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Mature age Siddle becomes Strikers' heartbeat

Adelaide Strikers wanted to build a team full of winning personalities, but in addition to that, they wanted a man who could be their heart and soul

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
In a 2015 PhD, the Melbourne University lecturer Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach studied the experience of the mature-age student in tertiary education, and found that the vast majority struggled to fit in. "They said they weren't interested in pub crawls and activities where students got drunk," she told the Age. "They wanted a room on campus where they could go and have a cup of tea and have an academic discussion."
For the teetotal Peter Siddle, a return to regular Twenty20 cricket in this summer's Big Bash League was a similar jump back in time. Siddle played in the first ever state-based Big Bash final as a rough-hewn 21-year old, but when he last played regularly in 2010, the BBL hadn't even started. Four years on contract with the Melbourne Renegades had tallied up more promotional appearances than games.
At his first training session with Adelaide Strikers ahead of the seventh edition of the tournament, Siddle was notably nervous. Ben Laughlin, as well-versed in T20 as Siddle was not, found himself in the role of short-form educator. "It was a bit like teaching him," Laughlin said, "which is a weird thing to say about someone with that many Test wickets." Whether he turned out to be dux of the class or dropout, Siddle was out of his comfort zone, the result of a list management gamble by an old friend.
He said 'I'm fresh and fit and hardly played over the past 18 months, I feel like a brand new baby'
Strikers' Tim Nielsen recalls Peter Siddle's enthusiasm to play again
At the end of last summer's Big Bash League, Kane Richardson told the Strikers he wanted to seek a fresh start, which turned out to be with the Renegades. Amid a raft of departures - Brad Hodge, Kieron Pollard, Ben Dunk, Jon Holland, Adil Rashid, Tim Ludeman and Craig Simmons were among the others - the loss of Richardson was a particularly key blow.
He was the Strikers' attack leader, an Australian representative, and a member of the youthful Redbacks generation that had been at the core of the squad alongside Travis Head. Replacing Richardson while also finding other options both overseas and domestic, all within a salary cap of A$1.6 million, was going to be a difficult task. In assessing the list at the end of the season in April, the high performance manager Tim Nielsen noted, too, that the team needed a new "heartbeat". In an increasingly competitive marketplace for BBL players, he had to find value from somewhere.
After some thought, Nielsen realised that over the border in Victoria, the recuperating Siddle was coming out of contract with the Renegades, having missed the whole of BBL06 with back and ankle problems. Thinking of Siddle in T20 terms, though, was a bit like envisioning Laughlin as a Test match bowler - it just wasn't done.
In the four years on the Renegades' list, he had played only seven matches, and none since 2015. But Nielsen, who had known Siddle ever since coaching him at the Centre of Excellence in 2005 and then mentoring him over four years with Australia, recalled the way the 33-year old had reinvented himself at international level, evolving from fast and short, to full and swinging, and then finally to tight and ultra-consistent. He picked up the phone.
"I knew him well as a man and knew that every time he'd been thrown in different situations, he'd adapted and learned and got better," Nielsen told ESPNcricinfo. "We were looking for an experienced fast bowler, Kane Richardson decided he was going to look elsewhere, which was fine, that's the Big Bash way. We wanted someone who could, maybe not lead the attack on the ground but be the heartbeat of the attack.
"I knew Sidds' personality and character, he's a ripper. I knew if he got whacked for 50 in a game it wouldn't kill him, he'd come back the next day, train hard and he's been brilliant like that. We took a punt, like you do with every decision on your list about whether someone can do the job, but more importantly we backed him as a person and knew if he could help the rest of the bowling group, even if he wasn't going well, we were going to have a winner in the end."
Given how much of the past summer had unfolded, Siddle was delighted to get the call. He had spent most of the season in lonely rehabilitation mode, having been injured in the opening Test match of the summer against South Africa after rushing back from a stress fracture of the back. "He approached us and threw a few ideas around," Siddle said of Nielsen, "what he thought I could do for the team playing but off the field as well with the group. I'm very glad I made the decision."
For Siddle, the thought of playing in the BBL was a little bit like learning to ride a bike again after more or less eight years without doing so - only this time the bike had many more gears and more complicated brakes. Some of Siddle's earliest matches for Victoria had been in the nascent, state-based Big Bash - he took 2 for 43 when the Bushrangers beat New South Wales in the very first tournament final in 2006 - but it had advanced enormously in its sophistication since.
