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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

JIM NAUGHTEN/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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"What was I like?"

The lonely struggles of Monty Panesar, the sporting-cultural cult hero who lost his purpose and sense of joy.

At the elegant, tree-lined ground of Totteridge Millhillians Cricket Club in north London, the slope is so severe that one of the sight screens seems to be on the point of sliding down the hill into Barnet. At a Saturday league game in late summer, the atmosphere was similarly laid back. There were just three spectators on the boundary, and a fielder stopped by to congratulate one of them on his new job.

A spin bowler with a rich beard and a rather recognisable patka had just finished his over and was walking away into the outfield, his eyes fixed to the ground. When he reached his final position he stood, deep in thought, his hands just behind his hips. “Bowling, Monty,” called one of his team-mates. A tinny background noise emitted from the clubhouse, where a television was following England’s progress against Pakistan in the Test series. Monty Panesar stretched out his troublesome shoulder, and considered what to try next.

It is only four years since Panesar achieved his best Test figures – 11 for 210 – against ­India in Mumbai. England are now two-nil down in the latest series in India, with two more matches to come on 8 and 16 December, and could do with an exceptional spin bowler to help their cause. But Panesar never came close to selection for this Test. He has played only six first-class games over the past two seasons, taking 12 wickets.

Since 2013 Panesar has left two different county sides in varying shades of dishonour, dogged by rumours of erratic behaviour. This year the 34-year-old left-arm finger spinner revealed that he was suffering from paranoia for which he needed psychiatric treatment, and he returned to his first club, Northamptonshire, without a contract (he played only three matches during the season). And yet, ask Panesar – or any of his passionate supporters – and they will tell you that he is on his way back to an international career. This sleepy, suburban setting was just the start.

Bowling alongside Panesar at Totteridge was a man with white hair and a slight paunch whom it took a little while to recognise as John Emburey, the former Middle­sex and England spinner. At the change of innings, the pair sat at the bar drinking lemonade and discussing the slow turn they were getting from the pitch. Emburey is one of a considerable network of people helping Panesar to get back in the game – although mention it, and Emburey, who is 64,
shrugs: “We’re helping each other.”

On the TV behind them was Moeen Ali, then England’s first-choice spinner and a man who has inherited some measure of the folk-hero popularity that Panesar used to enjoy back in the mid-2000s. Like Ali, Panesar never courted attention – it seemed to be thrust upon him by dint of his individuality. In Panesar’s case, the silently shy young man exuded supreme joy in the field. He celebrated his wickets with eye-bulging enthusiasm, skipping down the pitch with the awkward gait of an adolescent giraffe.

He was also a throwback to the days when an England cricketer was allowed to be game-but-incompetent in the arts of batting and fielding. Nothing warms an English fan’s heart like the sight of a cricketer who reminds him of his own eager efforts on the village green. “Everyone was just embracing how I played my cricket, the enthusiasm I played it with,” Panesar told me. “They loved the energy. And I think people just found it easier to, like, associate with me, because they felt: ‘Oh, he’s one of us, he tries hard, he’s human.’”

 

***

 

The son of Gursharan Kaur and Paramjit Singh, a carpenter who emigrated from India in 1979, Monty Panesar grew up playing cricket at Wardown Park in Luton for the Luton Town and Indians Club. Thanks to an intense work ethic – he was always the last to leave practice – he was quietly but constantly developing his talent. When his big break did come, it came fast: a stellar county season in 2005, followed immediately by an England call-up and his first summer of international cricket. Only 24, Panesar became an instant front-page hero after bowling England to a series win against Pakistan.

We first met in 2007, when he had just been named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. Back then, prising words from Panesar was like trying to open a can of beans with a plastic fork. When we met again this summer at a restaurant near St Pancras Station, where a train had just deposited him from his parents’ house in Luton, he seemed a different person: chatty, self-reflective and far more at ease. When I mentioned this, he wanted to know more. “How have I changed? Was I really that quiet?”

