This piece first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in January 2007 during the Ashes Test between Australia and England.
It is no coincidence that the release of the new film version of ‘Charlotte’s Web’ last month coincided with the exact day that English spinner Monty Panesar bowling his first test delivery on Australian soil. OK, OK, that’s drawing a long bow and the two events clearly aren’t linked, but there’s something very similar in the lovable character of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web and the man we’d really like to call our own but can’t.
There’s obviously something special about Monty Panesar. Not special in the same way as Shane Warne or Glenn McGrath, but special all the same. The chap in my bottle shop reckons he’s the ‘next big thing’ and a Google search shows 1.7 million pages mentioning the bloke. Day one of the 5th test in Sydney showed parts of the crowd sporting beards and headwear just like Monty. Youtube even contains a song about him. It must be serious.
But what is it about this man that makes even non-cricket followers admire him? Like the character of Wilbur is Charlotte’s Web, Mr Panesar seems the epitome of enthusiastic naivety. Just as Wilbur the pig was left out of the barnyard family for being a ‘runt’, Monty was left out of the first two tests for reasons only the English cricket administration understand. When Wilbur is finally embraced into the barnyard family, all he wants to do is play, and Monty is seemingly the same now he’s been given his chance in the English test team.
Commentators during the third test in Perth were giggling about the fact that he wanted the ball even though it wasn’t his turn to bowl; that even after he’d been hit for 19 runs in the previous over, he was putting his hand up for more. He’d bowl every over in the Sydney test if we’d let him and maybe he should. Bugger the strategy, it’s the passion we love, and Monty is showing a passion and unbridled joy of the game we haven’t seen in a long time.
But what really makes Monty Panesar so popular? A far cry from those fashionable, clean-shaven, sports superstars we see so much of these days, Monty seems the antithesis of fashion. Perhaps it’s the fact he seems oblivious to all the latest trends that make him ‘cool’. He’s clearly his own man. A devout Sikh, Panesar wears the patka (a mini-turban) with a dignity that makes the coiffured hairstyles of millionaire sportsmen like Matt Giteau or David Beckham look silly. Maybe I’m getting old, but I just don’t get this current fixation millionaire sportsmen have with their hair. Give me Monty and his patka anytime.
Yet there’s more to it than his passion, his patka and his facial hair. We live in a world of comparisons, and perhaps it’s the natural comparison we make with our own king of spin that makes him so popular.
Now as cricketers go, Warnie is a genius; there’s no doubting that. Yet in the numerous retirement accolades Warnie has received from the world’s batsmen, it’s his label as the ‘king of sledge’ that’s the biggest worry. As the volume on the Channel Nine stump mike is turned up (not in the live broadcast mind you, but in the pre-recorded, swear-checked ‘G’ rated version), we hear Warnie gabbling in a non-stop sledge to English batsmen. His verbal diarrhoea ranges from their ‘hopeless’ batting style to the size of their bottoms to their hairstyles. It’s amazing his team-mates can focus on the game let alone the batsmen! Like the gabbling of the geese in Charlotte’s Web, it portrays a tiresome arrogance; an arrogance that’s slowly wearing thin with Australian cricket supporters. Sure, it’s great to win; yet to win with integrity and grace is even better. As demonstrated in the Champion’s trophy last year when the head of Indian Cricket was jostled off the winner’s dais by the Australian team, Aussie cricketing grace is sadly lacking.
In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider tries to save Wilbur from being Christmas ham by writing certain words in her web. It’s not that Wilbur is ‘Terrific’ or ‘Some Pig’ that saves his life. Ultimately it’s the word ‘Humble’ that saves him from the smokehouse.
Here lies the secret of Monty’s popularity. Even in our brash and stylised world of cult celebrity, marketing hype and strategic media-managed sound bites, we still have some innate eye for legitimacy. ‘Humble’ would be too simple a word for a 21st century, university educated, representative cricketer like Mr Panesar, yet in the amazing support he’s generated from the Australian public, there’s clearly some lessons for our own cricketing heroes. A touch of humility could well be one of them.