Swinging it for the Auld Enemy - An interview with Ryan Sidebottom

THERE IS something of the Visigoth in Ryan Sidebottom. He charges to the wicket, not fluently like a natural athlete but almost laboured, gathers himself at the crease for an explosion of effort and hurtles down a delivery with a grunt. His face is contorted into a grimace, the follow-through plasters strands of his long, curly hair to his forehead, making him look like an extra from Braveheart, and if the batsman plays and misses he receives a volley of invective informing him of his shortcom

It is primeval stuff, or looks it, but the fact is that Sidebottom, 30, is far more than that description. He is a highly-skilled swing bowler possessed of the requisite nasty streak.

Viewers of recent matches will not be unaware of how this competitive spirit manifests itself as poor old bumbling Monty Panesar received a fearful ear-bashing after some sloppy fielding off Sidebottom's bowling.

The truth is it was deserved. Panesar can be an appalling fielder and, for all his hard work trying to improve, is still shoddy.

Exhausted, aching and struggling against resolute South African batsmen, Sidebottom blew a gasket. It was comical to watch, probably less so to receive and possibly damaging.

Few sportspeople have the confidence to shrug off such an attack as their lives are spent negotiating a tightrope of supreme confidence and low self-esteem. Panesar, with his large eyes pleading for help, looks vulnerable but is actually far stronger mentally than to take such a dressing down personally.

"Everyone knows I do it," explained Sidebottom this week before travelling up to Scotland for tomorrow's one-day international, "and maybe on occasion I do go over the top but the lads don't mind as they know I'm desperate to do well. If I go too far they tell me in the dressing room to 'just shut up and get on with it' anyway but people never see that. As for Monty, he's fine and, trust me, he gives it out a bit when you misfield off his bowling. He just does it quieter, a few choice words or gives you the eye."

Which is all part and parcel of professional cricket. Seamers have been granted greater leniency in the verbal department as their job is physically hard, bowling 15 to 20 overs a day at full pace under a hot sun, but hard work is what Sidebottom does.

He first played for England in 2001 against Pakistan. He failed to take a wicket and was dumped back to county cricket immediately, the then coach Duncan Fletcher deciding he lacked the pace, height or venom necessary to succeed in Test cricket.

Fletcher was partly right. Sidebottom had looked ineffectual but what he did have was a willingness to work and an ability to swing the ball. Since John Lever in 1976/77, England had been searching for a left-arm swing bowler but after one Test he was gone.

At Yorkshire and then after his move to Nottinghamshire in 2004, Sidebottom developed his bowling and in both 2004 and 2005 took more than 50 first class wickets.

"I worked really hard on technique, especially wrist position behind the ball to make the ball swing and improved," explained Sidebottom.

He certainly did, so much so that he was consistently considered the hardest bowler to face in county cricket.

So when an injury to Matthew Hoggard in May 2007 opened up a spot against the West Indies, new coach Peter Moores plucked Sidebottom from Nottinghamshire and started a run of performances that earned the seamer England's Player of the Year award.

When Hoggard and Stephen Harmison were dropped in New Zealand he suddenly became the attack leader. In eight months a county stalwart had gone from "possibly a stopgap" to the "go to fellow". It was some rise but thoroughly deserved. In England he bowled superbly. At around 84mph on the speed gun he was quick enough to trouble batsmen and skilled enough to swing some back into a right hander and let others slide straight on towards the expectant slip cordon.

He continued the good form in Sri Lanka, bowling superbly in the ODI series with the white ball and, alongside Jimmy Anderson, dragged England back from a 1-0 deficit to a 2-1 Test series win in New Zealand. What is a current concern, though, is his injured lower back that clearly reduced his pace and effectiveness against South Africa.

It was revealing that as his form slumped, so did England's. He has become that important. To be of use to new captain Kevin Pietersen, Sidebottom has to regain the nip and body rotation that swung the ball.

And what of Pietersen? There was such a display of goodwill to the new skipper at the Oval from the players that it looked a little contrived. That may not be the case and the match was won.

"Yes, it was a shock when (Michael] Vaughan resigned but KP came in as skipper with new ideas. He's open and honest and says what he thinks and it has started well," said Sidebottom. "We had a big meeting where he outlined his plans and what he expected from everyone else and the players had their say. We'll have to see how it works out."

The next challenge is Scotland, tomorrow, and Sidebottom is keen to finally play against them. "I love the idea of these nations playing cricket," he said. "They need the support and investment. They have the ICC tournament, Intercontinental Cup I think, which gives them targets for progressing and they can get into world cups. Wherever cricket is being played I think it is good, we need the game to grow – this match now between England and Scotland is a proper match and good practice for us before the South African series and, personally, it would be nice to bowl a ball at the Scots, especially Gavin Hamilton, my old mate from Yorkshire.

"I've actually had two Friends Provident matches against Scotland and each time it has hosed down and we've played knockabout football instead. Yorkshire and Scotland – rains a lot, doesn't it?

"The thing is, one day, a lad from Scotland could play for England," he added. "It's happened from Ireland (Ed Joyce], get the youngsters playing cricket, it's a great game."

Well, if any Scot does end up excelling they may choose a career in the Indian Premier League, where megabucks and glamour dominate.

"The IPL is great and although I'd rather take fifers (five wickets] for England, I think most players want a go at the IPL to play against the best and in a big tournament," said Sidebottom.

The money would help too.

"Yes, that's part of it. You have to think of your family and future and be realistic but mostly it is the cricket, bowling at the Aussies in a Twenty20, that kind of thing. That's the kind of challenge I want, testing myself. My dad told me to play every game as if it was my last. Sometimes it makes me too fired up but that's me."

This winter could prove crucial for many of the England squad as they tour India for seven ODIs and two Test matches. Do well in the one-day matches with all India watching and a lucrative IPL contract is almost guaranteed. It is more likely to be individual performances that matter though, as England are woeful at the shorter game.

"We need to improve at one-day cricket, we all know that," said Sidebottom. "This series against South Africa will be hard as I think they are ranked No.1 in the world but we need to do it and get results."

That might prove difficult. The England Lions have been dismissed in the warm-up games and South Africa have a settled side and defined methodology. There is a suspicion that England have neither.