Monty Panesar: ‘My message to British Asian players is focus on your cricket’

“I liked your article on Azeem Rafiq,” Monty Panesar tells me with a glint in his eye before we have even sat down. “But I want to challenge it.” Always nice to meet a reader. Albeit, these days Panesar has something of a vocational interest. He is still best remembered as one of England’s greatest modern spinners, with 167 Test wickets and a broad popular appeal based not just on his talent but his sheer enthusiasm for the game.

The fall was sharp, and often painful, and though he maintains he is still good enough to play county cricket, he has begun to map out the next chapter of his life, taking the first steps towards a career in journalism.

Well, anyway: challenge accepted. “I had a life coach called Dave Parsooth,” he says. “He was the director of cricket at Luton Town and Indians [Panesar’s club]. And I remember him telling me about the equation of life. The equation of life is 95% mental, 5% physical. You’ve got to be mentally tough. So when I read your article and it talked about [Rafiq] being ‘powerless’, I think he could have empowered himself.”

Panesar tells a story from his days at Sussex. “There was a young keeper called Ben Brown who kept dropping catches and it was beginning to irritate me. My life coach spoke to Mark Robinson [the Sussex coach], and Mark spoke to me. He said: ‘The next time anyone drops a catch, don’t get angry, encourage them. Work with them.’

“These are the little tips of winning your teammates over, becoming a good team man in an environment.”

Hang on a minute. Are you saying Rafiq was a bad teammate? “No, I’m saying that a life coach could have given him guidance. Little tips.

“Sometimes we can be quite selfish as sportsmen. If my life coach was sitting with Azeem Rafiq he would say: ‘How’s your fitness? What are you doing on the yo-yo [test]? Why aren’t you taking more wickets? How much effort are you putting in with your teammates?’

“My message to British Asians coming through is just to focus on your cricket. And that takes you away from conversations about ‘fitting in’ and ‘diversity’.”

We now know the problems at Yorkshire went well beyond one player not fitting in. Besides, I counter, Rafiq approached plenty of people at the club and, if anything, things got worse for him. As for his cricket, we don’t know what he was trying or saying.

“No, we don’t,” Panesar says. “This is my experience of trying to win over my teammates. Some of this stuff is very embedded in Yorkshire. But parts of it seem – how do I say it? – very unique to him.”

Does he at least sympathise with Rafiq, having seen what he went through? “I felt sorry for him because he needed someone to help him. I was very fortunate that I had support around me. But then you look at this case and you think: ‘Wow. Does that kind of stuff still exist?’ Because it doesn’t exist in the Hertfordshire league. It doesn’t exist in Bedfordshire. I haven’t seen it in the Essex league. Maybe it’s a north-south divide.”

Monty Panesar celebrates with Graeme Swann after taking one of his 167 Test wickets for England
Monty Panesar celebrates with Graeme Swann after taking one of his 167 Test wickets for England. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Panesar is the first to recognise that his own passage through the game was smoother than it was for many others. He played for a diverse, well-apportioned club. From a young age his social circle was integrated, his path to the professional game – from Luton to Bedfordshire to Northamptonshire to the Test side – encouraged by mentors and coaches. “Growing up, I thought that’s how society was,” he says.

It was a similar story in the England dressing room, which Panesar first entered in 2005 and which he remembers as a warm and welcoming place. He has only kind words for his former captain, the beleaguered Michael Vaughan.

Yet it is curious to reflect on Monty-mania 15 years on – the cult following, the ironic cheers at fine-leg, the fans who would turn up at England games wearing patkas and fake beards – and wonder whether this in itself was a subtle form of othering, a caricature that ultimately held back his progress.

Panesar has thought about this a lot. “There were times when I thought: ‘Are people laughing at me?’ I’d have magic moments and then I’d have these really clumsy moments in the field. That’s what helped me become this cult figure. If I didn’t have those clumsy moments, I would have been taken more seriously as a cricketer.”

Then, in 2008, Shane Warne made his famous jibe that Panesar hadn’t played 33 Tests, he’d played the same Test 33 times. It was cruel, but partly because it had a kernel of truth in it.

“The media went off that one comment,” Panesar says. “It became a hot theme. Everyone was saying: ‘Monty’s got no variation.’ That’s when the doubts started creeping in.”

So began the next, unhappier chapter of Panesar’s career. He parted ways with his life coach. His marriage collapsed after six months. He started drinking and encountering paranoid thoughts. He was released by Sussex in 2013 after a well-publicised incident when he urinated on a Brighton nightclub bouncer. A player known for his infectious love of cricket had suddenly lost all feeling for the game.

England supporters hold up a banner in tribute to Monty Panesar during an ODI against Australia in Sydney in 2007
England supporters hold up a banner in tribute to Monty Panesar during an ODI against Australia in Sydney in 2007. Photograph: John Pryke/Getty Images

“I couldn’t seem to bring calmness into my life,” he says. “Everything felt rushed and anxious. When you’re in denial, you’re like walking fire. Everybody wants to help you, but if they come too close they get burned. Then when you take antidepressants, there’s no fire. But then you feel dead. No personality. No energy. You just don’t want to do anything.”

It took a long time for Panesar to come to terms with the fact he was suffering from mental illness. “Bravado,” he says. “You know the Sikh community. ‘Mental health? Doesn’t exist, man! We’re the providers. We are the strong.’ I remember a PCA [Professional Cricketers’ Association] mental health book coming to my house. I chucked it in the bin. I wish I’d read that book.”

For Panesar, the turning point came when he decided to reconnect with his Sikh faith. “That’s when I realised what was the most important thing for me,” he says. “Everything fell into place.” He clung to the dream of an England recall, but when he returned to Northamptonshire in 2016 he struggled with shoulder problems and bowled poorly. At the age of 34, he was out of the county game.

“It frustrates me,” he says. “The golden years for a spin bowler are 32 to 36. Now I’m 39 and when I play for Twickenham I’m bowling as well as I ever did. But is any county going to take me?”

Monty Panesar makes a point
Monty Panesar makes a point. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

Deep down, we probably all know the answer to that and in the past few years Panesar has tried to reinvent himself as a media personality. He competed on Celebrity MasterChef. He started a YouTube channel. He began a journalism course at St Mary’s University. He makes regular appearances on GB News and has started writing columns for the Telegraph. “It feels like I’m taking my first Test wicket every time I see a column,” he says. “That’s the direction I want to go into.”

The Panesar who first burst on to our screens looked vaguely dazed by the speed of his rise. He blinked nervously into the cameras and said as little as possible. The Panesar of 2021 wants to reach out and touch people. Near the end of our conversation, a woman at the next table pops up to tell us how inspiring she found his story. She knew nothing of cricket or Panesar. But there was a moving magnetic quality to his words that compelled her to speak up.

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Is life good? “You tell me,” Panesar says. “When you stand next to a radiator, you know what the temperature is. You don’t ask the radiator. What kind of energy are you feeling from me?”

The answer: warm, with qualifications. We’ll have to agree to disagree on Rafiq. Meanwhile, there’s a certain restlessness to Panesar I still can’t place: the sense of something not quite fulfilled or complete. But his company is enthralling, his answers thoughtful, his time given generously, and bearing in mind the trials he has faced and the strength with which he has overcome them, he has earned the right to be heard on his own terms: to reach out for his own particular vision of happiness.

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