October 15, 2012

How Siddle found his mojo

Over the past year, Peter has emerged as a leader of Australia's Test bowling attack. This transformation is all the more remarkable for its modest beginnings in Sri Lanka, when he was dropped from the team

P Sara Oval, Colombo, August 2011. Australia are getting used to a new captain in Michael Clarke, Trent Copeland is making a snappy first impression as a miserly medium-pacer, and Peter Siddle is steadily bowling himself out of the Test team.

To those watching from the boundary, Siddle's struggles against a Sri Lanka Board XI are obvious. His length and line are far too variable, his pace inconsistent, his swing and seam non-existent. The travelling press corps is writing him out of contention for the first Test in Galle.

Nearby, Australia's recently hired bowling coach, Craig McDermott, is working out how to rouse Siddle from his slumber. Having made a notable start to his Test career against India in 2008 and offered numerous punchy bowling displays in subsequent series against South Africa and England, Siddle is now trending down. He seems trapped in a pattern of banging the ball in short, delivering stone-age bouncer barrages, and taking fewer wickets with each match.

After the Sri Lanka Board XI innings concludes early on the second morning, McDermott decides now is the moment to warn Siddle of the mediocrity that lies at the end of the path he is treading. "I asked him what he thought about the previous day's play. He acknowledged he was all over the shop but thought he'd come back better with the second new ball - something I had to disagree with.

"I said, 'We've got to improve this, we've got to get the skill levels up to be playing Test cricket on this tour, get your fitness levels up and skills levels before you're ready for Test cricket.' He took that on board and I told him I had some overs to get through with James Pattinson after the game and it was up to him whether he joined us and got stuck in in order to get back to where he needed to be to be a strike force for Australia."

"Another thing I said was 'you've got to see the pattern here, where you've played all three formats of the game, now you're out of two and you're struggling with a few things from a Test point of view, so this is a time to take the bit between your teeth and work on them'. He copped all that on the chin and said 'let's get stuck in'."

Reflecting on that conversation a little more than a year later, Siddle agrees his methods had become stilted and predictable for international batsmen. "I'd got to the point where the consistency of taking wickets and having strong performances for the side had probably tapered off a little bit from the start," he said. "I think that can happen if you stick to the same things all the time. The opposition get accustomed to it and start working out ways to bat against you. I had to work on a few different options and a few different strings to keep the batters thinking and keep the pressure on them."

McDermott's frank words to Siddle proved accurate, for the tour selectors preferred the steadiness of Copeland over the next two Tests. But McDermott also offered the promise of redemption. He pointed out that Australia lacked a true spearhead, a reliable strike bowler capable of running in and getting the wickets most required, while keeping the pressure on. Siddle's pace, stamina and aggression made him capable of taking this role, provided he could learn to add greater precision and wicket-taking nous.

"We really didn't have a leader of our bowling attack," McDermott said. "We had various bowlers in and out of the team. Mitchell Johnson, at that time, in Sri Lanka was really just hanging on with his bowling, so we didn't really have a leader. Part of my discussion with Sidds was, 'I do think you can be the leader of our pace attack.' He has the pace, he has the aggression, and a lot of the young guys like James Pattinson and Pat Cummins look up to him. So he had to go away and do that work, and that started in Sri Lanka.

"It was bloody hot. He didn't play a lot of cricket. He and Patto spent a lot of time in the nets, a lot of time bowling to guys who weren't playing, and working on those four or five things we wanted."

The plan set out for Siddle's rejuvenation involved a push for greater fitness, a handful of technical tweaks to enable him to get the ball swinging, and, perhaps most importantly, a change in his mentality. Like many Australian fast bowlers raised in the era of Glenn McGrath, Siddle was fearful of being driven and bowled back of a length accordingly. McDermott and Clarke worked to reassure Siddle - and others - that to draw a batsman into a drive was to be seen as a victory, not a defeat, with fields set to ensure no bowler was exposed if the ball struck the middle of the bat instead of the edge.

"To his credit, for the next few weeks until we got through to the third Test when he was re-selected, he worked his tail off in the nets," McDermott said. "As a bowler it is easy to start fuller and bring it back, rather than bowl short and push yourself up. We had to get his mindset right to be bowling full, get him to be able to understand that we're going to set the field for this, which we did with all the bowlers as that series started.

"[Bowling short] it's all a phobia about being driven, but if you're bowling the right line, it's a different kettle of fish from the batsman's point of view. You've also got the backing of your captain, and Clarkey was right behind all of it. We worked on [Siddle's] grip, tried to get his arm path down a little bit because he was bowling right over the perpendicular. Encouraging him to bowl with a little more round-arm action - it feels low to them at first but it only brings you down five or six degrees, which is just enough. And then getting him to finish his action off.

