Focus is on lbws, not guile

Monty Panesar has become more workmanlike, thanks to the willingness of umpires to give lbws, writes David Hopps.

It has not been the most glamorous summer so far for Monty Panesar. There was success aplenty at Lord's, where he took career-best Test figures, but his bowling stints have had a workmanlike rather than an ingenious quality, so much so that his patka should be made out of navy-blue denim.

In the absence of Andrew Flintoff, made more apparent by the spray-paint tendencies of England's new-ball bowlers, Panesar has become the workhorse of an England attack reduced to four. Where once he might have been asked to unravel a batsman, he is now asked to bond together a session. With such a responsibility, he is less likely to toss one ambitiously to the heavens with the same artistry of, say, the great Indian Bishan Bedi, pitch it on leg and hit the top of off-stump.

Panesar has feasted on what has become a modern phenomenon: the willingness of Test umpires to give spin bowlers lbw decisions that once they would have waved aside with barely concealed impatience. His six wickets in the first innings of the first Test at Lord's included five lbw decisions and the best you could say about most of them was that they were unerringly straight balls.

At Lord's, three of the West Indies wickets fell to Panesar's arm ball and the West Indies captain, Ramnaresh Sarwan, admitted that recognising it had become a priority. Panesar was at it again on the fourth day of the Old Trafford Test, defeating Runako Morton, although this time it was no arm ball. Panesar found a modicum of turn, with Hawk-eye predicting the ball would have clipped the off-bail at best, and Morton confidently thrust his pad well forward, offering no stroke. The umpire, Aleem Dar, showed as little generosity as his countryman Asad Rauf had at Lord's.

Morton stalked off in fury and if it was unclear whether his anger was directed at himself or at the umpire, it would have been a brave team-mate who hung around in the dressing room to find out. Dar had a solid day, refusing several ambitious appeals by Panesar against Denesh Ramdin in the last hour.

Test cricket so often seems tipped excessively in favour of the batsmen but the general advent of more benign surfaces has been tempered by the willingness of umpires to give more lbw decisions. In the late 19th century, lbws made up less than five per cent of dismissals but now account for 17 per cent, an all-time high. That is almost two lbw decisions an innings and it is quite enough to be going on with.

Various changes to the lbw law over the years have had an effect — and the bluff Australian umpire Darrell Hair doubtless caused his own blip when he became impatient with the likes of the West Indian Jimmy Adams padding the ball away.

But the impact now is predominantly caused by technological advancement. Umpires are keenly aware that lbw appeals they once routinely waved aside as impudent because a batsman was so well forward are persistently shown by Hawk-eye as going on to hit middle stump, halfway up. An umpire keen to keep pace with technology has no choice but to take a more courageous line.

Panesar accepted at Lord's that he is playing in a fortunate age when it comes to lbw appeals, so much so that it has even led to changes in his bowling style because he has been encouraged to concentrate on bowling straighter. Many judges contend that Panesar has bowled a little too quickly throughout his career but he is unlikely to change as long as the lbws mount up.

Unlike Shane Warne, whose leg-spin variations often bewilder a batsman before the lbw decision is won, Panesar's success has owed more to a persevering tread. It is generally accepted that more leg-before decisions are to be welcomed because the threat of them forces batsmen to play more with the bat than the pad. But if the umpires' willingness to give lbw decisions persuades Panesar to abandon art in favour of painting and decorating, the advantages will not be altogether apparent. England will welcome Panesar's success because traditionally they have not been particularly skilful at winning lbw decisions. Sri Lanka have become adept at doing so in recent years — they are reliant upon two bowlers, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, who largely bring the ball back into the right-hander — and as the last century drew to a close it was Pakistan who dominated, with the reverse-swinging yorkers of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis taking their lbw percentage close to a remarkable 30 per cent.

@ Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007