He looked relaxed in jeans and a dark shirt; he joked about having a glass of wine but chose sparkling water instead. Panesar says he is different – “wiser and more mature”, with all he has experienced in the intervening years. But then, he has been through some pretty severe personality changes quite recently, too. Only a year ago, he was a pariah in the cricketing world. “People were saying, ‘He’s heavy maintenance, you don’t wanna touch him,’” Panesar recalls, with an artlessness that is rather charming. His erratic and unpleasant behaviour was baffling those who knew him, and turning him into a figure of fun in the tabloids.

It had all begun in 2013, the year Panesar’s brief marriage was coming to an end. He was dropped from the Sussex team for displaying a “bad attitude” on the pitch. That August, a week after being told he wasn’t needed for the third Ashes Test, he went on an ill-fated night out in Brighton with his county team-mates. He had spent much of his life abstaining from alcohol (with the exception of a very occasional beer), and yet Panesar got heavily drunk. He’d been asked to leave a nightclub and, with the kind of logic that makes sense only to a boozed and blurry brain, had urinated on the bouncers. A short police chase ended in his arrest at a takeaway joint.

His apologies could not spare him a £90 fine – or his playing contract. Sussex released him, which only made Panesar worse. “I was very settled,” he says. “I was four years there and I thought, ‘I probably wanna spend the rest of my career here now.’” Essex signed him, but his demons pursued him to Chelmsford. “When my confidence was low, I was paranoid and I’d start thinking that my team-mates are not with me. It’s as if everyone’s against you.”

Paul Grayson, the then Essex coach, had initial confidence in the signing – “Monty appreciated the opportunity to play more cricket, and he seemed like he was in a good place,” he told me – and he was even selected by England for the return Ashes series in 2013-14. Australia won the series 5-0. The now infamous whitewash, which Jonathan Trott left early, suffering from an anxiety disorder, had a marked effect on Panesar. “From the minute he came back, there was something not quite right with him, both cricket-wise and mentally,” Grayson says.

By the second game of the 2014 season, against Derbyshire, Panesar was bowling “as badly as I’ve ever seen him bowl”, and from then on he became unpredictable in relation to effort and temperament. “You just didn’t know where you stood with him,” Grayson says. “Sometimes he’d be coming in, he’d be full of beans and running around, and other times he would just look like he’s on a different planet or hadn’t slept all night. He just had that vacant look in his eyes and couldn’t wait to get home.”

But Panesar seemed unaware that he had problems with his mental health. “I was in denial for a long time. I didn’t really share it with anyone. If you’re vulnerable then it can be quite a lonely place.”

“He became a bit of a recluse,” Grayson says. “He didn’t interact with the players that much; he just kept himself very much to himself. He said random comments that didn’t go down well with his team-mates and it disrupted the dressing room. Some were against him, there’s no doubt about it.” During one game there were accusations that he was bowling deliberately badly to make his captain, James Foster, look bad. “Some players were quite cynical and thought, ‘He’s just being awkward and a nasty piece of work.’ But others could see that something wasn’t quite right with him.”

Panesar has no animus against his former team-mates. “It was difficult for them,” he says. “If someone hit me for runs I’d get ­really grumpy; if an umpire made a decision I didn’t like, I’d get really angry with them; or if someone dropped a catch . . . If I had opened up and just told them what was going on, then I think it would have been easier for them to understand.”

 

***

 

Panesar’s rehabilitation is being sponsored, it can seem, by a cast of thousands. Ask the spinner who has been helping him back to health and he will pay tribute to everyone, from former players such as John Emburey, Neil Burns and Alan Hodgson, who passed away in October, to his former England (now Lashings All-Stars) team-mates Owais Shah and Usman Afzaal – not to mention the current Northants coach and captain. Then there’s his physio Barry Goudriaan, who has helped him back from the shoulder surgery he required late last year, and whom he calls his “Good Samaritan”.

A little further in the background is a network of friends and businessmen who take a personal interest in his career. Panesar has always had these kinds of connections – family friends who at some point have been his manager or bowling guru or mentor – and they can lay claim to an important role in his recovery. It was a group of them who took him to see Peter Gilmour, who specialises in working with sportsmen and women, and whose website describes him as “International Mental Performance Coach, Master Hypnotist”.