"We started off getting him bowling to about sixth stump and as full as possible - it gets your arm path down slightly, meaning he has to finish his action off correctly to follow through, stay long on the ball with his fingers, which helps his fingers behind the ball and stand the seam up properly"
McDermott on tweaking Siddle's bowling

"We started off getting him bowling to about sixth stump and as full as possible - the idea being it gets your arm path down slightly, meaning he has to finish his action off correctly to follow through, stay long on the ball with his fingers, which helps his fingers behind the ball and stand the seam up properly, hence he was able to swing the ball."

Siddle and McDermott were, in a sense, finishing what they had started some time ago. First working together in Brisbane in the lead-up to the first Ashes Test of the 2010-11 season, McDermott had encouraged Siddle to consider a fuller length. Siddle had tried it on the first day of the series, and had, in the final session, ripped out Alastair Cook, Matt Prior and Stuart Broad with successive, swinging deliveries for a rollicking hat-trick. But somewhere along the line those lessons had been forgotten.

This time, with Siddle's Test place in the balance, he had little choice but to listen more thoroughly, and as time went on, he developed a liking for his new-found skill. Swinging the ball consistently for the first time in his life, Siddle began to develop greater confidence in his ability to put the ball where he wanted to, and to bowl for wickets where once he might have settled for containment.

"The hard work I put in with Billy McDermott was changing the way I went about getting wickets and the way I went about bowling," Siddle said. "It was a big change-up with my line and length and all that type of thing. I'd always worked at trying to get swing. There was always a little bit there, but it was pretty inconsistent, so it was about consistently getting that ball to swing all the time and when I wanted it to.

"It worked well with the line-up we had last summer - Ben Hilfenhaus, at one end, bowls big overs and can maintain the pressure. It gave myself and James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Ryan Harris the opportunity to attack a little bit at the other end. That's something I benefited from. I was feeling fit and strong, and the swing as well helped the impact I could have."

So well did it work in fact, that Siddle ended last summer as the heartbeat of Australia's bowling attack, when at its beginning he had been all but surplus to requirements. His efforts against New Zealand and India were memorable, where he curled the ball away from the batsmen consistently and spiced up this movement with sustained pace and aggression. These were the sorts of wholehearted spells that resonate with Australian crowds, and no five-wicket haul was greeted with more admiration last summer than Siddle's at Adelaide Oval, when he answered Indian jibes about the grass on earlier pitches by demonstrating his capacity for extracting life from the flattest and most subcontinental pitch of the season.

By the end of 2011-12, Siddle was tired, and a back stress injury in the Caribbean confirmed the strain of his efforts in ten consecutive Test matches. That injury precluded him from pushing to regain his limited-overs place via a T20 stint in England, but Siddle now believes that the rest and lack of off-season travel have done him good. As far as improvement is concerned, he is intent on getting fitter than ever, so at 27, he can shoulder the workload likely to come his way against South Africa and Sri Lanka.

"My downfall's always been I've been a little bit heavy or could just be fitter, so those are the main things I've worked on this time. I'm a lot lighter now, feeling a lot fitter and a lot stronger at the crease. Those are things I've worked on, combined with the improvements that I changed with Billy with the swing and my length, can just generate longer spells and a lot more consistent high-end pace, which is what Pup needs from me in the way we've been playing."

To that end, Siddle dropped meat from his diet earlier this year. His girlfriend had always been a vegetarian, so the change has also helped around the dinner table at home in Melbourne.

"That was just a personal change, more for convenience at the start, but I enjoy it," he said. "I've dropped about 5kg since the change. It's put me in a better place, I think, with my fitness.

"That's one big thing I've changed, and everything else has gone well, the workload stuff and everything. As an older player you understand your workloads and how much you need to bowl and what you need to do to be up and ready to go."

This summer Siddle will face far greater expectations than those with which he travelled to Sri Lanka. McDermott is no longer Australia's bowling coach but the two remain in contact. Having cajoled Siddle to greater and smarter efforts a little more than a year ago, McDermott now hopes his pupil can go on to better his own tally of 291 Test wickets. Given how limited Siddle's prospects had seemed at P Sara Oval, this would be a lofty achievement.

"I've said to him if he stays on the park he can easily get 300 Test wickets," McDermott said. "If he continues the same work ethic, the same things he's been working on, it's certainly a goal within his reach. That's a long way out ahead of him, and injuries always have a say, but he made massive strides last year."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Simon on October 17, 2012, 1:19 GMT

    Siddle may have taken his wickets last siummer against NZ and what one commentator called an "aging" Indian side, but the fact is he bowled well too. He was swinging and seaming the new ball, pitching it fuller and was far more accurate than previous summers. His pace was good and when the going got tough he worked harder. There must still be some doubts about his skills - they do seem to remain limited- but he is a good, solid fast-medium bowler and one who will always trouble batsmen.

