When Matthew Hoggard was injured before the second Test against the West Indies, way back in May, many expected James Anderson to replace him. Instead, Ryan Sidebottom was plucked from semi-obscurity.
This was partly because the Test was at Headingley, where Sidebottom had played for many years. It was partly because Sidebottom offered variety by being a left-armer. It’s also conceivable that it was at least in some small way a political gesture, saying to county cricketers that Duncan Fletcher’s closed-shop England had gone and a new England which worked hand-in-hand with the counties had arrived under Peter Moores.
Unlike so many great plans, this one worked. Sidebottom took 4-42 in the first innings and 4-44 in the second and England won by an innings and 283 runs. There was no problem keeping Sidebottom in place for the next Test or the one after that and having finished the series with a five wicket haul at Chester-le-Street, Sidebottom was now inked-in for the India series that followed.
For three straight Tests, various commentators bemoaned Sidebottom’s poor luck, lauded his good old-fashioned swing bowling and his accuracy and pointed out that pace isn’t everything in this game. Yet when the series concluded, Sidebottom emerged with only eight wickets at an average of 38 and England had lost. While they rediscovered some buoyancy in the narrow one-day series victory that followed, Sidebottom was forced to watch from the sidelines due to a side strain. This injury also kept him away from England’s rather limp showing in the ICC World Twenty20.
Having made a full recovery, it now seems likely that Ryan Sidebottom will again lead England’s attack. This time, however, conditions won’t be in his favour. It will also be Sidebottom’s first overseas international for six years, assuming he makes the starting eleven for the first one-day international against Sri Lanka at Dambulla on Monday.
Sidebottom, as you’d imagine, sees fellow left-armer Chaminda Vaas, as a suitable role model prior to this testing tour.
“Someone like Vaas has taken a lot of wickets for Sri Lanka and shown that there is a place for seamers. He has shown that you do not have to be able to steam in and bowl at 90mph to be a quality international bowler on those types of pitches.”
Like Sidebottom, Vaas is a left-armer of moderate pace who can swing the ball. But Vaas is vastly more experienced than Sidebottom, having played 98 Tests and 300 one-day internationals. Sidebottom can boast of only seven Tests and just three one-day internationals.
Vaas’s success in Sri Lanka has also been in familiar conditions and bowling with a familiar ball. While the ball does swing due to the humidity, Sri Lanka use Kookaburra balls, as opposed to the Dukes used in England. The Kookaburra ball will only swing conventionally for about 20 overs. Thereafter, the bowler must rely on other means to defeat the batsman. Sidebottom has spoken to Darren Gough about bowling in Sri Lankan conditions and says he feels confident that he will get some reverse swing.
But will it be as easy as that? To return to Chaminda Vaas, his record in unfamiliar conditions and with an unfamiliar ball is famously poor, in spite of his vast international experience. Vaas’s career bowling averages of 29.21 in Tests and 26.78 in one-day internationals vastly inflate for internationals played in England, becoming a monstrous 77.66 in Test cricket and 37.14 in one-day internationals. India is the only other country where Vaas’s familiar Kookaburra ball is not used and here too he struggles. With the SG ball his Test average becomes 41.27 and his one-day average rises to 38.42.
If Ryan Sidebottom can overcome similar obstacles and find a way of taking wickets in Sri Lanka, it will go a long way towards helping England on a tour on which they’ve often struggled. He’ll also be able to consider himself an England player for some time to come.