September 18, 2010

The return of Vicious

Six months after his back gave way, Peter Siddle has done the hard yards and is ready for action again

Peter Siddle knows pain intimately. His body is acutely aware of damage and repair. It has been a constant battle all through his sporting life.

He has been out in the cold for six months after his dream run with Australia. During this time he moved into a new house and kept himself busy decorating it. He watched a lot of AFL football. It was his catch-up time. He spent every evening with family and friends. They didn't mention his body; they didn't ask him when he was going to play for Australia again.

His back, adorned by an enormous tattoo of the Southern Cross, gave way during the series against Pakistan. It forced him to rest, recuperate and take stock of his life. He chose to spend half his days with his close ones; he pounded his body the rest of the time.

Every morning at 6am he walked into the AFL Carlton club's strength and conditioning centre, where he was monitored by Justin Cordy. Some days it would be weights, other days running. There were biking and water sessions, rehab with physiotherapists, and even Pilates. For four to five hours every morning, he beat and stretched himself back into shape.

His mind would occasionally drift away, though. Should I try to play this series? Or that one? He couldn't decide. He watched bits and pieces of Australia's matches.

"It was hard to watch the new players come in and perform well. It was tough." His advisors told him to focus only on those things he could control. "I am glad that I took those extra months. If I had returned early and damaged my back, I might have been out for a year or two.

"I have had injures, so I knew it wasn't the end of the world. That I can get past it. It was tough, though." Especially after a great 18 months on the road with the team. He was also angry with himself for having taken things easy in the past.

"I was confident of my talent and was just enjoying the ride with Victoria and then with the Australia team. I sort of took it a bit easy. Just concentrated on my bowling.

"Look at how fit Mitchell Johnson is. He has played for three years now without any injuries. I want to be like him. And like the AFL players with whom I trained. I realised that for a professional cricketer I wasn't in the best condition."

"Wickets will come. I am a laidback guy. I don't set goals in term of wickets and such. Some people get caught up with the goals, get worried when they go off track and lose the plot. I just want to run in and bowl"

There remained one further act in his comeback. His bowling action had to be re-engineered.

"If you are injured then you are not doing something right," he says. He was fully front-on; he will now be slightly side-on. Troy Cooley, the bowling coach, sat down with him and the sports scientists and developed the new action.

Siddle had been bowling since he was 12. He had always run in hard and hit the deck. It was natural, like going to sleep. Now he had to do everything backwards. The release action. The loading-up. The run-up. In that order. There was no ball in his hand. "You were constantly working on the action all the while." The action had to be internalised. It had to become part of the muscle memory.

Nearly five months after his injury, he finally bowled with a ball. It was at the MCG during Victoria's pre-season training. "I was nervous and tentative." He ran in gingerly and bowled gently at the stumps. Slowly the run-up increased, as did the pace. After a while he bowled to a batsman. He played a few practice games in Darwin and one against Bangalore in South Africa. He finally made his Champions League debut earlier this week, and picked up two wickets in his first over.

"I am not massively concerned about going out there and getting 10 wickets in a match. It's just about getting into rhythm, then bowling flat-out and looking fit and strong on the ground. Wickets will come. I am a laidback guy. I don't set goals in term of wickets and such. Some people get caught up with the goals, get worried when they go off track and lose the plot. I just want to run in and bowl."

Siddle likes to keep things simple. Just like his first delivery in Test cricket. He was very nervous then. He knew one thing: "I didn't want to look intimidated and scared." He knew what he didn't want to do. "I didn't want to go there and try to hit the wicket. I was too nervous to do that. I didn't want to be seen bowling gentle half-volleys." He decided what he had to bowl: "A bouncer. Show some aggression. I knew if I could get off to a good start, I would feel confident. I was lucky enough with it and I got him [Gautam Gambhir] on the helmet. I thought, 'Ah that's not bad.'"

Not bad, indeed. Siddle says he is fitter, stronger, better, and is gunning for the Ashes. If he does return in time, the first ball could well be a bouncer again.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo