November 2, 2009

Siddle takes it slow

When he first came on the scene he was called the new Merv Hughes. Now Australia's meanest new quick is looking to add patience and consistency to his mix

He puts a lid on his lunch as I enter the hotel room. A couple of tandoori rotis lie at one end of the tray. "I don't get it back home and I'm pretty open to trying good food," Peter Siddle says with a smile as he moves stuff from one of the chairs for me. "I love the masala dosa. I have it all the time at breakfast," he says. It is early October in Delhi. Siddle is relaxed and says he is enjoying leading Victoria's bowling attack in the inaugural Champions League.

It is his second visit to India in the last 12 months, after he made a surprise debut in Mohali during the 2008 Test series. With his work ethic and determination Siddle has managed to create a place for himself in the Australian bowling line-up. Such has been his belief, honest attitude and work ethic that he has managed to keep the more experienced and talented Stuart Clark out of the team.

Fast bowling is partly about turning up fresh every ball at the crease, regardless of the conditions. Siddle has managed that so far. His bowling is aggressive and based on a simple, fluid action. As he showed at the MCG against South Africa, and then in Cardiff, he has an aggressive streak that has been largely absent in Australian fast bowlers after Merv Hughes retired. He charges in and bangs the ball in hard, mostly on the spot he wants to. Only 24, he used to be a woodcutter, and as he folds his arms, you can see the well-toned muscles bulging out from his shirt.

"The key to my career has been to run in and hit the wicket hard," Siddle says. Which is just what he did with his first delivery in Test cricket: pitched short, it hit Gautam Gambhir flush on the helmet. "I left a good impression, I think," Siddle laughs.

It was uphill from there, though, as a commanding Indian batting order piled up over 300 runs in the day. But having bowled 16 overs, Siddle returned to take the second new ball and immediately induced an edge from Sachin Tendulkar. An instant, mighty smile erupted on the sweaty, flushed face of the Victorian. "I can never forget that for the rest of my life," Siddle says about his first dismissal.

Earlier that day his captain, Ricky Ponting, had given Siddle his baggy green. "He said, 'Don't change a thing. You got picked because they [the selectors] liked the way you played, so just go out there and try your hardest for Australia as you will,'" Siddle remembers. His life had turned dramatically in a month. He had come to India as part of the Australia A squad and got a call-up into the Test squad while on tour. He was excited even if he understood he would most likely be an understudy. Once he joined the national team he made sure he did not miss any training sessions, even if they were optional.

The call came at the 11th hour. "It was pretty late. Stuart Clark was carrying an injury and I had been warned a couple of days earlier that if he doesn't come I might be playing," Siddle recollects. They gave Clark till the day before the game before finally informing Siddle he was playing. "Usually I'm a good sleeper but it was the weirdest bit of preparation going into a match as different thoughts raced through my mind. I could barely sleep for two or three hours," he says.

After Mohali, he played no further role in the remainder of the India series, and made a comeback against South Africa in Perth, where he took a solitary wicket. In the final two Tests of that series he bounced back to take 12, finishing third in the wicket-takers' list and with the best economy rate among the fast bowlers. On the return leg in South Africa, he picked up another 12 wickets - the fourth-best tally in the series - and was again the most economical bowler on show.

The transition from the four-day game to Test cricket was difficult for Siddle initially. A few months into it, he knew that if he had to emulate his idols, Glenn McGrath and Allan Donald, he would need limitless patience. He has always admired McGrath for his line, accuracy, consistency and ability to hit, ball after ball, the same spot. Donald was a hero for the way he charged in, free flowing, and bowled fast. "I've always said I want to bowl fast like Allan Donald and at least half as accurate as Glenn McGrath," Siddle says.

"I will do anything. If they want me to run in and bowl six bouncers I will do that. if they want me to go and bowl like Glenn McGrath, I will do that"

Clark has been another helpful ear always. "In the past year I've spent a lot of time with Stuart Clark, and the advice, the knowledge and the support he has given has been really good," Siddle says. "It is good to watch these top players, just how consistent they were at doing what they did and being able to do it for long periods, and that is definitely something I want to get better at. Someday I would like to be known for my consistency just like these guys are talked about now."

