I heart Siddle
Peter Siddle. Siddles. Sizzle. Sid Vicious. Siddlers. Siddleshwar. P Siddy. Call him any name you want, this is the man a captain would want with the ball in hand when a breakthrough is desperately sought.
Siddle is the fifth-best bowler in the world, the third-best fast bowler, behind the South Africans Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, according to the ICC rankings, but not many cricket fans would put his name among the top three fast bowlers currently going around. Jimmy Anderson, Morne Morkel, Steven Finn, Kemar Roach, and Siddle's Victoria team-mate James Pattinson would probably be pencilled in before him.
Yet the piston legs, pumping arms, purposeful run-up and passionate appeals combine to form a prototypical fast bowler of the sort every team could use. The scowl creasing his countenance shows he means business - and that's when he is happy.
I was lukewarm towards Siddle when he made his Test debut in 2008, against India in Mohali. That could be because he cut short a glorious Tendulkar innings, 12 short of a deserved hundred, for his first wicket in Tests. It wasn't the last time he would truncate a Tendulkar masterpiece in the making.
It was past midnight in south-east London, where I was on the first day of the 2010-11 Ashes, when Siddle ripped through the English batting line-up for a hat-trick and a career best 6 for 54. That was the day I got on the Siddle bandwagon.
In the last couple of years he seems to have become the fast-bowling version of Anil Kumble - no frills, ever reliable, consistent with the effort, constantly at the batsman, and ultra competitive. Kumble, as prolific and proficient he was, spent his career in the shadows of Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, but he was a true match-winner. As is Siddle.
Australia haven't been given much of a chance in this Ashes series, mostly justifiably so. Their batting line-up is fragile, with only Michael Clarke boasting an average above 40. But you can bet your bottom dollar that Siddle, with every last vein and sinew in his body, will try his damnedest to turn the predictions on their head.
In the third Test of the recent series against India, where Australia were lambasted 4-0 and the homework saga drew a lot of the attention, Siddle pounded away at the Indian batsmen in the second innings for figures of 11-2-34-1. This was after his five-for at an economy of 2.4 in the first innings, when Shikhar Dhawan had scored his mind-boggling 187.
It is said that great batsmen are appreciated in the flesh, at the ground, and not from the comfort of the couch. The ability to observe the angles, watch the minds at work, manoeuvring the field, feeds into the theatre of Test cricket. Sometimes it applies to bowlers as well, and Siddle is one of those better appreciated from the stands than on TV, with its inherent interruptions and close-up cameras.
Watching him at work, intense as he always looks, is fun. Seeing him march up from fine leg, hand his baggy green briskly to the umpire and get to the top of his bowling mark is enthralling in itself. The rhythmic run-up, with his right index and middle fingers split apart over the seam, eyebrows furrowed, the left arm raised as he bursts through the crease, and then releasing itself behind him in a flourish as the ball is hurled forward is a sight to behold.
With each passing unsuccessful delivery, the run-up seems to gain speed. The hustle to the crease seems to be amped up, the appeals get louder, the sweat band on his left arm gets a working over, his face gets redder, as if he is a volcano ready to blow. And when he does, the index finger is pointed at the sky before quickly morphing into a full-blown fist pump, as he roars.
I was fortunate enough to watch one such Siddle spell at the Melbourne Cricket Ground during India's last tour down under. The Boxing Day Test seemed headed India's way: Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid were involved in a century partnership for the third wicket, as the last session of day two wound down, setting a platform for India to overtake Australia's 333. The Test, and perhaps the series with it, turned when Clarke tossed the ball to Siddle for the 59th over, with India on 202 for 2.
In an outstanding display of aggressive reverse swing bowling, Siddle troubled both batsmen with movement in and out, and had them hopping with his pace. With the sixth delivery of the 59th over, Siddle cleaned up Dravid. But he had overstepped. Siddle was frustrated. The Melbourne crowd fuelled him with their chants of "We love Siddle 'cause he's a Victorian", and he kicked it into high gear. The next delivery, delivered at 150kph, torpedoed into Dravid's stomach, making him fold over.
Dravid and Tendulkar had to use all their experience and discipline to stay alive but in the last over of the day, his fourth of the spell, Siddle broke through Tendulkar's defences with a reverse-swinging thunderbolt, knocking back off stump and breaking into a run, both index fingers raised.
Tendulkar walked away with pursed lips, knowing a workhorse who imposed his will on proceedings had beaten him fair and square. Clarke, desperately seeking a breakthrough, had brought Siddle on, and he had delivered, just as he did with the wickets of Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott after lunch on day one at Trent Bridge.