Facing him, I reckon he's simplified his game. He doesn't bowl you many balls where he's not trying to make you hit to the longest part of the ground
Hobart Hurricanes captain George Bailey on Siddle
"We talked about Twenty20 cricket and the fact he hadn't played a lot, which I thought was a benefit," Nielsen said. "He was also coming off his back injury and he said 'I'm fresh and fit and hardly played over the past 18 months, I feel like a brand new baby', so that was good news to me.
"We spoke to the right people and got a pretty clear idea his body was good to go, so that was good, and once that happened, we basically said to him 'you're going to have to work out how you're going to play T20 cricket, you can't do it by turning up with five days to go before the first game and then hoping you know what's going on, so start thinking about it now'.
"That was a big thing with Peter, we knew he'd adapted and adjusted to everything in his career in the past and come out better at the other end of it. He was a tearaway quick when he first started, he wanted to try to knock everyone's block off and,, by the time he finished, he was bowling seven-over spells for seven runs and blocking an end up. He'd learned how to do that and we had no doubt that as a guy he would add to our system and our culture."
So in pre-season training, Siddle spent time working on his yorkers - a skill he had always possessed - and also the slower-ball variations that can mix up a batsman's rhythm. He had two change-ups, a leg cutter and a "knuckle ball", and worked at landing them with the same consistency as any stock or short ball held down or across the seam. He gave them an early-season test in the domestic limited-overs tournament, before reverting to his former, "bowl boring" self in the Sheffield Shield.
When the recast Strikers squad assembled for training in Adelaide early in December, Siddle linked up with the coach Jason Gillespie, his assistant Joe Dawes, and his pace bowling compatriots Michael Neser, Billy Stanlake, Wes Agar and Laughlin. Those present at training noted how close Siddle stuck to Laughlin, who said his advice was more tactical than technical. "He had all the skills," Laughlin said, "it was more about where to set your fields, how to put an over together and when to gamble."
As someone attuned to the time-honoured long-form skills of consistency with the odd bouncer, Siddle found this new ball-by-ball chess match with eager batsmen invigorating. "I knew I had to learn a lot," he said. "That's been the fun part about it, it's as if I'm starting as an inexperienced player no matter what my age is and it probably took me back to training sessions where you just try new things and every training session you're trying to get something new out of it.
"It has made it a lot more enjoyable throughout this tournament, every training session trying to get something new out of it rather than just training. It's probably a good little learning curve at any age, it doesn't matter how experienced or inexperienced you are, the harder you work at training it ends up paying off.
"It just comes to taking training a little bit more seriously. I've always trained hard but was I training smart enough? Coming into this, I knew it wasn't as common to me and I had to work hard and go into it as prepared as possible. Just going back to basics and having a plan every time for what I wanted to work on and executing that in a training session."
Once I walked in the door and just witnessed how hard they trained that first week, I knew some good things could happen if we got everything right
Peter Siddle
At same time, Siddle's rich experience of the game and its ups and downs helped contribute to a dressing room where Nielsen and Gillespie had wanted to assemble a winning mixture of personalities around the young captain Head. Alongside Siddle, Colin Ingram brought experience and perspective. Rashid Khan brought wickets and confidence by the bucket load.
"We felt like everyone we brought onto the list could play an important role, but we also did a lot of homework into the sort of people they were," Nielsen said. "It's such a fickle game, T20, Jake Lehmann bats at No. 6 and faces about 20 balls for the tournament, but you've got to keep up and keep going. So you need resilient people, good blokes happy to be in a team going well, and if it's not going so well you've got to be big enough to get on with it and keep training and be ready for the next game. You can't get down on yourself or start looking for excuses.
"We had some change, it was just the way it went because of circumstances, so we were pretty clear with the direction we wanted to go, we had a bit of luck and we got a few blokes in we thought they'd be good and it turned out they were very good. With list management, its 90% gut feel, everyone's got the numbers and you decide whether they fit your list.
"I reckon the overseas players were our two biggest ones, Colin Ingram's a star, he understands the game and he's a very level, even, calm bloke. If it's going well, great, if it's not going so well, great. That's had an influence on Travis, on the whole group, and he's won us a couple games off his own bat, he's captained when we needed him to and then Rashid Khan did a really good job, an overseas pro who came in and got wickets for us."
