How Siddle found his mojo
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 - 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