August 9, 2013

The Siddle riddle

Australia's quintessential workhorse doesn't get much swing but there's enough movement to keep everyone guessing

Peter Siddle has refused to go quietly, though his team has been unable to regain this Ashes. He has taken it upon himself, it seems, to power Australia ahead and spur them on even at times when their campaign seems flat and lost. Besides his spirit, there's something else that makes the viewers watch in awe.

His accuracy probably makes him stand out in an otherwise drab bowling outfit. Siddle tends to stick to a probing line that keeps batsman and spectator involved and fascinated. You keep expecting an interesting ball that produces a leg-before shout or a thin outside edge. He makes the batsman play almost every time he bowls, and he rarely bowls filth.

As a batsman, there's nothing you can do about a fast bowler's accuracy but make peace with it. Also, there are far more serious matters to pay attention to when Siddle gets the ball to talk. His deliveries don't shout from atop rooftops - like they do in the case of Dale Steyn and Jimmy Anderson, with extravagant swing movement in the air; they merely whisper a message of the forthcoming danger. If you don't listen keenly to what the ball is saying, you're likely to be taken in.

Siddle is a typical Australian fast bowler in that he relies on his ability to hit the deck hard and extract the response he wants. His high-arm action enables him to get extra bounce and his immaculate control of the seam gives him the desired movement.

And there lies the trick that makes him more successful than the others: though his seam position at the point of release is quite upright (thanks to his strong wrist behind the ball), he doesn't get much movement in the air. The ball might come in a shade every now and then but the swing isn't exaggerated enough to make batsmen start preparing for it in advance.

As a batsman, especially as an opener, you look for certain signs to decipher what's likely to happen to a ball after it leaves a bowler's hand. There are two cues that come in very handy:

1. The bowler's action. If he has a front-on action (when the toe of the back foot faces the batsman or thereabouts at the time of landing in the final stride), the ball will more often than not come in to the right-hander, and if he has a side-on action (where the back toe is roughly parallel to the crease), the ball is likely to go away.

2 The seam position also offers a clue to the intended direction of the ball. If it is tilted towards slip, it's likely to leave the batsman, and if it is titled towards fine-leg, it is likely to come in.

Siddle is a bowler who doesn't give the batsmen any of the above mentioned cues. His action is a mix of front-on and side-on - his back toe lands at around 45 degrees to the crease. With bowlers who have such actions, it's difficult for the batsman to know whether the ball will come in or go out. Secondly, the seam position is so bolt upright that it doesn't give you an early clue to the direction of swing.

Siddle has made a trade-off that allows him more accuracy while sacrificing swing

The most obvious question then, given that the seam positioning is so precise, is about why the ball doesn't move more in the air. Or, if Siddle has such supreme control over the seam position, why doesn't he tilt it slightly more to get greater swing?

Well, Siddle has made a trade-off that allows him more accuracy while sacrificing swing. Bowlers are advised to keep their index and middle fingers together on the seam of the ball - which allows them to extract swing in the air but can lead to lesser control. Siddle's fingers are slightly apart, resting either edge of the seam, which allows him more control but less swing.

Since most of Siddle's deliveries come in after pitching, most batsmen try to play him inside the line, accounting for movement off the pitch. While this a good tactic to counter incoming deliveries, it backfires when the ball holds its line, or when Siddle varies his angle on the crease.

Siddle's ability to use the crease is one of his biggest strengths and it gets him a lot of wickets. The wicket of Joe Root in the first innings of the third Ashes Test at Old Trafford was a good example. Siddle bowled a few balls to Root from close to the stumps, with the shine facing the covers, trying to bring the ball back in to the right-hand batsman, or at least trying to get Root to believe he was. Then he went wide of the crease, with the shine still facing the covers, and bowled a ball slightly wide of off stump. Everything suggested that the attempt was to bring the ball back in to Root, and you couldn't blame the batsman for playing for the angle and the shine. But the ball didn't come in; it held its line. The result: a nick to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.

Siddle is probably not the most talented quick bowler to emerge from Australia, yet he has been the one to show immense desire to upgrade while bowling longer spells. In fact, he has bowled the most number of overs among the Australians in this Ashes (123.5). That just shows how much Michael Clarke relies on this workhorse. When the two sides take the field at Chester-le-Street on Friday, Australia will hope the Siddle riddle remains unsolved.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here