England v Australia, 3rd Test, Old Trafford, 2nd day August 12, 2005

'I've done what Ashley Giles can do'

Giles: 'I'm a different person to the one I was a year ago' © Getty Images

The bespectacled John Buchanan came out like a disappointed schoolteacher whose pupils had muffed their exams. Asked about poor Jason Gillespie, the Australian coach seemed puzzled by the question. "He looked pretty good out there to me this afternoon." "What, while he was batting?" asked an Australian journalist? "Yes, isn't that what you're talking about," replied Buchanan. There you go: gallows humour from an Australian. Ashes cricket has changed.

There was one brief, sudden and unusual outbreak of normality today at Old Trafford. It lasted from lunch to tea, a session in which English tailenders got out, Australia's top order put on 73 for one wicket and the crowd could safely get their newspapers out. Other than that the ball flew, wickets fell and the uneventful dot was as rare as a pub with no beer. In this series, the normal has become rare and the abnormal has become the rule.

Ashley Giles took three good wickets, outbowling Shane Warne who matched him in the scorebook but not on the field. The slowish pitch favours the flatter spinner who fires it through rather than loops it like Warne. He bowled Damien Martyn with a ball that was a slightly less spitting replay of the Gatting ball, bowled from the same end at Old Trafford. He rightly said it was not his best, pointing to the ball that got Lara through the gate at Lord's last summer. He was not, however, the best spinner on show today. That was Merlyn, England's spin bowling machine, whose control really was robotic.

Giles dismissed the comparison with Warne. "He's Shane Warne. I'm not Shane Warne. I've not taken 600 wickets in Test cricket, I haven't taken 600 first-class wickets. But I'll continue to do what I can do." On the pressure of bowling against Warne, a competition that troubled Phil Tufnell, he said: "It's tough because he's the best that's played the game."

It was a triumph for the much-abused Giles, who bowled unchanged after tea and resembles the kindly uncle who'd buy you something thoughtful and half-decent on your birthday. He is perhaps the luckiest and unluckiest man in Test cricket. At most other times since the war he may not have played for England. But he is the best England has (a few make a case for Lancashire's non-batting left-arm spinner Gary Keedy). He struggled in Bangladesh in 2003-04, described by a young Bangladeshi batsman as "very much ordinary". But otherwise Giles has seldom underperformed. If his best is not good enough then that is the fault of English cricket, not this gentle man.

"I've done what Ashley Giles can do. I've bowled pretty consistently. Of course [the criticism] gets to you at times, but that's water under the bridge now. We have to move on. I hope we're still not talking about this in six months' time." Giles bowled unchanged from the Brian Statham end after tea till the close

"I certainly felt in the spotlight going to Edgbaston," he continued. "Everyone was writing about me."You were writing about you", piped up a man from the Independent on Sunday, referring to Giles's recent swipe at the press in his newspaper column. But Giles had learnt his lesson and would not be drawn into another tit-for-tat. "I'm a stronger man now. Taking on the power of the press, that showed a bit of guts. I'm a different person to the one I was a year ago."

At the other end was Simon Jones, who looks more like a bar-room brawler than an uncle. Asked about Jones's performance Buchanan replied: "Bloody terrible - from our point of view. Everyone talks about Harmison and Flintoff and then you get these two rabbits that come in and take three wickets each. Jones seems to have the knack of coming on and taking a wicket. He has picked up vital wickets in the series so far."

"At key times they're taking a wicket so the next player is probably not as free in their ability to play the way they would like." That jumbling of batsmen's game plans did for Australia today. If they fail to reach 245 they will follow-on in an Ashes Test for the first time since Brisbane in 1986-87 and lose control of the series. Whatever the final result, Ashes series have utterly, utterly changed.

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer