Spinning out of control

Monty Panesar is not commenting on the Brighton incident beyond apologies. (Scott Heavey/Getty)

Disgraced and demoted after a juvenile nightclub incident, England’s Monty Panesar is trying to get back into elite cricket

The climb took longer than the fall that morning. A celebrated national icon, adored by England’s cricket fans as the first Sikh member of the national team, among the premier bowlers in the world, Monty Panesar stumbled his way up to a promenade above the entrance of Shooshh, a nightclub in Brighton, in the early hours of Aug. 5. The 31-year-old was a patron at the beachfront bar but was asked to leave because a group of women said he was bothering them. So he did leave, ascending the nearby walkway overlooking the English Channel. On reaching his mark, just above the doors he’d left through, he unzipped and released a downpour of hot revenge on the two hapless bouncers beneath him. In the brief relief of a drunken moment, Mudhsuden Singh Panesar—a.k.a. Monty, the Montster, the Python, the Sikh of Tweak—surrendered his already wilting reputation to the giddy wit of British tabloids, which revelled in what they dubbed “weegate.” The Urinator. The Micturator. Toilet bowler. The Sikh of Leak. But Panesar’s puddle was about to get bigger.

Shortly after the incident, the venerable Sussex County Cricket Club released him due to a summer of sub-par play, issues with his attitude and, of course, the whizzing thing. “This will give him every opportunity to put his personal and professional life back on track,” said Zac Toumazi, Sussex’s chief executive. Panesar was sent to the lower-tier Essex, and the remaining two years of his contract were cancelled, leaving him free to sign with a top-level club in the future. National captain Alastair Cook then called him out for his behaviour, saying he “let the England shirt down.” A few days later, Panesar’s ex-wife took out a court order to keep him away from her, the latest chapter in their messy, increasingly public breakup. Panesar apologized publicly for his actions, and admitted that since his wife left him, he’d gone against his religion and indulged in alcohol. “I have endured a challenging time this year off the field, and my frustrations have sometimes got the better of me professionally,” he said.

So, facing public embarrassment, the turmoil of his personal life and the uncertainty of his professional career, what’s next for Monty Panesar? He endeared himself to fans with his clumsy, wholehearted effort. He became an icon because of the patka he wears on his head and the faith he carries in his heart. Being the first devout Sikh to play for England turned Panesar into a cult figure. He was important for England­—not just in sport, but as a symbol for a nation grappling with its multicultural identity. Proudly British, proudly Sikh and proudly taking wickets for England. But will that history be enough—assuming he can find his form again—to again earn England’s confidence as it heads to Australia for the Ashes in November?

Panesar was once a long way from here. His parents arrived in England from Ludhiana, a city in Punjab, India, in the late ’70s. They settled in Luton, a town about 50 kilometres north of London, and started a construction business. His father, Paramjit, specialized in fitting kitchens and willed his company to success through years of hard work. As a boy, Panesar was taught to bowl by a friend of his father and dreamed of wearing the England shirt. He played youth cricket in Luton, and developed his orthodox spin bowling with Bedfordshire in the Minor Counties Cricket Championship. Panesar’s success as a bowler twice earned him a spot representing England at the under-19 level. Then, in 2001, at 19, he signed with first-class Northamptonshire. In his debut match, he took eight for 131 against Leicestershire. The legend of Monty Panesar grew slowly over the next few years. In the summer of 2005, he entered the national cricket spotlight by taking 46 wickets in eight matches for Northamptonshire, and was only narrowly left off the English team because of his terrible batting and fielding.

The two sides of Panesar’s game—the incredible control of his spinning, and his struggles everywhere else on the field—were a reason the young cricketer first became a cult figure. “He’s in part a hero because he’s a bit useless,” says Rob Steen, a columnist with ESPN Cricinfo. “We like our underdogs.” Despite being left off the English team that toured India and Pakistan in 2005, Panesar’s popularity among cricket fans took off. And as one of the best English spin bowlers to emerge in years, experts lamented his absence.

Meanwhile, Panesar sought guidance and self-improvement within his Sikh faith. He travelled to Canada that fall and spent a month on a farm near Edmonton with the leader of the Nanaksar sect of Sikhism, Harnek Singh Grewal. While living at the rural Albertan farmhouse, Panesar worked in the wheat and canola fields and developed a sense of focus and peace reflecting on the discipline of his faith. Returning to England, he called the experience the “defining moment” of his life. “He told me to concentrate on cricket, to give it my passion. He has really motivated me,” Panesar said of Grewal. “Now I’ve met the Master, I’m not worrying about the past or the future. I’m living in the moment.”

The next year, Panesar made the English Test squad for the spring tour of India. He leapt for joy when he took the wicket of the legendary Sachin Tendulkar—further endearing himself to English fans for the childlike jubilance he displayed in the moment. Later, Panesar had Tendulkar sign the match ball—“It’s one of my most treasured moments, Sachin was my childhood hero”—and promised to keep it in his bedroom. For the second Test in Mohali, 35 of Panesar’s family members still living in India came to cheer for England. His grandmother called it the “happiest moment” of her life.

People loved Panesar. They loved every part of his story—that he bumbled around in the field but still managed to stun everyone with his bowling, that he adored the game like a child and treasured it like a fan. They loved that Panesar knew he was flawed and worked endlessly to make up for it—seeking private cricket training in Australia, returning to Edmonton each fall to centre himself. He was humble, an unpolished celebrity, a traditional player, a minority success story—a face for England to adore. “I don’t know if I can live up to people’s expectations,” Panesar said in August 2006. “Always at the back of my mind is the thought that things can go down as quickly as they went up.”

Panesar had the misfortune to come along at the same time as Graeme Swann—arguably the best spin bowler in the game, who can also bat and field—meaning the top spinner spot is always taken. In the modern game, it’s unlikely England will play two spin bowlers­. Forty years ago, Steen says, Panesar would never have been left off the team, but these days it’s very hard to be a one-trick pony. Still, English fans remember him for his finest moments; Panesar out-bowled Swann against both Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2012, and last winter he unleashed a career-best performance in England’s victory over India, with match figures of 11 for 210, taking 10 wickets in a match for only the second time in his Test career.

But can he erase the stain of “weegate” and his falling out with Sussex? He’s bowled well with Essex and is not commenting on the Brighton incident beyond apologies. It won’t be easy to get back to where he was, but Britons are rooting for him. “There’s a real affection for Panesar. People are more mystified than anything,” says Steen. “Everyone I know who loves cricket in this country is sympathetic to him.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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