At 22, Siddle was the drinks carrier for the Australian team in the Boxing Day Test of the 2006-07 Ashes, at his home ground. He spoke to McGrath, who stressed the mental side of things. "He spoke about how he went about things in the nets, how he wanted to execute those balls over and over again, and how he went about training, trying to keep repeating it when you are not in the heat of the moment," Siddle says.

That Test remains dear to Siddle. "It did sort of spur me on as it was the Ashes before I played [2009]," he says. Paul Collingwood, Andrew Strauss, Andrew Flintoff, Stephen Harmison and Alistair Cook were the players he remembers vividly. "And to play against the same guys after two years was just amazing," he says.

To see his heroes walk out on to the field, to watch Shane Warne take his 700th wicket, Ponting walk out for the toss, to experience the buzz, it confirmed to Siddle that it was what he wanted to do. "And if you like anything you try and do it as soon as possible."

The variety in the Australian bowling line-up is helping Siddle settle into a groove. He knows his role is to charge in, bowl fast, hit the wicket hard and put pressure on the batsmen. It worked in South Africa and towards the end of the Ashes. Siddle agrees that the absence of superstars, barring Brett Lee, in the fast-bowling department is an advantage. "This way we all are relatively pretty new in Test cricket. Even if our spot is always on the line, if we all do well together we could be a good unit."

Australia need a fired-up, fit Lee to lead their young fast-bowling pack. His absence cost them dear in the Ashes. The trio of Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus and Siddle floundered somewhat in the first three Tests, and at the end of the game in Birmingham, Ponting admitted his frustrations. "Siddle has a little bit of work left to do," Ponting said before the fourth Test.

Not that Siddle had lost his mojo - he had lived up to his nickname, Sid Vicious, when he roughed England up on the first day in Cardiff. But he was far from confident. And unlike Donald, who would back his intimidation up with wickets, Siddle had only a few strikes to his name.

Mindset was a key grey area for Siddle in England. The Australians went into the Ashes on the back of their success in South Africa, where the crowds had relentlessly sledged Siddle, which had served to motivate him. But the Ashes were bigger, and Siddle allowed the expectations to bog him down.

"I probably tried a lot more different things to try and get wickets, whereas in South Africa I'd been patient, bowled for long periods and gone for minimum runs, and worked to get my wickets and was successful," he says. His attempts to make a quick impression, Siddle thinks, proved expensive. "I agree, definitely the first two or three Tests were a big example of where I did something different, and it probably even cost us a Test at Lord's."

It was not the first time he had been on the verge of being dropped. After he didn't exactly set the world alight in Perth against South Africa, the selectors were in two minds about retaining him for the Boxing Day Test. But Siddle hit his straps and bowled one the fiercest spells of the Australian summer on the second day at the MCG, taking 3 for 24 in nine overs.

At Headingley he was up for it again, and picked up career-best innings figures of 5 for 21.

"The way I play, the way I bowl, the way I want to do things for the team… I will do anything. If they want me to run in and bowl six bouncers I will do that. If they want me to go and bowl like Glenn McGrath, I will do that," Siddle says.

Siddle reckons Australian fast bowling is in good shape and there is lots of competition around. The upcoming Australian summer will be a big test for him, especially with Lee returning to the Test fold on the back of solid form in the shorter versions. Siddle, who recently won the ICC's Emerging Player of the Year trophy, is not going to let himself be cowed by the pressure of expectations. "People will expect a lot more. But it is about continuing to do the same things, staying level-headed, staying the same player," he says.

In the ODIs against India, Siddle has maintained a hostile pace throughout. Even on the slow pitch in Delhi he was sharp enough to make Virender Sehwag sway hurriedly out of the way of a bouncer. In the opening game, in Vadodara, he bowled a loose over at the death before redeeming himself with a near perfect last over. He has not had an extraordinary series, but it hasn't been for lack of effort. The pace he has extracted, and his desire to always make something happen speak for it.

In the gymnasium at the cricket academy in Brisbane, Siddle once read a line, written by one of the coaches: "When a winner loses, he trains harder, while a loser will always blame others." It's not hard to figure which side Siddle is on.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo