Sportsmen of our stock
Monty's not a one-off. Sporty Sikhs decorate the legend. On Thursday, more than three decades on, another 24-year old patka-wearing Sikh, mystically gifted, comes to The Oval to weave his spells. Bishen Singh Bedi was the very same age, and I savour the thrill of enchantment at my very first sight of him twirling his softly supple southpaw slows alongside the gasometers that midsummer of 1971. The preening choc-caps of Surrey were on their way to another county championship but that day, against the Indian tourists, successively one by one their batsmen - Stewart, Younis, Roope, Storey, Intikhab, Long, Arnold - were dispatched to the hutch, shaking their heads in baffled embarrassment at the Sikh's placidly lethal cocktail of curve and loop and spin.
If Panesar has, of a sudden, so delighted English cricket, he has warmed, too, the proud community of some half a million fellow Sikhs in Britain. Panesar speaks of his pride in his roots and his faith. Like Bedi, he wears the ancient religious symbols, the metal bracelet and, in his patka, the lock of uncut hair bound in a tiny comb inlaid with a silver sword. "Some of our successful Sikhs in Britain, alas, see continuing with such accoutrements as a hindrance, but Panesar has been an inspiration," says Indarjit Singh, editor of the Sikh Messenger.
Historically, us Brits were led to believe that the Sikhs were big brawny fellows, square-shouldered, strong-armed and strong-willed for sport or battle. Despite a couple of mentor Bedi's recent star pupils - the lulling lefties Maninder Singh and Harbhajan ("The Turbanator") Singh - traditionally, we conjectured, Sikhs were not guileful in the arts and crafts of spin and made only sturdy pace bowlers or bold and bonny batsmen. I remember fondly, for instance, the strapping Sikh, Balwinder Sandhu, deceptively quick, who set in train India's day of days at Lord's in the 1983 World Cup final by at once clean-bowling Gordon Greenidge for next to nothing; and, of course, as a boy I read of how Amar Singh, in India's first ever Test match in 1932 at Lord's, dismissively swept away Sutcliffe, Ames, and Hammond - after which (in the days when quotes were quotes) the latter, England's champion Wally, ruefully pronounced: "He came off the pitch like the crack of doom." As for lusty Sikh batsmen, I recall vividly how Navjot Sidhu, bearded chin and kestrel's eye, took a fierce Test 100 at Madras off Graham Gooch's England on the 1992-93 tour.
A Sikh prince was almost founding father of Indian cricket, certainly its first regal patron. The Maharajah of Patiala was devoted to (in reverse order) wine, women and cricket. He organised the first tour of cricketing Indians (mostly Parsees) to England in 1911, and hired such luminaries as Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst to spend winters coaching his Test player son, Yuvraj. Side by side with the rise of cricket, of course, was hockey. Phenomenally, India were Olympic hockey champions seven out of eight times between the Games of 1928 and 1964 (losing only in the 1960 final to Pakistan); those immortal sides, imperishably embedded in sporting lore, were peppered with no end of immortal Sikhs - Udham Singh won four successive golds, Balbir Singh scored nine of the team's 13 goals in the 1952 tournament, Randhir Singh Gentle scored a double hat-trick six in the 1956 final alone. Singhs of Praise, indeed.
I was 17 when I saw my first celebrated Sikh sportsman. The Daily Express called Milkha Singh "the Turbanned Tempest" when he spreadeagled the 440-yards field at the 1958 Empire Games in Cardiff. Wow, he went thataway! Two years later, Milkha was fourth, by a blink, at the Rome Olympics in the, still, best ever 400m final when every runner broke the 46-second barrier and the first two (Davis of the US and Kaufmann of Germany) obliterated the world record.
As a teenager, Milkha had lost his entire family in the horrors of partition but now, home a hero in Kashmir and to encourage Indian athletes, he offered the equivalent in rupees of £3,000 to anyone who could break his Olympic time of 45.73 secs. All of 38 years later, in 1998, a Sikh policeman Paramjeet Singh claimed to have beaten it by 0.03 of a second at a local meet. Sensing a timekeepers' plot, old Milkha flatly refused to pay up. Well, sporting Sikhs are sticklers for accuracy and shrewd with it. Two qualities which make for priceless spin bowlers.