The release of the new film version of Charlotte’s Web last month was within a few days of the English spinner Monty Panesar bowling his first Test delivery on Australian soil. The two events aren’t linked, but there’s something very similar in the lovable Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web and the man we’d really like to call our own but can’t.
There’s something special about 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 mentions of the bloke. On day one of the fifth Test in Sydney parts of the crowd sported beards and headwear just like Panesar. YouTube even has a song about him. It must be serious.
But what is it about this man that makes even non-cricket followers admire him? Like Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, Panesar seems the epitome of enthusiastic naivety. Just as Wilbur the pig is 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 understands. When Wilbur is finally embraced by the barnyard family, all he wants to do is play, and Panesar is seemingly the same now he has been given his chance in the English Test team.
Commentators at the Perth Test were giggling that he wanted the ball, even though it wasn’t his turn to bowl; that even after been hit for 19 runs he was putting his hand up for more. He would bowl every over in the Sydney Test if they’d let him – and maybe he should.
Bugger the strategy, it’s the passion we love and Panesar is showing a passion and unbridled joy in the game we haven’t seen for a long time.
But what really makes him so popular? A far cry from those fashionable, clean-shaven sports superstars we see so much of these days, he seems the antithesis of fashion. 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 such as Matt Giteau or David Beckham look silly. Maybe I’m getting old, but I just don’t get this fixation millionaire sportsmen have with their hair. Give me Panesar and his patka any time.
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 king of spin that makes him so popular.
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, 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 teammates 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 Champions Trophy last year, when the head of Indian cricket was jostled off the winner’s dais by the Australians, Aussie cricketing grace is sadly lacking.
In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider tries to save Wilbur from becoming 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’s the secret of Panesar’s popularity. Even in our brash and stylised world of cult celebrity, marketing hype and 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 cricketer such as Panesar, yet in the amazing support he’s generated while he’s here, there’s clearly some lessons for our cricketing heroes. A touch of humility may well be one of them.
Phil Dye, Sydney Morning Herald