The unsung winner
In the final analysis, Ashley Giles' international career looks every bit as ordinary as his detractors always insist it has been. A bowling average of 40.60, a batting mark of 20.89. If you could flip those figures around, you'd be looking at the single greatest allrounder who ever lived. Alas, that's not the case. You're looking at Gilo. The Wheelie Bin. The non-spinning left-arm spinner. The butt of every joke that was ever made about England's cricket team during their golden era of the mid-2000s.
But hang on, there's an anomaly in that sentence. That's right, the golden era. For there's one other statistic that deserves a mention when assessing Giles' career. In the course of his 54 Tests, Giles was involved in no fewer than 27 victories and just 12 defeats. To put that into some sort of context, the England cricket team as a whole managed just 26 wins in the entire decade of the 1990s. For all the derision he attracted, Giles was a winner, and as integral to his side's success as any of the glamour boys who so regularly eclipsed his limelight.
Giles' value to England cannot be assessed by statistics. His five five-wicket hauls have been exceeded by Monty Panesar in barely a third of the games, while his tally of four Test fifties in 81 innings (and a highest score of 59) hardly seem the sort of numbers to justify the blind faith invested in him by his coach Duncan Fletcher. But it was the commitment of his contributions that made the difference. Giles was a cricketer who had no choice but to excavate every ounce of his ability and, in doing so, coaxed similarly heartfelt performances from men with twice the talent but half the drive.
In Fletcher's estimation, Giles was one of the three most professional cricketers he had ever worked with. It's hard to imagine who could have topped his charts because Giles was a Fletcher man through and through. Memorably the partnership all ended in tears, with that misguided recall for the 2006-07 Ashes, but let's face it, that series was a bridge too far even for the likes of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison. Even so, for Giles to wind up as the scapegoat, after dropping Ricky Ponting at Adelaide, was nothing less than apposite.
Giles was always the scapegoat when things started to go wrong for England, never more so than in the 2005 Ashes, when England's defeat in the opening Test at Lord's caused a barrage of spleen-venting in the media. In the build-up to the series, Terry Alderman had suggested that any Australian batsman who got out to Giles should go hang himself; and after a wicketless outing at Lord's, the former Zimbabwe captain Dave Houghton suggested that persisting with him in the side was like playing with ten men.
And yet, in that famous series Giles and his team-mates negotiated the last laugh. His ten Ashes victims included each and every member of Australia's top eight, but it was his performances with the bat that would be recalled with the most gratitude. At Trent Bridge he soothed the nation's brow by clipping the winning runs after an innings-saving stand with Matthew Hoggard, and in the next match, at The Oval, his fluster-free defiance allowed Kevin Pietersen the freedom to thwack the Aussies into submission. Giles finished that day with 59 - the highest score of his career. He would never play a Test in England again, and in hindsight he should perhaps have bowed out of internationals there and then.
But as ever, Giles had made his runs when they counted. At this point it's worth throwing in a few more statistics: 9 for 80, 5 for 31, 7 for 97, 7 for 68. They read like the sort of bowling figures that Giles could only dream of. In fact, they are the batting collapses, at both Lord's and Trent Bridge, that have undermined England's ambitions in their current series against India. Giles may never have gone big in any of his innings, but he failed so rarely that collapses such as these were all but eliminated during his time in the side.
In fact, from the moment he scored the first of his Test fifties, against Zimbabwe at Lord's in 2003, Giles was dismissed in single figures in just nine of his 53 innings. That hardly reads like riches, but coming from that pivotal No. 8 position, it meant that the man at the other end - invariably the last recognised batsman - had a foil in whom he could trust, and the freedom to play his natural game.
Giles' successes with the bat were myriad - his back-to-the-ramparts 17 not out at Galle in 2003-04, when England somehow escaped the clutches of Muttiah Muralitharan; his 70-run stand with Graham Thorpe at Trent Bridge in 2004, when England chased a record 284 against New Zealand; his unsung 31 at Johannesburg the following winter, when Marcus Trescothick cracked 180 in the second innings to pave the way for a miraculous win. If, one day, Panesar becomes the multi-dimensional cricketer that he would dearly love to be, maybe his omissions in favour of Giles at Brisbane and Adelaide will be cited as the catalyst.
Of course, first and foremost, Giles was a bowler, but in that role he also spent more time acting as a foil for his team-mates than as a spearhead in his own right. His long, lonely and lampooned spells over the wicket and into the leg-side rough enabled England to rotate their quartet of pacemen from the other end - and by 2005 those pacemen were being heralded as the best in the world. Giles' predecessor, Phil Tufnell, suffered for being used in such a holding capacity, and Panesar too is better utilised with men round the bat. Giles, however, knew his niche, and stuck to his guns - and those of his captain.
Even so, he had his moments with the ball in his hand. He bagged 17 wickets on his maiden England tour to Pakistan in 2000-01, and then starred in controversial circumstances against India the following year when his persistent leg-stump line resulted in the stumping of Sachin Tendulkar for the first and only time in his career. That was the tour on which Hussain reached his captaincy zenith, but by then he had identified the men who could carry out his orders.
Without an innate cricketing talent, and bucketloads of character, Giles could not have endured in the manner that he did. The irresistible rise of Panesar means Giles will hardly be missed, but one day - when distance has lent more perspective to the team of which he was a part - his contributions will be recalled as more than just makeshift.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo