Odd balls & left-arm spinners

The England selectors may decide that Monty Panesar is still the right man for Australia, back-up for Graeme Swann and co-conspirator if the pitch at Sydney still takes a little spin every New Year, writes Ted Corbett.

Monty Panesar has always had a reputation as an oddball. It’s partly down to all that dancing, hollering and leaping when he takes a wicket but the fans quite liked that noisy routine which just added to one of the rules of thumb that dominate cricket.

All left-arm slow bowlers are stark, staring mad, so they say, and believe me that is probably true although Simon Kerrigan, the latest England recruit fresh from an outstanding season with Lancashire, looks as if he might prove the exception to the rule.

I was once discussing this proposition with a man who knows the highways and byways of cricket better than most and offered a name of a leftie who seemed to the rest of the world as being, if anything, a sober professional cricketer without a black mark on his character.

“Mad as a hatter but quiet with it,” said the old international and then I remembered one incident in which this same slow left-armer finished up in hospital after a car crash.

He looked round and saw another cricketer, an all-rounder with a laconic sense of humour. “We’re in trouble, are we not?” said the all-rounder.

“Just part of life’s rich pattern,” said the man who had been driving and who was, as it turned out, in a lot of trouble with the police and magistrates and the full force of the law already knocking on his door.

A look at history might be useful as we wonder why it is that Panesar, until recently a sober man as befits a Sikh from the royal, farming and rustic county of Northamptonshire, has turned out to be one of the game’s bad boys.

Wilfred Rhodes, the greatest of them all statistically, was only odd. He barely spoke a word in his many years in cricket, beyond a polite “How’s that!” after the many times he beat the bat or deceived the batsman into edging the ball into the slips.

My guess is that, given the supposition that he received a nod of the head from the umpire for alternate appeals, that he may have asked that question at least 8,000 times and, seeing that he captured 4,204 victims, as many as 10,000 times — but it never bored him in 1110 matches even when he got no for an answer.

He kept going from 1898-1930 so that his successor Hedley Verity — immediately nominated as the second best slow left-arm spinner of all time — was 25 by the time he captured a regular spot with Yorkshire. Verity is related to the England opener and now TV commentator Nick Knight — N. V. Knight to be very proper about it — and the V stands for Verity.

It is part of the tale of the strangest of breeds that Rhodes, sharp of eye and silent of tongue when he played, became the most garrulous of men and, sadly, blind when he retired. Fred Trueman told me that Rhodes was, unofficially, the slow bowling coach at Yorkshire and constantly encouraged young spinners with the words “Throw it up” which he meant quite literally.

Verity died in the Second World War aged 38 and would probably not have played afterwards. Johnny Wardle took over in 1947. Some experts rate Wardle second to Rhodes.

I met Wardle shortly before he died — quite young at 62 — and found him charming. Like a lot of retired sportsmen he was willing to discuss the secrets of his success once he had left cricket. We had what I remember as a long conversation while he was returning to the Yorkshire nets to coach Geoff Cope, an off- break bowler frequently accused of throwing.

“Astonishing, these young players today,” I recall Wardle saying. “Cope has told me he knows nothing about side spin, or drift or swerve. I’ve had to teach him all that stuff.”

What he did not tell me was that he was apt to infuriate his team-mates. Once he dropped a catch so that he could win a bowling prize by getting the final wicket of the summer in his next over. Fred Trueman could not bear the mention of his name although at the same time they were the main attack bowlers as Yorkshire claimed championship after championship.

Yorkshire look as if they might add another title to their collection this summer but they have shaken off the need for left-arm spinners.

Not so England. They clearly had plans to take Panesar to Australia this winter until he upset the local night club owners, the police and Sussex by an indecent act recently. He has now moved along to Essex, immediately settled into line and length and economy under the eyes of the England coach Andy Flower and the England captain Alastair Cook, not to mention that shrewd old coach Graham Gooch.

They may decide he is still the right man for Australia, back-up for Graeme Swann and co-conspirator if the pitch at Sydney still takes a little spin every New Year. (I hear conditions have changed at the SCG but that Panesar will go anyway.)

I wish him well, not least because left-arm spin, looped in towards the batsman’s pads and turning away to the slips, is one of the great sights of classical cricket.

That’s why I trust we will see Monty whooping and slapping hands with his team-mates and, incidentally, giving the Aussies a new set of headaches throughout the winter.