September 8, 2012

'I never found cricket very easy'

Warwickshire director of cricket Ashley Giles talks about his eventful journey with the club, during which they went from rock bottom to county champions, and his England aspirations

"They laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian," Bob Monkhouse used to say. "Well, they're not laughing now."

Ashley Giles' was a similar case. When it was first suggested to him towards the end of the 2007 English county season that he should consider taking the role of director of cricket at Edgbaston - a job soon to be vacated by the hapless Mark Greatbatch - he laughed. He had never thought of himself as a coach and, having only given in to the inevitable and retired through injury a few weeks earlier, had given little thought to his future.

But the decision to appoint Giles at Warwickshire was wise. Not only has he revitalised the club, he has emerged as the obvious successor to Andy Flower as England coach. Not imminently; not in a coup, but when the times comes. England can make succession plans for the coaching role just as they did with the captaincy. That can only be a good thing.

It is worth reflecting on the club Giles inherited when he became director of cricket. Warwickshire were in sharp decline. They had just been relegated in both leagues - first-class and List A - senior players (such as Nick Knight and Dougie Brown) were retiring and those seen as the next generation (such as Mark Wagh, Alex Loudon and Moeen Ali) were heading for the exit. It was, arguably, the lowest point in the club's history.

Life had not been easy for Giles, either. His playing career - like most playing careers - was ended by injury before he was ready and, during the Ashes tour of 2006-07, his wife, Stine, was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

But sometimes adversity brings the best out of people. Giles, a man who had to struggle through much of his career, has never been afraid of hard work. So with a phlegmatic attitude acquired over years of suffering the vicissitudes of a playing career with more peaks and troughs than most, Giles patiently rebuilt a club and a team that had been living off reputation for longer than they could afford.

Now, with the CB40 final still to come, he can reflect on two major trophies in three seasons (the CB40 in 2010 and the County Championship in 2012) and having played a part in the development of several players who could have a role to play in the England team. While Ian Bell's development was well advanced by the time Giles took over, the likes of Varun Chopra, Chris Woakes and Jonathan Trott owe him plenty.

Trott, who scored just 473 runs at an average of 22.52 in first-class cricket in 2007, credits Giles as being the catalyst behind his blossoming as a batsman, while Chopra, who had never scored more than 650 runs in a season, has now scored 1,000 twice in a row and could well have earned a place on the Test tour to India. Woakes, you suspect, would have flourished in any environment, but Giles has helped him develop into an allrounder who might go on to win games with bat and ball at the international level.

"I had a horrid time towards the end of my playing career," Giles said, as he watched his Warwickshire side crush local rivals Worcestershire in the game that sealed the 2012 Championship title. "The Adelaide Test in December 2006 was my last international game and my last game for Warwickshire was the C&G final against Hampshire in September 2005.

"I had explored a few different options - mainly media work - and it was turning into a bit of this and bit of that. I'm not really that sort of guy. I like to know what I'm doing and I like to get stuck in.

"But then Dennis Amiss [the former England and Warwickshire opener and then chief executive] approached me towards the end of the 2007 season and said I should think about the Warwickshire job. My first reaction was to laugh. I wasn't looking for it. I swear on my life - and I have done to Mark Greatbatch - that I wasn't looking for the job.

"But Dennis planted a seed. I started to think about it more and more. And the more I thought, the more I realised that the club was going in the wrong direction and I wanted to help turn it around.

"I love commentating. But there were no bad days in the office. There was no ups and down. And although you have some real downs in this job, at least you're living. I was only 34. I was too young to be rolling over and just talking about cricket.

The only way you gain instant success is by buying it and that's not sustainable over a long period. I don't just want to buy ready-made cricketers. I want to take cricketers who are not the finished article and take them on a bit of a journey.

"I was surprised at how bad things were at Warwickshire. It really wasn't great. We were poor. We had some good people, but no direction. There was a complete lack of discipline. Even the simple things like dress codes and time-keeping - and I know they sound like little things - but they all add up to big things. I remember our slip fielding: people used to let balls go if they bounced just in front of them. Everything lacked intensity.

"I remember saying at the time that I thought it would take five years to turn things around. The only way you gain instant success is by buying it and that's not sustainable over a long period. We are nowhere near the salary cap and that's fine. I don't just want to buy ready-made cricketers. I want to take cricketers who are not the finished article and take them on a bit of a journey. What we have now is beginning to look sustainable.

"Winning the Championship is huge in my career. The Ashes is probably as big as it gets, but this is right up there. Last year really was awful. It was horrible. That journey home; that night … I'm still living it, really."

There were many ups and downs on the way. Warwickshire's List A form in 2008 was grim; at times in 2010 it looked as if their top-order could be blown away by the softest breeze; in 2011 they missed out on the Championship title by an agonisingly small margin. And, through it all, the concern over his wife's health loomed over everything. A few months ago, during a routine scan, doctors discovered that the tumour had returned.

"Fortunately she has not needed an operation again, but six weeks of radiotherapy instead," Giles said. "I have tried not to let that have an effect on the team or our preparation.

"She has taken the pressure off me and said: 'You just get on with your work, you have got your job to do.' She has shown amazing strength and she has always been incredibly supportive.

"I sat the team down at Durham just before the start of the Twenty20 because I knew that Stine's treatment was about to start. I said: 'Guys if I am in and out there's nothing sinister going on, I'm not neglecting you, I'm not going somewhere else. This is why it's happening and I would appreciate your support.'

"The guys have handled it in different ways. Some don't mention it, some come up and ask how it's going. It's nice to talk about it."

So while Giles admits there have been moments when he has struggled to contain his equanimity, perhaps it is not surprising that the travails of cricket have seemed relatively minor in comparison.

He remains largely unappreciated as a player. But the fact is that Giles played a key role in England winning the Ashes in 2005 (it was Giles who hit the winning runs at Trent Bridge and made a vital half-century at The Oval), in sides that won Test series in Pakistan (in 2000) and Sri Lanka (in 2001) and was good enough to have Sachin Tendulkar stumped (the only time he has ever fallen that way in Test cricket) and produce a gem of a ball to bowl Brian Lara to claim his 100th Test victim.

"I never found cricket very easy," he said. "I had to battle very hard to get where I did. I had a lot of bad times during my career. I had my fair share of criticism from the media and spectators. I always felt I was doubted. You learn a lot about yourself in those moments.

"And sometimes you find that the best coaches are the ones who have had to work a bit harder on their game, too. Maybe, if you are not a genius, you have to think about things more and work a bit harder?

"The year 2010 was hard at times. I had some moments where I started to be a bit up and down; where I felt I'd said everything and it didn't make any difference. In the end our psychologist, Joce Brooks, told me the players were starting to second guess my reactions and I realised I had to get a hold of things. It was all part of the learning curve.

"It all looks nice today. You ask the players today and they'll all tell you what a good guy I am. But ask some of them halfway through the season when I'm on their backs, pushing them to do better and they'll tell you I'm a prick. We all have dark times.

"The important thing is to stay calm. Duncan Fletcher was icy. Phil Neale was pretty calm, too. Bob Woolmer was a bit up and down, but when that happens you see both sides of things and realise what works best. I'm a much better coach now than I was a couple of years ago."

Giles admits that missing out on the England coaching role - he applied at the time that Flower was appointed - was for the best. He also admits that it is a role he would still like to have one day.

"In hindsight, it was far too early for me as a coach and a manager," he said. "Andy is fantastic and I have much to learn from him, but we are similar in many ways. He's very structured, he believes in hard work, he believes the team comes first and that no individual is bigger than the team. And what that has done has reinforced my own beliefs and show that they work. It's fantastic for me to spend time with him.

"Like him, I think that people are everything. Character is everything. The quality of the person is the No.1 thing. Clearly you need to have certain skill sets and, looking at our squad, you can tell I'm a bit biased in terms of liking multi-skilled cricketers. That's a reflection of the Warwickshire side in which I grew up. It was full of allrounders.

"I've never hidden the fact that I'm ambitious. Otherwise I wouldn't have applied for the England job. But I don't want to take my eye off the ball. There's plenty of time.

"How long can I keep doing this job? I don't know. I believe I'm already the longest serving director of cricket Warwickshire have had. It's my home club. It's a big club. It's where I've always been and I love working here. But it's still a job and I need to get results. I'm constantly driven to do better and better."

He has his critics, though. Quite apart from those who deride his playing ability, there are those who feel his role as an England selector creates a conflict of interest with his Warwickshire role. They claim, without a great deal of evidence, that it provides an unfair advantage to the club in the transfer market and has created a situation whereby it is easier for Warwickshire players to win selection. Conversely, at the same time, it is also alleged that he keeps Warwickshire players from being selected so as not to weaken his team.

"I find it laughable," he said in an irritated manner that suggested he finds it anything but laughable. "I've been an England selector for almost four years now. I think it works really well. We've missed out on signing a few players - remember James Taylor last year? And we've two players in the England side and two or three pushing for a place. I think I still have a lot of value in that role. If I didn't, I wouldn't do it.

"I see all first-class cricket. Sometimes it works against Warwickshire as opposition players might try harder in front of a selector. But the suggestion that I have so much power in a system containing Andy Flower, Geoff Miller and James Whitaker … well, it's a joke."

Giles is used to critics, though. And he knows he will never win them over. But if he keeps producing players and keeps winning trophies, it may well be that, by the time he retires, he is remembered more for his coaching than his playing. It is surely only a matter of time before an international team - maybe England, maybe another country - comes calling.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo