Giles reaches his turning point
Sunday 30 November 2003
Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Saqlain Mushtaq have all tried, but Ashley Giles is the only bowler to have dismissed Sachin Tendulkar stumped. It was in Bangalore on England's 2001-02 winter tour of India that the Warwickshire spinner frustrated the little master into coming down the wicket for a reckless slog.
When James Foster took the bails off, Giles and his captain, Nasser Hussain, were besides themselves with joy. A well- thought-out and well-executed plan had worked. The pair had outfoxed the greatest batsman in the world. It is an achievement that Giles is understandably very proud of, and he rates the moment as one of the best in his career.
But rather than proving to be the catalyst that took his bowling to another level, it is arguable that this was when Giles's problems really began. That is a view backed up by the statistics. The Bangalore Test was his 10th, and at its conclusion he had taken 32 wickets at an average of 35.3. In the 17 Test matches the left-arm spinner has played since, he has taken just 33 wickets at 50.1.
The methods used by Hussain and Giles to frustrate Tendulkar on that tour were the spinner's equivalent of bodyline. With seven fielders packed on the leg side, all Giles did was lob his gentle spin into the bowlers' footmarks 18 inches outside leg stump. With the ball pitching there and the field set as it was, it was risky for a batsman even of Tendulkar's class to try and score runs.
Giles is not the only England spinner to have employed such negative tactics. Philip Tufnell used a similar plan on many occasions when Michael Atherton was captain. Though effective, the strategy made the cricket some of the most tedious I have seen. I am all for wearing a batsman down through tight, controlled bowling - indeed, my game was based on it - but it should require greater skill than this. It is against the spirit of the game.
Giles enjoyed initial success with the plan, but its constant employment meant both his attitude to bowling and the batsman's attitude to him changed. In both his own and the batsman's mind he was no longer looked upon as a wicket-taker.
This affected him technically and mentally. Slow bowlers bowling this line get lazy, because they do not have to give the ball a rip to spin it - it does not really matter whether the ball turns or not. It is inconsistent bounce rather than massive spin that causes the batsman problems when the ball pitches in the bowlers' footmarks.
When he bowls there, Giles is also admitting to the batsman that he is unable to get him out through conventional methods. In a stupidly macho kind of way, batsmen have more respect for bowlers who take a beating and keep coming back for more. However, if a bloke starts hiding the ball when the stick starts flying around, his opponent knows that mentally he has the edge. The bowler knows himself that he is taking the easy and slightly cowardly way out, and will from then on struggle to gain the respect he needs.
The consequence of all this is that Giles is now looking to modify his action in the hope of increasing his attacking threat once more. What the 30-year-old is attempting to do makes sense, but Marcus Trescothick's tinkering with his batting technique in Australia a year ago highlighted what a dangerous thing that is to do in the middle of an important tour.
In practice and during England's warm-up games in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Giles has been working on straightening out his run-up when he bowls round the wicket. Previously he used to amble through the gap between the umpire and the stumps, but now he moves in past the umpire's left shoulder. The hope is that a more direct approach will stop him leaping out wide at the moment of delivery.
Good spin bowling is all about subtle changes of pace, flight and angle, and the tighter in Giles gets, the less he will have to spin the ball to threaten the outside edge. Getting closer in will improve his action and help him bowl over the top rather than round his body. One result should be that Giles will be able to get the ball to loop and drop rather than skid on, as it does now. However, it is one thing doing this in practice and another to be brave enough to go for it in a Test match.
England are certain to play two slow-bowlers in Galle, and Giles, being England's only left-arm spinner here, is sure to play. At the moment he still offers Michael Vaughan's attack much-needed variety, but he needs to take wickets during this three-Test series if he wishes to retain his place after Christmas.
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