Monty Panesar: 'The younger generation has made it easier to understand British Asian cricketers'

"If anyone is struggling and feels that life isn't great, then just reach out and talk. That can make a huge difference" Jamie McDonald / © Getty Images

Former England spinner Monty Panesar talks about his country's slow-bowling stocks, branching out into broadcasting, and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cricket is about to restart after a long hiatus owing to the coronavirus. What do you make of England's upcoming series against West Indies?
It's great to see West Indies back in England. They put their hand forward and said they'd be happy to tour. And it is kind of a perfect timing with what we see in the Black Lives Matter [movement] and other things. It's going to be a really good series and I think a lot of people will be watching it. The England players are going to have the names of some key workers on the back of their shirts and West Indies have got the Black Lives Matter logo printed on their shirts as well. There'll be a huge audience watching the three Test matches.

The ICC has banned the application of saliva on the ball. Seam bowling aside, do you think that will also affect spinners?
I think the main thing that's going to be affected is the swing. England is such a unique place where you get overcast conditions, a bit of humidity in the air, and we don't really need to shine the ball - you still get it to swing. But on a hot day and a flat wicket, as a spinner, you want that ball to drift, which you can't [make it do] because you cannot shine it. So yes, it is going to pose some difficulties. But I think it is going to affect the seamers more than the spinners.

You just mentioned the BLM movement. As a non-white player growing up in and aspiring to play for England, did you experience discrimination?
When I was young, I didn't really come across any such [treatment] because I was surrounded by people who just thought about cricket. But what the BLM movement has done is opened up dialogue amongst other groups as well. People ask, "Why aren't certain questions being answered for us?" BLM has raised issues and you begin to educate yourself, amongst many other things - it has raised topics in every culture now.

"Modern spinners also play T20 and one-day cricket, where you need to bowl into the pitch. But in Test cricket, you have to bowl in a more traditional way, with a certain shape on the ball and you need to spin it as well"

Going forward, everything's about change. Whatever's happened in the past has happened - we can't change that. But how do we go forward? How do we make the lives of the minorities in different countries better? That's what I am more interested in - I'd love to see changes take place. Talking about the past, people may have had political agendas that you don't not even know about. So there's no harm in educating oneself.

We have [in England] the rugby union anthem "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", which is linked to slavery. They [slaves] were singing because they couldn't take on the authorities. They were not allowed to question authority; they were told, "This is how it is and this is how you've got to do it." So they just started singing that song, hoping that their death would be sweet. Some people say that song should be banned [at England rugby matches], but I believe we shouldn't ban it because gives us an opportunity to educate and learn.

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Diversity is what makes people stronger and [brings] people together. And diversity has been great in cricket - you look at the Indian team, they are so diverse - and that is one of the positive things that we want to talk about. India have some great cricketers from Punjab, Gujarat, Chennai and Bengal - all parts [of the country] - and are still a strong force. They still maintain their strengths in all forms of cricket with all the diversity in their team.

Talking of diversity, English spinner Amar Virdi, who is also a Sikh, recently said that not only does he look like you, but also wants to be like you. What do you make of him as a young spinner?
I hope he only wants to bowl like me, and not bat and field like me! But I think he's an exciting prospect. At 21, he seems really mature. He's only played 23 [first-class] games and taken just over 50 wickets, so he's still got a lot more experience to gain. He's still young and this is probably the best time for him to play, as we have two Tests [against West Indies] at Old Trafford.

Though Moeen Ali and Jack Leach are probably ahead of him at the moment, being in the squad gives everyone an insight - and Virdi himself an opportunity - to see what his bowling is like against the best players in England. If anything, he could make his debut in the third Test because it is at Old Trafford, where it's going to be a spinning pitch. If England win the series by then or the [first-choice] spinners haven't bowled that well, I'd definitely give Amar Virdi a go in the third match.

I feel England are going to give an opportunity to Dom Bess and Leach because they are in the pecking order. But they could try Virdi on helpful pitches - he gives the ball a good flight, he turns it, and everyone wants to see exciting young cricketers play Test cricket. So it would be wonderful to see him make his debut.

Since the days of yourself and Graeme Swann, England have tried several spinners in Tests with only Ali getting a fairly long run. What do you make of the spin-bowling culture in England at present?
Spinners these days have to switch [between formats], so it is difficult to find genuine Test match spin bowlers. In T20 and one-day cricket, you only need to bowl into the pitch. But in Test cricket, you have to bowl in a more traditional way, with a certain shape on the ball and [you need to] spin it as well. When you look at the likes of Amar Virdi, you realise that he's probably the most traditional spinner amongst all of them. Even Dom Bess plays in all forms [of the game] and he bats really well. He's worked with Rangana Herath to get some shape and his action back again.

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With Moeen Ali, I guess his favourite form [of the game] is probably T20. He is a brilliant batsman and bowls really well. I don't know how much desire he has to still play Test cricket. There has been the attraction of playing in T20 leagues and he's had a taste of Test cricket as well - so it's up to him [as to] how hungry he is.

Do you think pitches in England have affected spin bowling?
The pitches are drier now and they're more used because there's so much of cricket on. So the ball does spin - at times, it spins even more than in India. So spinners play a huge role in county cricket and in all forms [of the game] and that's good to see. But I believe captains still need to learn how to use a spinner, especially in the first innings where they tend to go for seamers all the time.

