HE COULD have been eating bugs in I’m a Celeb or flying down slopes in The Jump.
But Monty Panesar snubbed the riches of reality TV in the winter in a bid to make a cricketing comeback.
And the ex-England hero, who admits he hit “rock bottom” when he was suffering from mental illness, is adamant he WILL pull on the whites for a county again.
Panesar, 35, has not played first-class cricket for a year – when he had a short, unsuccessful spell back at Northants – and his last international match was the Boxing Day Ashes Test in 2013.
With no real other substantial income, many would have been tempted by the money on offer from the ITV and Channel Four shows.
But Panesar instead went to Australia to coach youngsters and play grade cricket to get in shape for this summer.
And he is now hoping to catch the eye of a county with his performances for Bedfordshire in the Minor Counties Championship and Luton Town & Indians in the Hertfordshire Premier Division.
Panesar told SunSport: “I asked myself what was most important to me – to make a bit of money or to train every day to make sure I am fit and ready so I can play cricket again.
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“While I may not be earning as much as before, what is important in my life right now is playing cricket. I don’t care how much effort it takes, how much I have to fight, I am going to make a comeback.
“I won’t be satisfied if I don’t. I 100 per cent have to make this comeback. I’ve got to make sure that other people’s thoughts and feelings don’t sabotage my belief.
“Because people will say, ‘You are 35, you’ve had injuries, we’ve got youngsters to play’. They are going to be worried and they are going to have doubts. But I have to show that I am better than the other spinners.
“I’ve got to show that willingness and desire to the coaches so that they think it is worth taking a gamble on Monty.”
SunSport first picked out Panesar as a star of the future in 2000, when we named him as one of our ‘Millennium Kids’.
The then Northants left-armer made his England debut six years later and went on to play 50 Tests, taking 167 wickets and 12 five-fers.
On a personal note, he says the highlight of his career came with the bat in the First Ashes Test at Cardiff in 2009, when he went in at No11 and survived for 40 minutes with Jimmy Anderson to save the game.
Panesar said: “Who would have thought that was ever going to happen? It was amazing.
“Bowling there is always going to be favourite moments, favourite balls, favourite wickets. I took a ten-fer in Mumbai against a star-studded India batting line-up.
“But doing things which are beyond your expectation as a cricketer always stick a bit more in your mind.”
Panesar’s career, however, took a downwards spiral when he was sacked by Sussex in 2013 after drunkenly urinating on a nightclub bouncer in Brighton.
He was still picked in that winter’s Ashes squad but his problems built up and, after Essex released him in 2015 for off-field “issues”, he was finally forced to open up about his mental health.
Panesar admitted: “I think rock bottom was when Essex said they weren’t going to play me and that was the end of it.
“Then I realised that I might not have a career left – and that’s when I had to speak.
“The perception was, ‘We don’t want to do anything with Monty, he’s a bad egg in the dressing room, he’s not a great bloke, he doesn’t want to bowl, he doesn’t do as he’s told’.
“At the time there was a lot of negative feelings and negative chat and I was just absorbing it. When my confidence got low, my mind was going into paranoia, and you then start thinking about things that are not there.
“My love of the game got less, you feel like your team-mates are going against you, the umpires are going against you, the fans are not there with you, and that’s when the confidence goes low.
“I should have probably opened up earlier but I didn’t. I was in denial for long periods of time. But eventually when you hit rock bottom, you can’t go any further down.
“I’d actually jumped off the cliff and gone all the way to rock bottom, so I had to tell everyone.”
Reluctantly, Panesar started taking medication for his mental illness – but he has weaned himself off the pills and has now not used them for a year.
He explained: “The medication calmed me down but the by-product of that was that I wouldn’t train as hard and my motivation wasn’t there. So I said, ‘Sod it, I’m not going to go on medication now. I’m just going to fight my way through it’.
“I want to climb the mountain. If I get there, I get there, if I don’t, I don’t. But I don’t want to sit there and not have the motivation to climb the mountain. I’d rather go through the sacrifice of not taking medication but feeling a little bit down and work through holistic approaches to get out of the rut.
“I had a bit of counselling, then I started doing yoga, then I started to do my own fitness work.”
Panesar insists he is now back to full health – both mentally and physically – and is just desperate for someone to give him a chance.
He took a ten-wicket match haul for Bedfordshire against Staffordshire earlier this month.
And Panesar added: “I speak to my close friends and they all say I am completely different to what I was.
“A lot of people say I’m a lot fitter now than during my playing days. If I keep ringing coaches, keep being persistent, eventually they will think, ‘This guy really wants it’.
“There is nothing impossible in life. The only thing that is going to stop it is if my desire gets weak, so I’ve got to stay strong. I want the next story for the media to be the comeback story of Monty.
“We like talking about the real low times, but also we like talking about the high times. So I’ll just work that extra hard to give the media a great story to write about me.”
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