  • Andrew on October 16, 2012, 23:05 GMT

    @Milind Kandlikar - I would say more impact came from bowling Dravid out than Sachin, but thats just IMO.

  • Dummy4 on October 16, 2012, 21:54 GMT

    Grudgingly admit that one ball he bowled turned the OZ-India series around. India were cruising in the first test - with VVS and SRT going great guns. In the final session Siddle bowled a beauty to get rid of SRT on 80 odd (we all thought that was going to be the 100th 100). India never really recovered in that match and kind a gave up the rest of the series. Had SRT scored his century and not been bowled by Siddle, and had India won the match, who knows what might have happened in the games that followed. Too much burden to place on a single delivery - but hey what if?

  • Vikram on October 16, 2012, 21:30 GMT

    Okay, so he performed against an aging India and a barely-test class New Zealand. Some of his deliveries to the Indian batsmen were very good, agreed. But, he has still been bowling in home conditions. So, lets not jump the gun and declare that he has found his mojo.

  • sam on October 16, 2012, 13:06 GMT

    So terrible are England's bunch of medium pace trundlers it makes Siddle look like ...well another Mcgrath . Well Siddle is really good with pace were you want it around 90 mph through various spells and enhanced skill sets coupled with much better consistency . Just a couple of series away from being the no.2 ranked bowler....maybe even no.1..?Can't imagine the damage he will inflict on England's batting lineup in the ashes .Well only Siddle himself is enough to blow away the English like a lit matchstick.

  • Andrew on October 16, 2012, 4:04 GMT

    @landl47 on (October 16 2012, 01:35 AM GMT) - fair call except that Sehwag has had a 90 test career. Regarding Siddle, I think you will find that CricOz will impose an unofficial quota on young pace bowlers workload thru out a year until they are around 24 or 25. Given this, and assuming that Siddle has a fair bit of upside left, I don't think he has only 2 years to get the 175 wickets. I think he has a solid 4 years left in the game - assuming no injuries. As I said on a different article, whilst Oz does have a good crop of young bowlers coming thru - a lot of that is based on POTENTIAL rather than a body of ACTUAL deeds. So plenty of cause for optimism there, I just at least half of them stay fit & healthy & have 100 Test careers!!!!!

  • Luke on October 16, 2012, 3:01 GMT

    Not sure why people keep leaning towards Harris as our spearhead. He's a fantastic bowler, but the sad fact is he's our most injury prone cricketer since Bruce Reid, possibly even worse. While he's no McGrath, Siddle just keeps going all day, and he's a massively different bowler to the one the English smacked around two years ago. Cummins and Pattinson may be future leaders, but for now I fear they may buckle under the pressure of the South Africans in a few weeks. Hopefully they learn a few harsh lessons ahead of the Ashes double header next year to keep their feet grounded.

  • Dummy4 on October 16, 2012, 2:44 GMT

    how wish some of our Indian 'superstars' took in such advice well and worked on overcoming deficiencies rather than pout and continue to do things 'their' way

  • John on October 16, 2012, 1:35 GMT

    @ Meety: Sorry, but I can't resist reminding you that Sehwag wasn't in much of a position to compare the sustained pressure of the Australian bowlers with the sustained pressure of the England bowlers, as in his 4 innings in England he was out 3 times in the first over, including a king pair! In his other innings he made 33 in 67 balls. He didn't have much more success against Aus, but in the one innings he did make runs, he scored 62 in 53 balls. A run rate of 49 compared with 116- which would you say was sustained pressure? However, that wasn't my point; I think Aus, with Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood and Pattinson, has the best squad of young fast bowlers I've seen since the West Indies in the 1970s. Siddle and Hilf are good triers, but the young guys are real class. I can't see Sids and Hilf staying in the side for much longer unless something goes horribly wrong with the young guns. They may be a year or two away, but no more than that. Unless Sids can take 175 wickets in 2 years....

  • Andrew on October 15, 2012, 23:46 GMT

    @Chris_P (continued) - the way I see it is, as the article the other day more or less said, the Saffas are running with a relatively high risk strategy of coming over with 3 frontline seamers + Kallis & an untried allrounder. Steyn is obbviously the best bowler likely to play in the series, but I believe Siddle edges Morkel & the rest of the Ozzy bowlers are on the same plain as Phillander or better depending on how much you go on FC stats. (Not dismissing Phillander just taking his start to his Test career with a grain of salt). Batting-wise, I think a lot is made of the Saffas batting, I think the one genuine threat for the ENTIRE series is Amla. I think Kallis will do well, but he never really worries me (as a fan), the other big threat (AB De) could be keeping & his talent may not be showcased. Smith is good but gettable & I suspect the othe Saffas batsmen will find the going tough. Dunno what the Gabba will be like as there was a massive diff between the 2 Shield games????

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