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  • England in India 2012-13

Panesar learning to play to his strengths

George Dobell
December 2, 2012
Neil Burns helped Monty Panesar go back to building on his own strengths, not trying to become a different bowler © AFP
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If England do go on to secure a series win in India, they may have a largely unsung hero to thank for their success.

Two of the players involved in England's resounding victory in Mumbai credit Neil Burns, the former wicketkeeper-batsman with Essex, Somerset and Leicestershire, for helping them turn around careers that seemed destined to end in disappointment.

Burns runs the London County Cricket Club. Founded by WG Grace in 1899 with the aim of providing "invaluable first-class match experience to many cricketers who could not otherwise get it", the club lay dormant for a century before Burns revived it in 2004. He first ran a talent identification scheme - the first beneficiary of which was Surrey's Tim Linley - and then developed his ideas to provide a mentoring service designed, among other things, to enable high-class sportsmen to realise their potential.

Nick Compton and Monty Panesar both credit the work they have undertaken with Burns as the key turning point in their careers. Compton, of whom so much was expected at Middlesex, had to move to Somerset to start to fulfil his potential, while Panesar endured two-and-a-half years out of the Test team before claiming four five-wicket hauls in his last four games. Indeed, those four Tests have earned him 27 wickets at an average of just 22.70 apiece. The previous four earned him just six wickets at 64.16. Darren Stevens, who turned around his career at Kent with the help of Burns, was another beneficiary, while Burns has recently started working with Billy Godleman, who recently joined Derbyshire having been released by Essex.

The key for Panesar was to understand what made him such a valuable cricketer. By the time he was dropped by England in 2009, his mind had become clouded with doubt, confusion and fear. He was questioning who he was and what he did and the result was a lack of confidence and performance. The skill that had originally won him selection and success - his pace, consistency, turn and bounce - were increasingly being denounced for its lack of variation and subtlety with Shane Warne famously mocking his lack of development by stating that Panesar had "played the same Test 37 times".

"I remember at that time that I was out of the team, you guys, the media, were saying I needed to have lots of different variations," Panesar said as he reflected on the performance in Mumbai that brought 11 wickets. "That was a period I needed to reflect on. That's when I went to Neil Burns. I felt I needed to know which direction to take my game. I needed to go back to my strengths and bowl good stock deliveries which relates to becoming a quality bowler at Test level.

"I'm aware that some people think I'm a bit of a luxury player. I know I'm not the world's best batter or fielder, despite all the effort and improvements I've made since my Test career began. So I've done some work with Neil, who has helped build my emotional resilience and mental focus. I believe to take 20 wickets you need to have quality bowlers so, a couple of years ago, I went back to working on my strengths. Rather than trying to be a bowler I cannot be - to do this or do that - I went back to building my own strengths. It's nice to have that professional guidance and emotional support than Neil has given me."

Players may sometimes be reluctant to open up to county coaches in case it has repercussions to their subsequent selection or employment prospects.
Neil Burns' unique support has transformed the likes of Panesar

A "luxury" player is probably the wrong description of Panesar. "One dimensional" may be a more appropriate description. But, while Panesar has accepted that he will never possess the all-round skills of Graeme Swann or the variety of Saeed Ajmal, he has learned to trust his own special strengths. They are, in his words, "getting the ball to turn and bounce with pace."

Certainly it was that skill that proved so decisive in Mumbai. Panesar simply concentrated on "his processes" and allowed the results to take care of themselves. As he tells it, when he bowled Sachin Tendulkar in the first innings with a peach of a ball that drifted in, pitched on leg and spun to hit the top of off, he was thinking purely of ensuring his action was right, not of bowling the perfect delivery.

"The previous ball had been short," Panesar said. "So I was thinking to myself: 'What are my processes here; focus on that; get that right.' That's what I was thinking about when I was walking back - 'get my mind right; how is my breathing' - these are the things I have been working on. All of them are on the checklist in my mind. It was like I was doing a service on myself. It was probably one of my best balls. It even caught me by surprise. The conditions helped because it was a used wicket and when you're bowling at that pace there's a slight chance for it to grip. But if it was a flatter deck it probably would have skidded on."

It is true that the Mumbai surface helped Panesar. Not only did the bounce help him take the edge of the bat, the skiddy nature of the pitch resulted in some natural variation which negated Panesar's lack of variety and saw some ball turn and others go straight on. The question must be, then, whether he can replicate such success in Kolkata or Nagpur.

But Panesar is no longer letting such issues concern him. While he believes he now has a better understanding of "the optimum pace for maximum turn" on different types of wickets, he knows that, however well he bowls, he will not always enjoy such success.

"I've developed a mindset where I don't take anything for granted," Panesar said. "I don't take things for granted but I commit to my processes, which help me to succeed, and I don't go beyond that."

On the face of things, it might appear that Burns' services should be unnecessary. After all, the counties and cricket boards are well funded and should be able to provide all the coaching and support a player requires. But as Burns puts it "it is not a perfect world" and players may sometimes be reluctant to open up to county coaches in quite the same way in case it has repercussions to their subsequent selection or employment prospects. Burns, by contrast, offers a confidential, non-judgemental service which is funded, in this case, by the concerned players who sought his services in an effort to realise their untapped potential.

"When I came into international cricket I wouldn't speak to anyone. Now I'm confident in speaking to the captain, the coaches and the support staff."
Monty Panesar on his newly discovered self-belief

"Monty and Nick Compton both share some similarities," Burns, who coincidentally was Panesar's maiden first-class wicket, said. "They both want to be the best they can be and they've both, after a period of early promise, experienced a period of underperformance followed by a period of confusion and doubt.

"Monty was finding things tough. Things that had worked for him in the past were not working anymore and he had become a bit constricted by fear. He was a high-quality individual who just lost his way. He needed some emotional resilience and some confidence. He needed to go through a period of experimentation to realise what his strengths were. He has grown as an individual and as a player."

Confidence is a key theme in the new Panesar. The Panesar that first appeared in international cricket was too timid to ask the captain to change a field or ask a coach for advice but, thanks to the confidence instilled in him by Burns, he now feels happy to make suggestions.

"When I first came into the international arena I'd defer to coaches, captains and players," Panesar said. "Put a ball in my hand and I'd be happy to bowl line and length, but Neil and the sports psychologist, Dr Ken Jennings, have given me more idea of who I am as a person and what I can bring to a cricket team.

"I feel a better cricketer. I'm a lot more confident in many contexts. When I came into international cricket I wouldn't speak to anyone. I wouldn't speak to the coaches or anyone. Now I'm confident in speaking to the captain, the coaches and the support staff. That's the kind of area they helped me develop."

It was a similar story with Compton. Burns did not try and reinvent him; he helped him to realise what his skills were and develop those rather than trying to be something he was not.

"I was disillusioned when he got hold of me," Compton said. "I had played a bit of first-team cricket and I was impatient for more. I remember him saying to me, 'What have you actually done?' It brought me back down to earth when I realised I hadn't actually done anything. So we spent six months just working on my defence. It was the most uncomfortable six months of my life but we really built a new package, all based on the understanding that it doesn't matter how good your cover drive or your pull is if you can't stay out there. I wanted to play the one ball I faced with as much quality as I could to make sure I could play another ball. I scored 1,300 runs that season."

Whatever happens in the rest of the series in India, Compton and Panesar can take immense satisfaction at turning their careers around and earning themselves a place in the Test team. It may well be that England cricket could learn a few lessons from Burns, too.

Investec, the specialist bank and asset manager, is the title sponsor of Test Match cricket in England. Visit the Investec Cricket Zone at investec.co.uk/cricket for player analysis, stats, test match info and games.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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