Monty Panesar, the spin-bowler who once ranked among the most recognisable faces in English sport, is plotting his path towards an Ashes return later this year, starting in Dubai tomorrow. The left-arm spinner last played for England during the opening Test against Australia in Cardiff in July, and his prospects have dwindled during his eight months in the wilderness.
Graeme Swann, Panesar's former club teammate, has risen to No 2 in the world bowling rankings since usurping him as England's first-choice spinner. James Tredwell and Adil Rashid have also jumped the slow-bowling queue, leaving Panesar so far from the reckoning that the powers-that-be left him to his own devices this winter. He responded by taking up an invite to play as an overseas player in South Africa, and has since had his zest for the game revived.
To add to the climate of change, he will make his debut for his new county side, Sussex Sharks, in the Emirates Airline Twenty20 at The Sevens tomorrow. And he cannot wait to get started. "My love for the game has always been there," says Panesar, who became one of the stars of English cricket thanks to a mixture of prolific wicket-taking and enthusiastic celebrations. "Because I love the game so much, that is why I went to South Africa. If a setback had really knocked me back I could have sat back and said, 'Right, I'm going to stay in England, ride for three or four months and when the season starts, get myself back into it'.
"But I thought to myself, 'No, I really love this game. I want to improve. I am going to go out to South Africa and expose myself to new responsibilities, and commit to the development I need to get myself back in [the England side].' "Predominantly, I had been in games where I had played a dominant role, then suddenly you hit a brick wall. This was the first time I had experienced it. "I thought, 'How do I deal with this?' I decided to go out there and work hard on my game."
Panesar's slide down the pecking order has been as sharp as his original ascent. The last time England went out to Australia, there was a furore when Ashley Giles was granted the spin-bowling berth ahead of him. When he was finally handed a start, with England already 2-0 down, he responded by taking five wickets on the opening day at the WACA in Perth. Despite emphasising that his immediate focus is solely on proving his worth to his new county, he admits he has allowed his mind to wander.
"An Ashes winter is a long way ahead, but it is an aspiration," adds the 27-year-old spinner. "I have been there before, played at Perth and took a five-for on debut. I want to expose myself to the best players, on flat wickets where it does test your skill as a spinner." The Luton-born bowler's lone contact with the full England side this winter was when he acted as a net bowler for them during the Johannesburg Test match.
However, he believes he benefited from the time away from the system, as he adds: "That was part of the reason for my decision to go to South Africa. "I was privileged to get the opportunity to be an overseas player there. "It was a new system, new culture, new faces that you meet. You start having to take responsibility for your own development. "All of that learning goes into making you a better cricketer. I thought it was important that I had to go through that to understand more about myself."
Panesar has confirmed Australia's widespread suspicion that Jimmy Anderson did not, in fact, spill orange juice on his glove, to delay the death throes of last summer's Cardiff Test. The Australians were livid at what they perceived as time-wasting tactics, as England's last-wicket pair held on to save the crucial first Ashes Test, with a little help from the 12th man. Anderson changed his gloves at the end of consecutive overs, with the captain, Andrew Strauss, later claiming it was because juice had been spilled.
When quizzed on whether the claim was true, Panesar said yesterday: "No, not at all." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org