This mix came in handy when, towards the back end of the tournament, Australian selection and the pressure of the pointy end made life more complex. Ingram stepped in during Head's ODI duty, and the Strikers pointedly used their match away to Perth Scorchers to offer some game time to Jono Dean, Wes Agar and Jon Wells. A narrow loss to the tournament's dominant club showed they were around the mark, and the promotion of Dean to open was to pay off in the semi-final where, with every run turning out to be crucial, he punished Tom Cooper's first over of off spin darts.
That game, ending in victory when Laughlin managed to coax a play and miss from Pollard with the Renegades needing three from the final ball, was also Siddle's most expensive of the competition. It reminded him of the need to adapt not just within games but between them, and on the flatter later season Adelaide Oval pitch where the final was played, he reverted to bowling yorkers set to a straight field.
"I've gone through different stages. [In the final] it was yorkers but around the tournament I think my slower balls have been my bankers," Siddle said. "Hit a hard length, but then when I bowl my slower ball, whether it's a leg cutter or knuckle ball, I execute them well. It was a bit better final wicket so I went with the yorkers and it worked, but then the slight changes of pace still added a dimension as well when I bowled it.
"It's just enjoyable as someone my age to be trying new tricks and being able to execute it and having success. After my performance the other night [semi-final], probably my worst one of the whole tournament, to be able to come out and just back what I've prepared in the season to get it done and execute all my deliveries, it's credit to that."
Combined with the pressure imposed by a scoreboard showing 202, the highest tally compiled in a BBL final, Siddle's discipline and ability to restrict the scoring zones of the Hobart Hurricanes batsmen was too much to contend with. This was true even for the only team in tournament history to chase down targets beyond 200 - three times in fact.
"Facing him, I reckon he's simplified his game," Hurricanes captain George Bailey said. "He doesn't bowl you many balls where he's not trying to make you hit to the longest part of the ground. He puts his fielders where he's making you try to hit the ball, he's got a couple of changes of pace, keeps it simple but makes you hit the ball where he wants you to hit the ball."
I don't want to see a 34 or 35-year-old bloke saying 'this is what I do' and head in the sand 'I can't change'.
Bailey on the biggest takeaway from Siddle's improvement as a bowler
Something that struck Siddle, in contrast to some of his other T20 experiences, was the focus and intensity of the Strikers training. For a long time,the notion of training for T20 was regarded with some mirth by longer-form players, who wondered what more needed to be done than some slogging with the bat and yorkers with the ball. In Adelaide, that was not the case, and the quality of the club's training standard was further highlighted when the wristspinner Liam O'Connor slotted in for Rashid in the final, having not played all tournament, and promptly bowled four exemplary overs for 27 opposite Siddle.
"I wanted to impress with training and the way I go about it, but to see the boys, the way they train and prepare, they're a very professional side, a professional group," Siddle said. "No matter how young or old they were, whether it was Benny Laughlin, Michael Neser or a young Alex Carey or Jake Weatherald, they train just as hard. I've played in a lot of sides and seen teams that probably didn't prepare well and haven't got the results, and teams that have worked hard and have had success - this team's definitely an example of that.
"For Tim to give me the opportunity firstly to come over and work with a young group… It could have gone any way this season, but once I walked in the door and just witnessed how hard they trained that first week, I knew some good things could happen if we got everything right."
This year was the first of three for which Siddle has signed with the Strikers. In his willingness to learn, adapt and reinvent, he has in the space of a single tournament gone from a T20 non-entity to an example for mature-aged cricketing students around the country and the world. It was a point not lost on Bailey, to the extent that he said he would use it in talking to the older members of his own team.
"The biggest thing we'll talk to our guys about Sidds is I think he's got better," Bailey said. "In the last 12 months his T20 cricket has really improved. I don't want to see a 34 or 35-year-old bloke saying 'this is what I do' and head in the sand 'I can't change'. He's developed a way he's going to play and he's had a phenomenal tournament."
Following the final, Jake Weatherald, the young buck whose runs had given Siddle something to defend, remarked, "He's just like a young kid I reckon, he's always up and about and ready to give advice and help people out, he's just a great person to be around." That was certainly true of the celebrations that followed the Strikers' victory in the dressing room and in the middle of Adelaide Oval as Siddle took a central place.
Like the mature-age students in Dawborn-Gundlach's study, Siddle prefers tea to alcohol, but there was no question about his fitting in. Adelaide Strikers have their new heartbeat, just as Nielsen had hoped.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig