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)