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