in the back of his thoughts?
Panesar shakes his head and smiles. “One of the things I’ve learnt is not to look too far ahead. I’m guilty of that in the past. When I do it affects my game. Would I like to play a part in the Ashes? Of course I would. But I’m not looking any further than the first test against New Zealand. If I did I’d put myself under unnecessary pressure and I don’t need that. It’s now all about the next ball.
“The one thing England should know is I’m ready. I can’t control selection, but I can control myself. It’s taken most of my life to work that one out.”