Do you think it is coincidence that all three of Ali, Adil Rashid and Virdi are of Asian background?
I think they've come through the system. When Mushi bhai [Mushtaq Ahmed] was the spin-bowling coach of England, he went around the different county circuits and helped the coaches. The ECB's system to allow the Asian players to come through and understand the culture better also helped understand how we get the best out of a British Asian cricketer.

"Fitness videos on Twitter are one way of connecting and engaging with the fans. There's a fun way of doing it and it keeps myself fit as well"

Then we had Saqi bhai [Saqlain Mushtaq] who helped Amar Virdi, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid. So their influence has really helped the younger generation of spinners to come through and just made it easier to understand British Asian cricketers.

You said you hope Amar Virdi doesn't try to emulate you with the bat, but how do you look back to your efforts against Australia in Cardiff in 2009?
I remember being very calm at the crease, not thinking that I am going to get out any moment. Jimmy Anderson told me, "If it's straight then protect your stumps, but if it's short then let it hit you." I recalled what Marcus Trescothick had told us at the time about playing spin bowling, some of which had stuck in my mind. He would always say that if the ball was turning or seaming, don't let the bat go after the ball - just hold the position and let it turn - and you're more likely not to snick it. But if you move your bat just a little bit, you might snick the ball. I remember some great deliveries by Nathan Hauritz but we just held our line and let it spin past our outside edges instead of chasing them.

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I was more worried about getting run out, and the whole team was always concerned about my calling. But I was very happy about drawing that match because we won the next one, at Lord's, after Andrew Flintoff took five wickets and Straussy [Andrew Strauss] scored a brilliant hundred. And that win gave England the momentum and the belief that we could beat Australia.

What was it like getting Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid in your debut Test, in Nagpur in 2006?
They are world-class cricketers and bowling against them while holding my nerve was an amazing feeling. That's what it [international cricket] is all about - the crowd, bowling against great batsmen, and the intensity, and not just about the players. Most of the time, I am just looking for a compliment from these greats; you don't really think about getting them out.

But I guess being a left-arm spinner, if I get one to turn, it's always going to threaten the outside edge of a right-hander and you never know when I might get the off stump. But I feel very lucky, because if you look back, that was probably the best batting line-up in the history of Indian cricket. So I feel very happy about it.

During England's tour of India in 2012, you sat out the first Test but ran through the hosts in the next game, in Mumbai. What was going through your head when you had the ball in your hands on the first morning?
I remember getting the first breakthrough [India's second wicket] through a fullish ball that hit [Virender] Sehwag's pads and then hit off stump. That was it - I needed my first wicket to get me going and also get an idea of the pitch. The pitch was suited for Swanny's and my pace, and we bowled quite quickly into the wicket and got it to turn more than the Indian spinners, who bowled slightly slower.

From that point of view, the game was kind of set up for us to bowl India out. We needed Kevin Pietersen to bat really well and that innings [of 186] was unbelievable.

Can we expect you to be back in county cricket?
I hope so - that's one of my next goals actually. I'd love to make a comeback in county cricket and to see which counties are interested in me. I'm going to ask and see if there is an opportunity somewhere.

You worked with Australia's spinners during their tour of India in 2017. Do you look forward to a career in coaching as well?
I'd love to get into coaching at some point. Talking about the experience with Australia, they had Nathan Lyon, who puts more revs on the ball and works hard on his stock delivery. Steve O'Keefe complemented Lyon really well and bowled beautifully, and on helpful pitches, he's probably a better bowler than Lyon. O'Keefe bowls [with] a slightly flatter trajectory while Lyon bowls slower, and poses more threat on pitches in Australia.

You made an appearance on the TV show Dancing on Ice, you've got your own YouTube channel, and you've been putting out exercise videos on Twitter. You seem to have lots going on away from cricket?
Fitness videos are one way of connecting and engaging with the fans. There's a fun way of doing it and it keeps myself fit as well. I've done that on the Monty Channel and put that on TikTok as well. That's one area where I try and stay active. And I try and get caught up a bit on some of the political channels as well - BBC London and LBC.

"Pubs are being reopened. I am a teetotaller, but I want to end with my friends on a Saturday in a pub somewhere while watching football"

Politics is another area which interests me because my media coach told me that if I wanted to become a good broadcaster, I must be able to talk about topics apart from cricket. So that's my way of getting myself talking about a topic I don't know anything about. But if I do my research, answer some questions and make some sense, it would make me a better media broadcaster.

During the recent lockdown, there was a lot of discussion about mental health issues. You've spoken about your own battles. What have you learned from them?
I believe that the best remedy is talking - you need to talk about your feelings and thoughts and reach out to people as well. Sometimes it is difficult, because how many people can you reach out to? Maybe only your close friends. It's very sad when you hear these stories and you just hope that people can learn from each case.

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Behavioural therapy is really important - it can help people understand about their minds and about themselves. So talking is probably the best way and if you need to take medication, then do. But don't be quiet - whatever's in your mind, share it with someone. If you share things with people they can help you. If anyone is struggling and feels that life isn't great, then just reach out and talk. That can make a huge difference.

On a lighter note, what do you look forward to doing once lockdown restrictions ease and the Covid-19 situation improves?
I am just looking forward to going to a nice restaurant, having some food with my friends and my family, and catching up with them. Pubs are being reopened. I am a teetotaller, but I want to end with my friends on a Saturday in a pub somewhere while watching football. I am the designated driver among my friends. They say, "Monty, you join us and drop us home as well."