As a viewer, it’s not always easy to understand why some balls take wickets, and others don’t. Sure, there are some magical deliveries where the “swing works the oracle again,” but especially in sub-continental cricket, whole stretches of almost boring, steady batting will suddenly give way to a wicket, and for no discernible reason.
Of course, that’s not the case: good bowlers try to take wickets with every ball, or at least set one up. You bowl three outswingers, then bring one back in; you bowl two bouncers, then send a “sucker” ball outside the off-stump; you bowl four flighted leg-spinners, then throw in a quick flipper.
Monty Panesar, alas, understands none of these things. During the England’s tour of India, you could see how personality determines sporting character. Shane Warne, flamboyant and ridiculously confident and theatrical, beguiled batsmen into giving up wickets (see: “Adelaide, 2006“). Panesar, on the other hand, is mechanical and boring; commentators made fun of his constant mantra of “bowling in the right areas,” while even Michael Vaughan said that Panesar left all the fielding tactics to him (“He would only set university fields.”) Other than his arm ball, he refused to vary anything; each ball was as flighted as the last and at the same speed. No adventure, no out-of-the-ordinary. Just Plain Boring.
There is another view, which came out a bit in his autobiography ( ruthlessly panned by one Cricinfo critic). Witness this exchange with then-skipper Andrew Flintoff:
When I knocked on Flintoff’s door and handed over the results he seemed a bit bemused.
“This is what I’m thinking of doing,” I said.
“Ah, okay,” he replied, sounding as puzzled as he looked. “No worries at all, mate. I’ll take it all on board and you have a good night’s sleep.”
I decided I ought to leave quickly because I wasn’t sure whether he wanted me in his room.
Poor guy. Andrew Miller takes this passage as evidence that Panesar needs self-confidence and constant assurance, though it’s also possible that this guy can’t handle himself around greatness. There are some — like Kevin Pietersen, for instance, or even Harbhajan Singh — who relish the thought of establishing themselves. There are others — like Anil Kumble — who are happy to grind out their wickets, establish a reputation slowly, and become absolutely necessary.
Panesar, however, is neither: he is decidedly not great, but he also lacks that gritty determination that the latter category demands. Once he feels adrift, he just goes back to What He Knows, that “right areas” nonsense. And in the process, he becomes Ashley Giles: mildly useful, but thoroughly inconsequential.