Monday 19 August 2013

Panesar deserves support

A couple of years ago a friend of mine from Brighton saw Monty Panesar taking his bins out. As he walked back to his door, Panesar wheeled his bowling arm over. It's a lovely image and much in keeping with popular perceptions of Panesar at the time: unaffected, exuberant and innocent.

News of Panesar's ugly night out in Brighton blew that apart. Harassing women and pissing on bouncers jarred with our idea of the once teetotal man. The stereotypes about Panesar, though, were always lazy. Though partly an affectionate reaction to his hapless fielding and wide eyes, the repeated caricatures of Panesar as an essentially meek and laughable man risked slipping into murky territory.

Panesar has struck a disaffected figure this season. His marriage broke down and he has, apparently, been repeatedly in Sussex's bad books. His bowling has also suffered with 23 Championship wickets and 40.39 this year, though he still the leading English spinner in Division One.

From a distance it seems as though Panesar has been trying for some time to be taken more seriously. Gone last winter were the wild wicket celebrations as he was delivering one of England's greatest overseas triumphs. In their place were more aggressive and poised reactions. He also added an MBA over the winter to his earlier BSc, taking his exams while on tour with England. 

Despite his resounding success in India (something people forgot far too quickly), Panesar's ability was again questioned after three poor games on unhelpful tracks in New Zealand. The grumbles over his batting and fielding resurfaced, complaints over monotonous bowling returned, and the names of young spinners across the country were talked up.

On Sunday England dumped Panesar and picked Lancashire's Simon Kerrigan for The Oval squad. Though understandable for now England should be doing all they can to support one of their prime assets.

Panesar is unlucky to have played in the same era as one of England's greatest spinners. Having basked in limelight at the start of his international career he has been stuck on the margins since Graeme Swann's emergence. His mentor Neil Burns told the Daily Mail Panesar “sees himself as “an outsider”, who only becomes “an insider” when he is bowling well.

“Some have developed an inflexible view of him and only seem to value him as a bowling machine, and tend to ridicule other parts of his game and personality,” said Burns. “Dealing with rejection, and feeling on the outside again, proved a difficult emotional challenge.”

Panesar is off to Essex until the end of the season and it is possible he will return to Northants next year. When he left his boyhood county in 2009 Panesar was reportedly suffering in a hostile dressing-room atmosphere. Still he donated £10,000 to Northants, thanking them for their role in his development. It's difficult to think of many others who would do the same.

Swann's sore elbow might curtail his England career soon and though 31 years old Panesar is very fit and a proven matchwinner. Of course Panesar himself is responsible for resolving his problems but as he looks to get his life back on course, he deserves respect and support.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Bairstow's nervous wait

Jonny Bairstow had to wait. Cricket is cruel like that. Not the seven weeks he went without a first-class game in the build up to this series. Rather the 47 hours between the end of his tortured first innings and the start his second.

Other sports distract their players by forcing them to play. Cricket refuses that get-out clause. Instead the mind is allowed to fester in the long pauses that outstretch action in any Test match.

At 23 Bairstow is having his technique publicly severed. The tag-lines are building. Ravi Bopara's Test match career can't be discussed without reference to being "found out by Australia" and Bairstow is watching the same thing envelope him.

In 2009 Bopara, batting No. 3, shambled 105 runs at 15 before being cut loose for The Oval finale. Bairstow has 203 at 29 in this series. The backroom army would have routines to try and help him "stay in the present" and "focus on processes" but he would not be human if his mind didn't wander.

Right now his team-mates are being celebrated for their stirring late-evening victory dash. Nestled in the eulogies, though, are questions over Bairstow's position.

Waking up on day three – with Australia 222 for 5 overnight - he would have known his second innings was coming. But it didn't until well into the final session of the day. Until then his contribution had been nothing beyond the 77-ball first-innings ordeal.

Of course Bairstow is used to batting down the order and waiting his turn. He's done that for Yorkshire throughout his career. But usually as a wicketkeeper. The dual role may help liberate his free-wheeling natural game. Shawn of wicketkeeping duties his batting comes under even closer scrutiny.

Since Paul Collingwood's retirement at the end of the 2010/11 Ashes England have trialled six middle-order pretenders in 31 matches. Collectively they average 27.5. Joe Root was the one outright success but that only propelled him to the top of the order.

The instability – especially the manner of Nick Compton and James Taylor's dropping - was another thing Bairstow had to mull over as he waited for that second chance. When it did finally come England were only 123 ahead and tottering. It was an match-defining opportunity to grab.

He didn't quite do so, making 28 before an underwhelming edge behind off Nathan Lyon. Yet Bairstow should take solace from the fact he found some freedom in the last-chance saloon. Just like Collingwood used to. His innings was brief but studded with six boundaries and was decisive while it lasted. It suggests he has the fortitude to overcome cricket's peculiar rhythms, even if his technique remains doubtful.

He has another nervous wait now before the squad for the final Test is announced. His positive second-innings batting might just have earned him a reprieve. If England are certain they don't want a No. 6 who can bowl, Bairstow deserves another chance.