Ashley Giles is the best spin bowler in England. This is his misfortune as much as his achievement. Make no mistake, Giles is an accomplished cricketer: a professional's professional in the uncomplaining, committed way he goes about his trade.
But he is not part of that rarefied élite which seems to have a member in most nations but England, and has rejuvenated slow bowling in the past decade while turning international cricket on its head. Nor does Giles bear specially close comparison with the long line of prodigious English left-arm spinners who preceded him.
Thus, poor Ash has to suffer for his art. When he has bowled for England this summer he has sometimes been off form, but the competition is negligible to the point of non-existence. There is no other serious candidate. When Giles has bowled over the wicket to right-handers, a ploy he has used frequently in the past, the voices of doom have grown louder. It has seemed to embody not only a lack of ambition on his part but also the paucity of slow bowling generally in this country.
Poor Giles is getting it in the neck for a decline that as yet shows precious little sign of being halted. English spin bowling: from Ash to ashes. The sniping has affected this cordial man, as he mused the other day. "I went through about a week and a half where I lost a bit of confidence and rhythm in my bowling," he said. "I was bowling over the wicket from the start of the Pakistan series, but when it started to go wrong people were jumping on the bandwagon. I've been miserable, basically, and got down on myself in a pretty big way. My wife told me to sort myself out and get out of it, and so did my mum. I'm perhaps listening to too much and have read too much. I always read the good and the bad."
The soul-searching over the dearth is not about to recede. It is so well entrenched that when Jason Brown of Northamptonshire takes 38 wickets at 17 runs each - as he has this season - he is castigated for doing so on a deliberately prepared turning pitch at Wantage Road. Well, there might be a few of those in places like Chittagong and Kandy this autumn.
But none of the wiser judges are proposing Brown, or his spin twin, Graeme Swann (16 wickets at 22) as the answer. The left-armer Monty Panesar, who has it in him to be a model practitioner, is so weak at both batting and fielding that he rarely makes the Northants side. Richard Dawson, an off-spinner who played Test matches for England last winter, is frequently overlooked by Yorkshire.
The provisional list of 15 players for the National Academy this winter contains only two spinners. One of them is James Tredwell, the Kent all-rounder, the other is Shaftab Khalid of Worcestershire. Khalid was a surprise pick. He is a former seam bowler who learned off-spin and is reported to be able to bowl the one that goes the other way.
"He had eluded us," said Graham Saville, development of excellence manager with the England and Wales Cricket Board. "We just didn't know him at all. Let's hope he can come through. It is a bit disheartening that there are only two spin bowlers in the group, but it's hard. Sometimes you feel as though as you can be knocking your head against a wall."
Saville and the ECB are again involved in their annual trawl for wrist spinners this summer. Terry Jenner, the Australian guru who coached Shane Warne, is again leading the expedition.
There is a crucial obstacle. The counties are still not being wholly helpful. They are reluctant to play spinners because young spinners, as Jenner has frequently had cause to observe, tend to go for a few. Jenner counsels patience. But to learn, spinners have to bowl. And when they get turning wickets, as at Northampton, scorn comes before praise.
But Saville remains the optimist. Mark Lawson, the 18-year-old Yorkshire leg- spinner, is in the England Under-19 Test squad this summer and has played regularly for Yorkshire II this summer, taking 11 wickets in one match. The player of the Bunbury Schools Festival in Shrewsbury last week was Adil Rashid, a leg-spinner.
"I still believe it goes in cycles, and at the moment we're at the bottom of the cycle," said Saville. "There isn't much about, but there will be. I was quite pleased too with the way Twenty20 went. It was a great spectacle. I've never seen so many people in the ground at Chelmsford, but also it showed that people bowling slow have a place. They're not easy to hit."
But for now poor Giles has to carry both the torch and the burden. "In one-day cricket there is a very fine line between being an economical bowler and an attacking bowler," he said. "Round the wicket you bring leg before wicket into play, but you don't get too many of them in one-day cricket. I'm not sure bowling over the wicket is an easy option. I'm not looking to bowl into the rough, but tight lines on leg stump. If you do it badly, over or round, you go for runs."
Giles would be entitled forever to invoke Bangalore 2001. He bowled over the wicket to try to contain a rampant Sachin Tendulkar, who had eased his way to 90. It frustrated Tendulkar, and the great man, refusing to be manacled, charged, missed and was stumped for the first time in Tests. A defensive tactic had been transformed into a potent attacking weapon. "When I do it well, I believe it's a very good plan," Giles said later. Perhaps it should not be forgotten, then, that 42 of his 57 Test wickets have been taken outside England.
Lately he has been sensitive to (and incensed about) the description of him as a "wheelie bin" applied by my colleague Henry Blofeld in his Test Match Special commentaries. A professional athlete would be slightly miffed about being compared to a rubbish receptacle. Perhaps Giles would feel better if he imagined that "wheelie bin" was actually rhyming slang for "genie of spin".