May 27, 2008

How good is Sidebottom?

England's Roger Daltrey-lookalike seamer is in contention for the crown of the world's top fast bowler

Good hair day: Sidebottom takes another at Lord's © Getty Images

When Ryan Sidebottom was slicing through New Zealand's raw top order back in March, Jeremy Coney, the former Kiwi captain, bemoaned that the batsmen were "making him look like Wasim Akram". He followed up with something along the lines of "and he's no Wasim Akram".

Coney's point was that New Zealand were batting ineptly, that Sidebottom was unworthy to be taking 24 wickets at 17, but his comment already seems dated. Sidebottom is the first pace bowler on England's team sheet and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Sidebottom isn't Wasim Akram and he never will be, but who is? Only two left-arm pace bowlers have ever taken more than 200 Test wickets: Wasim and Chaminda Vaas, who have taken 757 between them. That's more than the next five left-armers (Alan Davidson, Zaheer Khan, Trevor Goddard, Richard Collinge and Bruce Reid) put together. Garry Sobers, who bowled allsorts, is discounted from this list.

No England left-armer has ever taken 100 Test wickets. Bill Voce leads the way with 98, John Lever is next with 73, and Sidebottom is third with 63. So over the course of the next 12 months he ought to become England's greatest ever left-handed quick. Not bad for a bloke who, as a 14-year-old, was told he wasn't good enough by Yorkshire, and as a 23-year-old, by Duncan Fletcher.

But how good is he? Sidebottom has quickly become a cult figure in England because of his Roger Daltrey hair and, let's be honest, because of a drought of potential heroes. But he is also England's "main strike bowler", according to England's bowling coach Ottis Gibson in a forthcoming issue of the Wisden Cricketer. He is not just Mr Dependable (though he's that as well), not just the new Matthew Hoggard. He is Michael Vaughan's go-to bowler. It is some burden, though one he appears to relish.

Over the last 12 months, of pace bowlers, only South Africa's Dale Steyn has taken more wickets (78) than Sidebottom, whose entire career total of 63 has come in that time. (His debut Test back in 2001 was fruitless.) Steyn and Sidebottom will, fitness permitting, come head to head in six weeks' time or so, when South Africa play a four-Test series in England. It is a contest to decide global pace bowling's pre-eminent exponent. Brett Lee might just consider himself in the mix as well.

Even to think of Sidebottom as worthy of consideration is to undergo some severe head-shaking and skin-pinching. This is a man who, as previously mentioned, has been told on more than one occasion that he's not up to it. His selection in 2001 scarred his image to a point where he became something of a joke figure, an emblem of a failed domestic system that produced only trundlers ill-equipped to deal with the rigours of international cricket.

Sidebottom did transform himself, make no mistake. His success is a testament to the simple but underestimated virtues of hunger and application. He takes pride in his England cap, not in how much cash he might make out of Allen Stanford or the IPL

It's not that Duncan Fletcher was wrong to discard Sidebottom in 2001 but that it took until 2007 to recognise Sidebottom's transformation. There was a disconnect between Fletcher and the county game, a lack of trust and respect on both sides. That schism has been mended now and a player with Sidebottom's abilities, one hopes, will not be ignored again.

But Sidebottom did transform himself, make no mistake. His success is a testament to the simple but underestimated virtues of hunger and application. He takes pride in his England cap, not in how much cash he might make out of Allen Stanford or the IPL. He acknowledges that he wasn't ready for Test cricket in 2001, which itself throws up another question about the rigours of the county game.

Sidebottom has the capacity to bowl properly quick now, in the same 90mph bracket as Steyn, and he has the rat-like cunning and variations that every successful bowler must have in these bat-friendly times. He has developed the crucial nip-backer to the right-hander and he has learned how to bowl round the wicket, having observed RP Singh in England last year. He might also like to know, if he doesn't already, that Singh has got Mike Hussey four times - one to store in the memory bank for the 2009 Ashes.

It is still early days for Sidebottom. He has had success against West Indies and New Zealand, the two weakest batting line-ups in the world apart from Bangladesh. Against India and Sri Lanka he took 13 wickets at 48, though he did have five catches dropped by the wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, in those two series. Steyn has laid waste to every line-up he has come across. Yes, he has cashed in against Bangladesh but also against India and Pakistan. He has never played a Test in England but then he has a tidy attack to back him up. Sidebottom is part of a green England attack that, as Ross Taylor showed at Old Trafford, is fragile when their plans are undermined. Taylor flayed three sixes of Sidebottom.

Steyn is the man to beat in the global pace bowling stakes right now, but Sidebottom, as a rare breed, has the chance to write his name in history. Australia's Davidson took 186 Test wickets and he is the third greatest left-arm pace bowler in Test history. Sidebottom is a third of the way there already and, as a later starter, is still approaching his peak at 30. He'll never be Wasim, or Chaminda, but he could be the next best thing.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • rightarmover on June 19, 2008, 4:03 GMT

    Sidebottom is just a bowler, nothing special, i would put Steyn and Lee as the top fast Bowlers in the world at the moment, The rest are good but not great. He's got a big heart and i put him on a tier below Steyn and Lee and put him on the level with blokes like Ntini, Zaheer, Hoggard, Pathan and an ageing Vaas, Honest tryers but not world beaters.

