Swinging out of the shadows
This week in Colombo, he's been out of the side once again. But this exile has been different. While his pace-bowling colleagues have used England's final warm-up as an audition for the first Test at Kandy, Sidebottom has been patrolling the boundary's edge, running the odd errand as 12th man, sending down a few two-step half-volleys to Kevin Pietersen in the nets. Passing the time in any way he can, until the weekend comes, when he will be handed the new ball in his first overseas Test.
From outcast to insider in the blink of an eye, Sidebottom typifies the sense of renewal that has come about since Peter Moores took over the England job. "It's been such a weird eight or nine months," Sidebottom says. "From not thinking I'd ever play again - always wanting to, but never thinking I would - and then to be in the thick of it and opening the bowling in both forms of the game. It's weird. But it's gone well and I've really enjoyed it. I think everyone's got a clean slate and a point to prove on this trip, and all I can do is work hard."
Sidebottom likes his hard work. It is both his stock in trade and his stock phrase for interviews. Whenever there's a pause in conversation or a train of thought to be wrapped up, out it comes to fill the void, as accurate and mundane as his perpetually underrated bowling. "This tour's been a breath of fresh air and all the lads have really enjoyed working hard in the nets," he says. "The meetings have been good and the spirits have been great."
|Seventy-eight Tests and almost as many months went by before he was given his second chance. No one truly imagined it would come, and it seemed inevitable that Sidebottom Jr would end up like his father, Arnie, a fellow member of the one-cap wonder club|
With his lank greasy curls and unexpectedly fey voice, Sidebottom looks and sounds as though he belongs in an Iron Maiden tribute band. To the former England coach, he was even less of a fashion icon than that. "A good, honest county-standard English bowler" was the damningly faint praise that Fletcher offered in his recent autobiography. Sidebottom, however, seems more resigned than riled. "At the end of the day it all comes down to his beliefs, but it was disappointing," he says. "Maybe he thought if you couldn't bowl 90mph, you were a hopeless bowler, but I just had to get on with it, really, and keep plugging away."
Discipline, diligence and determination have hauled him back from obscurity and into the bosom of the England team. In 2005 and 2006, while Simon Jones and Sajid Mahmood were demonstrating the Janus faces of Fletcher's quest for pace, Sidebottom grafted his way to 50 first-class wickets in consecutive seasons for Nottinghamshire. But it was an unglamorous remit. In fact, until this summer, the only thing sexy about Sidebottom's career was the nickname he picked up during his early days at Yorkshire - "Sexual Chocolate". That was the name of a curly-permed posse of soul singers in the Eddie Murphy film, Coming to America, and unsurprisingly, Darren Gough ensured it stuck.
Sidebottom moved away from Yorkshire at the end of the 2003 season, not because of name-calling, but because his opportunities were being limited by the sheer volume of fast bowlers at the county. He sensed an immediate improvement in his game at Trent Bridge, but nobody seemed to be watching. "I started bowling better and more regularly and I thought I might have a chance maybe for an A tour, but it wasn't to be," he says. "But you never give up hope, because I suppose that's the main aim of playing county cricket: you want to play for your country."
You want it all the more when your country has come calling and then gone begging. Sidebottom made his debut in an innings victory over Pakistan at Lord's in May 2001. While Gough and Andrew Caddick were sharing 16 wickets between them, he bowled 20 barren overs for 64 runs. "I didn't think I bowled too badly, I just didn't perform to the level I was at, at that time," he says. "It was disappointing but it was also a bit of an eye-opener. I had to get stronger, swing the ball more consistently, and just learn how to bowl."
Seventy-eight Tests and almost as many months went by before he was given his second chance. No one truly imagined it would come, and it seemed inevitable that Sidebottom Jr would end up like his father Arnie, a fellow member of the one-cap wonder club. "Dad was probably unlucky not to play more," he says. His solitary Test came at Trent Bridge in the 1985 Ashes, by which stage he was 31, and by his own admission, "past his sell-by date."
These days Arnie is a coach in the Bradford Leagues. "He loves working with the kids, although when I was growing up, he always left me to get on with my own game," says his son. "I guess he didn't want to be one of those parents hanging off the balcony and telling their kids off for not bowling in the right areas. I enjoyed rugby, football and cricket, so he just left me to it."
So too did England's selectors. Even in May 2007, when the end of his exile eventually arrived, it was as an afterthought. Sidebottom was not deemed worthy of a place in England's 25-man development squad, but when Matthew Hoggard went lame midway through his second spell of the summer, the cogs began to whir in the England think-tank. By a strange quirk of fate, it had been a Hoggard injury that had paved the way for Sidebottom's debut in 2001, and now history was about to repeat itself.
For Moores, it all came down to the stats. While most bowlers on the county circuit were taking their wickets at 29 or 30 apiece, Sidebottom's were coming at 26. He felt obliged to find out why. Sidebottom was called up as cover for the Headingley Test, leapfrogged James Anderson into the starting line-up, and with a stiff cross-breeze to aid his outswinger, repaid England's faith with eight wickets in the match as West Indies were routed by an innings and 283 runs.
"I'd played at Headingley before and I suppose I knew the conditions, but I felt fresh and new," says Sidebottom. "It was like playing for my county side, because the team spirit was excellent and I just got on with my job. People kept saying, 'It'll only be for one game,' but then I ended up proving them wrong and staying in the team."
Not only has he stayed in the team, he's thrived in it. He picked up 16 wickets against West Indies including a maiden five-wicket haul at Chester-le-Street, added eight more in three luckless Tests against India, and then travelled to Sri Lanka with the one-day side last month, where he spearheaded England's first ODI series win in the subcontinent for 20 years. Swing bowling, that oft-maligned art form, is coming full circle on his watch.
At the age of 29, Sidebottom is not afraid to keep picking up new tricks. Though England lost their recent home series against India, the success of his fellow left-armers Zaheer Khan and RP Singh was, by his own admission, "a bit of an eye opener". "I watched how they changed their lines by bowling around the wicket, because it's something I've never done. I still see myself as a young bowler, still learning the game."
He'll have the chance for another good tutorial in the coming weeks. "Chaminda Vaas is the bowler I really look up to," he says. "He's a left-armer who bowls around the mid-70s and swings the ball around. He's proved that you don't just need express pace to play international cricket. It is about working out how batsmen play and bowling at their weaknesses."
But after everything he's been through to get to this position, the secret of his second coming is not hard to second-guess. "I'm not taking anything for granted, because I've got a lot to prove," he says. "I play every game as if it's going to be my last."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo