Cricket followers burn a lot of time and energy mocking, criticising and castigating the players our passion draws us to watch. We are particularly harsh on those who we believe are not fulfilling their potential in the sport. Steve Harmison, Mitchell Johnson are examples of players who have shown what they can achieve and then failed to live up to it. Another target of denigration are those who have reached a level in the game that their talent does not merit and struggle at that level. We’re also harsh on the superstars. Class is permanent but poor form is happening now and it’s not acceptable. Age dulls their talent, but not their self-regard. And their play may be impeccable but their conduct, dress sense, or off-field companions demonstrate they have less of a grip of other aspects of life.
The first group waste their talent, which we wouldn’t do if only we were so blessed (genetically predisposed). The second group waste our time. We don’t want to watch cricketers whose inability to score runs or take wickets is a result of a technical incompetence not seen since school net practice. The third group waste the emotions of hope, respect and even adoration that have risen through us watching them at their peak, only to be sullied by the inevitable demonstration of their humanity.
Then there are the small number of players with whom our relationship is less complicated. Australians may feel this way towards Mike Hussey. As an England supporter, I felt this about England’s new limited overs coach, now leading the England team in its one day series in India. He performed and behaved as well as I could have expected. I felt that Ashley Giles owed me nothing.
Giles was an orthodox left-arm spinner operating in a period when finger spin was thought impotent in international cricket unless the ball could be made to turn both ways. Giles’ inclusion in the England team felt grudging – if we really have to have slow bowler, he’s the least worst option. On debut against South Africa in 1998, Giles went for a ton taking a single wicket.
It was over two years until Giles played another Test – in Pakistan – and he moved quickly into credit with an analysis of 59-20-113-4, bowling 36% of the overs in Pakistan’s only innings. A five-for was earned in the next match and seven wickets in the series decider at Lahore. Giles had taken 17 wickets in the three match series, a record for an English bowler in Pakistan, and only one fewer than Saqlain Mushtaq.
For the next two years Giles played more, particularly in the Sub-Continent, than he missed. In India, he took his test best at Ahmedabad in another endurance display (5-63 in 43 overs) despite achilles and foot injuries that hindered his motion and earnt him the ‘wheelie-bin’ moniker. Giles was part of Michael Vaughan’s team that defeated South Africa at the Oval in 2003 having conceded 484 in the first innings. That summer, Giles took only 22 wickets in first class cricket. A single wicket in two tests in Bangladesh followed. But success in Asia came again before the year was out, with 18 wickets in the series in Sri Lanka.
Vaughan’s team found form and momentum, winning six consecutive test series before the Australians arrived for the 2005 Ashes. Giles was a near ever-present as the principal spinner, lower-order banker for a useful 30 and smart gulley fielder.
In the pre-series match-ups conducted on paper, Giles and keeper Geraint Jones, were the two England players deemed clearly inferior to their Australian opposite numbers – Warne and Gilchrist. What sort of player was Warne’s opponent? Giles is a big man. That and his splayed feet and high knees gave him an untidy, rolling run-up. But in delivery he pivoted hard on his right foot, arched his back, pulling his arm through classically high and strong, with head, often sporting blue reflective shades, tilted right. And he spun the ball. Too tall to give the ball very much air, but on helpful wickets, Giles was comfortable bowling in the low 50mphs, getting bite and bounce.
Giles, of course, didn’t come close to matching Warne in the 2005 series. But he managed to be both victorious and vindicated – taking wickets at Edgbaston after attracting a lot of criticism with a newspaper article, having his own ‘ball of the century’ moment piercing Damien Martyn’s confident defence at Old Trafford and scoring a half-century on the fifth afternoon at the Oval that took England to safety, a draw and history.
Worthy, committed and respected, but not a spotless career. Giles, under Hussain’s prickly leadership in India in 2001 was heavily criticised for bowling outside Tendulkar’s leg-stump from over the wicket. Wisden called it ‘unedifying’ and hoped the ICC cricket committee would stamp it out. Hussain recalled: “People went on and on about it being a negative tactic and against the spirit of the game.. and I think that affected Ashley’s career for a while..”
After the 2005 Ashes series, Giles was one of many of that team to experience injury or illness. He returned home from Pakistan with a hip injury in November 2005. It was 12 months before Giles played again – in the warm-up matches ahead of the Ashes series.
The player who owed us nothing was on the hardest tour of all, without any cricket for a year, with a ‘remodelled’ action designed, but little tested, to protect his frail limb. In his absence, Giles’ place had been taken by Monty Panesar, a loose-limbed natural left-arm spinner, who had had immediate success.
This is where my affection for and sympathy with Giles is at its strongest. Duncan Fletcher was loyal to his men and to his methods. Giles at number 8 gave the team balance, even though the team was no longer the same. And so came about a sequence of events that tipped the balance from Giles being a cricketer who owed me nothing, to one who deserved better of England. Imagine being called upon after a year away, unable to work, to do the most difficult thing your job involves. That’s what happened to Giles, who played at Brisbane and again in that defeat at Adelaide that still makes me shudder. He didn’t bowl poorly, but misjudged a chance to catch Ponting on his way to his second century of the series when England had declared at 551-6.
Giles was replaced for the third test by Panesar, who took five wickets on the first day. Family illness required Giles to return home soon after. And that was that.
Giles did not play again as injury forced him into retirement. The last year of Giles’ playing career may well anger me more than it does the player himself.