Hell hath no fury like a spinner scorned. Or two spinners scorned. A delicious subplot, little commented upon during the Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann-inspired rout of Mumbai, would not have been lost on Duncan Fletcher, the India coach, or the bowlers themselves as they spun the deadliest web by an England combination for more than 50 years.
In his time as England’s eminence grise, it was Fletcher who selected Swann and Panesar for the first time as international cricketers, recognising nascent talents that came gloriously to blossom last weekend on the red soil of the Wankhede Stadium where they put the home-town trio in the shade.
Yet the relationship between Fletcher and both spinners has always been fragile at best. Swann was first selected for England on Fletcher’s first tour in charge of England, to South Africa in 1999-2000, but he made such a poor impression — unsurprisingly, perhaps, as a naive 20-year old — that he was not selected again until the India tour of 2008, after Fletcher had left the scene.
Swann has been careful not to criticise Fletcher openly — indeed, he has always admitted to his own failings on that tour — but there have been enough sly digs since to know that he resents his long exile during the first eight years of the millennium.
In 2011, when India toured England as the No.1-ranked Test team, Swann was established as the world’s No1 spinner and was asked regularly about his relationship with Fletcher. “A lot of people perceive me and Duncan to have an ill-tempered relationship, but we don’t have a relationship,” he said mock-jokingly at the time.
After the first innings in Mumbai a few days ago he was at it again, ostensibly in a press conference to praise the efforts of Alastair Cook, the new England captain.
“The change at the top came just at the right time for me and it has been a great four years since,” Swann said. The inference was clear: had Fletcher not been replaced by Peter Moores, Swann suspects that he would still be grinding away on the county circuit, with his international ambitions unfulfilled.
Panesar was selected by Fletcher for the first time in Nagpur in 2006, also the match in which Cook made his debut. Panesar’s impact was immediate, taking the wickets of Sachin Tendulkar, his childhood hero, and Rahul Dravid early on, and he quickly became a darling of the cricket-watching public because of his incredible enthusiasm, wacky celebrations, obvious talent with the ball and Eddie the Eagle-like incompetence in other areas.
Fletcher is a notoriously hard man to please, a characteristic that has made him a leading coach. But the impression was always that he was doubly hard on Panesar, choosing to highlight the spinner’s shortcomings as much as his strengths. Panesar’s batting was one area of weakness, especially so given Fletcher’s desire to have his Test teams bat as deeply as possible, as was his fielding, which has always been characterised by approaching the ball as if it was a hand grenade with its pin pulled out.
Fletcher was also quick to point out that Panesar did not have an arm ball, complaining effectively that Northamptonshire had sent him a half-formed cricketer and that he did not feel it was an international coach’s job to instil some of the basics of the game.
It seemed that the left-arm spinner had gone some way to winning over the coach when, after superb performances against Pakistan at Old Trafford and Headingley in 2006, Fletcher described Panesar as the best finger spinner in the world. But as always there was a codicil, as the competition, Fletcher later claimed, was decidedly thin.
When Panesar was left out in favour of Ashley Giles for the opening Test match of the ill-fated Ashes series in 2006-07, some saw it as an injustice, others as personal favouritism and a loyalty to the 2005 Ashes squad carried too far, although Fletcher insisted that the decision was based on cricketing logic as well as the preferences of other senior players.
In his autobiography, Behind the Shades, Fletcher talked about that decision in some detail. He wrote that he noticed the doubts creeping in at the Oval against Pakistan, when their batsmen attacked Panesar early on and when the spinner dropped a straightforward catch. Fletcher wrote that he worried about the No.8 position in the Ashes series and felt that Giles was bowling better at the time, even though the Warwickshire man was returning from a long layoff.
When Panesar was eventually picked for the third Test in Perth, because Giles had to return to take care of his ill wife, he took five wickets.
Reflecting on that performance in his autobiography, Fletcher wrote of Panesar’s “magnificent control” but again damned the performance with faint praise when he noted how responsive the pitch was.
The public picking over the whys and wherefores of selection, and his own strengths and weaknesses, proved too much for Panesar, who hit back in an interview shortly after Fletcher’s book was published. “Unfortunately, I would have to say that spin was not his speciality,” he said. “Duncan is a batting coach and I think that he found it challenging to understand spin bowling. All the players he has done well with are batsmen.
“In the book it says that I joined England without an arm ball, but Nick Cook, who coached me at Northants, taught me a lovely arm ball and I’ve still got that. Some of my dismissals tend to be from balls that skid on. Spin was not Duncan’s department.”
After Panesar’s 11-wicket haul in Mumbai, most would assume that his most cherished wicket was that of Tendulkar in the first innings, with a perfect ball that dipped, turned and knocked the batsman’s off stump flat. Maybe, in the light of Fletcher’s earlier criticisms, it was the second-innings dismissal of the same batsman, leg-before to one that did not turn, that would have pleased him more.
After the match, Panesar claimed that it was an arm ball. Watching from the India balcony behind his shades, Fletcher might have felt that it was one that simply did not spin.