  • Finnster on June 5, 2008, 8:18 GMT

    And of course, the irony here is, as we've disputed the toss of the coin, Lee has just quietly completed an 8 for 110 Test Match - and not in Australia!

  • Finnster on June 4, 2008, 14:59 GMT

    Phat-Boy, your repeated "he's Australian so he must be No.1" comment is making your bias and blind spot a little obvious. So, the West Indies are only just realising Lee's only "in a good patch" of 2 good seasons, are they? I rather think they paid a little more attention to his 5-for than you can bear to. Or doesn't that one count, either?

  • TheDoctor394 on June 4, 2008, 0:41 GMT

    I'm quite bemused by a lot of the comments on this article. Maybe it overstated Sidebottom's quality a bit, but the main point was to say that he has come back and done extremely well. And that is a fact. Figures prove it. It's all very well to say but he's done it mainly against weak opposition, but you can only perform against whom you're playing, and his performances have been outstanding. However, I certainly agree with people mentioning Stuart Clark. His young career has been incredible so far, and he deserves more recognition. In regards to English bias, as an Englishman living in Australia, it's refreshing to hear English bias for a change, instead of Australian. :)

  • Phat-Boy on June 1, 2008, 3:24 GMT


    Brett Lee has averaged almost 28 since the '05 Ashes. good, but not outrageous. I simply do not understand how 2 good series all of a sudden translates into what most people are saying is 3 years of superb form. Even as we speak, the West Indies are finding out that Lee was simply in a good patch.

    He's Australian though so he has to be number one....

  • Finnster on May 29, 2008, 15:32 GMT

    Well, this is a surprise. I seriously didn't consider anyone could possibly argue against Lee being the best. Perhaps people aren't considering that the Lee of post-Ashes '05 is a completely different creature than he used to be when express bowling was his total focus. His form over the last few years has been without peer. Even with his poorer pre-05 averages taken into account, he still has an average of under 30. People who suggest his accuracy is erratic simply haven't seen him bowl for the past few years.

  • plod on May 29, 2008, 4:22 GMT

    To John Stern and all the other respondents, I am a cricket tragic and watch all Sky/Fox coverage of cricket all around the world. Have seen all the test playing nations live in Oz and on the Telly. Firstly Ryan Sidebottom. I am surprised at what respondents are saying is the speed at which he bowls. 90mph!! I'd like to see the proof. He is a swing bowler with ability. But military medium I would guess. No argument. But unlikely to trouble any test batsmen when conditions are not humid and on green tops. He is not a super accurate bowler. I think his weight, fitness levels and lack of athleticism are all negatives. England with Sidebottom and Panesar in the field rank with all the cellar dweller's nations as far as fielding goes. Despite what your Indian/Pakistani correspondents claim, Australia is the measuring stick. Sidebottom has not been tested against the best. When he performs against the No.1 team, then John Stern you can restart your rantings.

  • Phat-Boy on May 29, 2008, 3:15 GMT

    Amidst all the frankly ridiculous hype that Brett Lee has generated over the last 12 months, all those busy fussing themselves over him seem to forget that he has only taken wickets against two teams, both of which was on his home turf. I read with interest where one comment stated that Lee had 'proven himself on a number of surfaces against a variety of opposition.'

    No he hasn't. He proved himself against a Sri Lankan line-up bereft of form players except for Sangakkara (and he missed the first test) and Jayawardene. He bowled well against India, but that was for 4 tests, one of which was on the quickest pitch in the world. Hardly enough to qualify him as having dominated batting line ups 'in all conditions on all surfaces.'

    Fair - all an Australian has to do is take 5 or hit a 100 and he is the best in the world, so it seems.

  • redneck on May 29, 2008, 2:11 GMT

    i think its a bit premature to label sidebottom v steyn. Australia have played only 7 tests since the final ashes test in Sydney, i would say england and South Africa have played a lot more tests in the last 12 months. i think you will find brett lee has improved 10 fold and a man by the name of stuart clark has stepped up for Australia post McGrath. also Fidel Edwards is going to be a force in the next 5 years!!! if sidebottom is the best they will be able to throw at the Aussies next year then god help england! cant wait to see steyn bowl to the Aussies at the end of the year that will be his litmus test!

  • KILLER_786_21 on May 28, 2008, 21:23 GMT

    as long as taking wickets. in Asia sidebottom was man of the series in sri lanka after england won series in sri lanka with his super economic & wicket taking spells england had to chase small targets in sri lanka thats why were victorious in a place like sri lanka where they were the only 2nd team after aus to win series in last 10yrs.& ya sidebottom still needs to improve but he is a good bowler & has the potential to be best in world & i am an Indian but i must say if English press hype their players just after 6months of success then Indian press is also no different they call ishant next world no.1 just after 1good series & kevin was world best batsman but he was never at 10th spot in rankings in tests so he was still best young batsman in tests he is now in top5 in tests & top 10 in odi in rankings.zaheer,rp all are good but vaas is nothing in tests while zaheer & sidebottom are equally aggressive,effective & dangerous because they swing the ball at decent pace unlike rp while s.clark is a seam bowler not swing

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