“There was a kind of consortium of guys who brought him to me,” Gilmour says. “They didn’t understand anything about his state of health; they just wanted to help because, you know, Monty’s a wonderful player. There were five of us altogether round a table at the café and Monty would just drift off into a world of his own. He wasn’t properly compos mentis.”

“I could only sustain conversation for five minutes,” Panesar says. “I couldn’t concentrate any more and Peter picked up on it straight away. That’s when I first realised that something was mentally not right.”

Gilmour was not the only man overseeing Panesar’s mental health: the England cricket team assigned him treatment, including a psychiatrist who prescribed medication. Grayson recalls that Panesar was never keen on taking it. “When he was on his medication he was good, but he was very inconsistent with taking it and I think that affected his personality.”

Panesar told me he stopped taking the medication after the first couple of months. “I think initially it’s a good idea just to calm things down, but I prefer more holistic methods: hypnotherapy, yoga.”

Gilmour says they are using a range of techniques (what he calls “modalities”) in their sessions, including ­neurolinguistic programming and tapping. “Have you heard of tapping?” he asks. “Tapping is magic. You tap on little parts of your body and it changes your mental state. It sounds crazy, I know, to the uninitiated, but it’s connected with ancient Chinese medicine and acupuncture. Absolutely wonderful.”

Panesar has found Gilmour’s methods a great help (“I think hypnotherapy goes down to the core of the problem”), though Gilmour says that the England Cricket Board is probably less enthusiastic about his involvement. “Monty introduced me to some people from the ECB and they don’t really keep in touch. To be honest, the kind of work I do, people don’t take it seriously. I’m kind of a last resort, when nothing else works.”

 

***

 

Cricketers’ susceptibility to mental health problems is a long-standing concern in the sport. In 1990, David Frith wrote about the alarming number of players who succumbed to depression in his first study of cricket suicides, By His Own Hand. Since Marcus Trescothick’s breakdown on an England tour of India in 2006, however, the subject has had increasing awareness among both players and the public. Two more of England’s 2005 Ashes heroes, Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison, have said that they suffered depression during their playing days. More recently, Jonathan Trott was forced into early retirement from the international game by an anxiety disorder.

Michael Yardy, Panesar’s captain at Sussex, has also had his struggles with depression, which caused him to leave the game last year. Flintoff, Trescothick, Panesar and Yardy are all now mental health ­ambassadors for the Professional Cricketers’ Association, speaking out about their experiences so that other players may be more ready to recognise the symptoms when a team-mate is suffering.

There are various reasons why cricket as a profession might put players’ mental health at risk. It requires long spells away from home, even during a home season. Batsmen and bowlers alike bear unusual individual responsibility for the team’s fortunes. And with its repetitive rhythms, cricket seems to encourage and even reward the obsessive.

That was certainly the case with Panesar, who, as a teenager, was not even the most gifted player at Luton Indians (that was his friend Nitin Parsooth, who made it to Minor Counties level for Bedfordshire). He was, however, the kid who was happy to devote endless hours to bowling in the nets – and, later, the young player who bombarded his England team-mates in the dressing room with questions.

“When I was younger I used to bowl [for] hours and hours,” Panesar told me. “Now, when my rhythm gets going I know I need only half an hour or 20 minutes to get my rhythm going – that’s great: move on to something else. I think it’s important not to get too obsessed.”

Neil Burns was Monty Panesar’s first wicket in county cricket, back in 2001 (“I had got 70 at the time,” he likes to point out). Since then, the former Leicestershire wicketkeeper has established a professional mentoring organisation, and Panesar is one of his protégés. “The great thing about what’s happened to him now,” Burns says, “is that his eyes are much clearer and there’s an enthusiasm about life and cricket again. One of his best assets has always been his love of cricket. But he’d lost it. It had become something he just did.”

Burns began working with Panesar before the paranoia emerged. After Panesar’s excellent form for two years in the England team, his performances were failing to live up to the considerable expectations placed on him. The England selectors began to prefer the extrovert off-spinner Graeme Swann, who became a match-winner; Burns describes it as “a bit of a difficult time” for Panesar. This was when Shane Warne delivered a damning verdict on Panesar’s failure to develop his early promise: “[He] hasn’t played 33 Tests; he has played one Test, 33 times.”

In his 2011 book about spin bowling, Twirlymen, Amol Rajan wrote with insight, almost premonition, about Panesar’s difficulties. He “is rare among cricketers in making little attempt to hide the distress and anxiety he feels when things are not going his way”, Rajan said. “Panesar looks anxious and scared when batsmen start going after him; he looks ever ready for a consoling arm, or a sensitive captain.” He quoted a former (but anonymous) England bowler saying: “I think there is a feeling in the England camp that once Monty’s confidence is knocked, it takes a lot to bring it back.”

Rajan pointed out that the special place of the spin bowler in any cricket team can isolate him from the rest of the bowling pack. “You can become marginalised,” says Burns, of Panesar’s experience. “In the England team, there were plenty of really good bowlers that the team was built around. Spin bowlers have to contribute around other people. They provide a service.”

Perhaps this is why Panesar’s move to Sussex – where he regained confidence as a pivotal member of the team – was initially successful. Taking over from the celebrated Pakistani leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed, he helped Sussex win promotion and even found his way back to the Test team. In 2009, having shared a match-saving last wicket stand against Australia as a No 11 batsman with James Anderson in the first Ashes Test at Cardiff, Panesar was dropped for the rest of the series. “I’ll never forget getting the phone call when he’d been told he wasn’t going to play at Lord’s,” Burns says. “He was really disappointed, so I went up to see him. It’s at moments like that you realise that even cricketers don’t become anaesthetised to bad news.”

The following year Panesar married Gursharan Rattan, his long-term girlfriend. But in June 2011 he was arrested on suspicion of common assault after he was seen arguing with her in a car park; he was released without charge. They were divorced two years later. “Responsibilities change your relationship,” he says now. “Sometimes you think it’s one thing . . . and it doesn’t work out.” He thinks maybe he was a bit young for marriage. He would still like to have children one day.

Burns and other friends believe Panesar’s divorce contributed to the drunken indiscretion at Sussex. He now lives back in Luton, close to his parents and surrounded by people who want to see him prosper again. The question is whether that is enough to restore a career that burned brightly but all too briefly. As the Middlesex and ­Hampshire spinner Shaun Udal told Rajan in Twirlymen, Panesar’s problem has never been having too few advisers, but too many. “There’s just a feeling that Monty is a fantastic natural talent, so able, but as soon as he has a bad spell he’s got a physio talking to him, a captain, a coach, a spin-bowling coach, a brain coach . . . it’s just too much.”

 

***

 

Can Monty Panesar find the right balance this time round? In Barnet, when Totteridge Millhillians went in to bat, he spent some time in the nets, alone, bowling at a ­single stump. His action was smooth; the ball spurted and turned when it landed. But for Northamptonshire in the summer he took only five wickets at an average of 85; the county club wasn’t even, strictly speaking, paying him to play. He says he is a “registered partner” whose wages are paid by “private funding”; this comes from individuals whom he doesn’t want to embarrass by naming.

Panesar is desperate to “reconnect” with the game. He says he is motivated by the idea of playing for England again. “I want to play at the top level,” he says. “My arm’s getting a lot fitter. I think, if I’m bowling at my best, why not?” Spin bowlers often peak in later years and have long careers, as many of his friends are keen to point out.

He doesn’t believe that talk of an England return is premature, or puts unhelpful pressure on his recovery: “I just get motivated by it.” It can’t have helped his cause that the current England captain plays for the club that released him last year, but Panesar says he caught up with Alastair Cook when Essex played against Northants and that they “had a good chat”.

England, now struggling in the Test series in India, are still looking for a long-term solution to their dearth of spin-bowling options. But it would be a long road for the Luton man to travel if he were to return to the Test side. Describing how little cricket he has played in the past few years, Panesar concedes that it left him unmoored. “When you haven’t bowled for ages you wonder: ‘What was I like?’ There was a point where I completely forgot what kind of cricketer I was. You just forget, your mind forgets. And then you sort of speak to people who knew you at your best. You ask: ‘What was I like?’”

Emma John is the author of “Following On: a Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket” (Wisden)

Emma John is a sports journalist and deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly magazine. She writes on the arts for The Guardian and is a former Time Out theatre critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump