‘I’m determined to make the most of it’

Ryan Sidebottom now talks realistically of playing Test cricket for another five years while expressing relief that his bowling is being discussed far more than his infamous hairstyle. By Donald McRae.

The tangled roots of Ryan Sidebottom’s recent transformation, from a wild-haired journeyman in county cricket to England’s most dependable strike bowler, can be traced back to a traumatic day in Leeds 16 years ago. Sidebottom had grown used to being cruelly undervalued but even he could not have prepared for the callous treatment that followed a match for Yorkshire’s Under-14 B team.

“I bowled 9pretty well,” he remembers, “but after the match, in front of all the other lads, my coach said I should give up cricket and find something else to do because I would never make it. As a young boy you don’t say anything back. You just take it to heart. I went home and I was really gutted. At the age of 14 you don’t expect to hear that. Maybe it happened to me because of my dad’s reputation — with him having played cricket for England and football for Manchester United.

“I always got criticism because people would say I was only there because of my father. On the odd occasion even parents would say it. One day I was at another trial with Yorkshire and one of the parents said, ‘Oh, he’s only here because of his dad.’ That’s a harsh thing to hear. When you’re young you don’t expect people to be like that. All I wanted to do was enjoy my cricket. It wasn’t really about making it. But I learnt that there were always going to be people trying to knock you down. My dad warned me as well — so, if anything, it made me more determined.”

Sidebottom is too polite to name the coach who hurt him but he does remark that “he might still be around at Yorkshire. I’ve not bumped into him since then but he might be eating his words now while I can have a bit of a smile on my face.”

That smile centres on the 29 wickets Sidebottom has taken in nine consecutive Tests since his surprise return last May. Until then he looked doomed to be shadowed again by his father as part of that unfortunate group of cricketers who have played only one Test. Arnie Sidebottom took a single Australian wicket in his lone appearance, in 1985, while Ryan was even less successful when he made his debut at Lord’s against Pakistan in 2001.

“I thought I didn’t bowl too badly. I didn’t go for loads of runs but it’s down to taking wickets and I didn’t get any. But you do need a little bit of a run in the side to get used to the atmosphere and the other players. I was definitely intimidated playing alongside big names like Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe — being a young lad. So to be dropped after one Test felt harsh. It was a massive disappointment but it was also a kick up the bum. I knew I had to go away and work on my bowling. So that was key because I didn’t want to be thought of as a one-Test wonder like my father.”

Disappointment and determination are such central features in Sidebottom’s struggle that he spent the next six years grinding away on the county treadmill while never flagging in his desire to improve. His move to Nottinghamshire in 2004 — having left Yorkshire because, again, “I was a little undervalued” — was crucial in his development as a thoughtful and consistent seamer.

Playing at Trent Bridge under the perennially astute Stephen Fleming, then in the midst of his reign as New Zealand’s captain, was another significant factor. “He’s a very positive captain, and quite mild-mannered, so he was great for me. Stephen had a massive influence in getting me into the England set-up. He’s been pushing me for years and talking to the England selectors.”

Fleming’s persuasive powers had no impact on Duncan Fletcher who coached England throughout Sidebottom’s long stint in the wilderness. Fletcher stubbornly dismissed any seamer who did not bowl in excess of 85mph and Sidebottom came to epitomise the county trundler who supposedly would never flourish in Test cricket.

“If you didn’t bowl fast enough you were overlooked,” Sidebottom shrugs in irritation. “And that pissed me off because I knew I could bowl quicker. In county cricket you’re bowling day in, day out, for six months and travelling, so it’s difficult. But comments like that were annoying. Maybe if Fletcher had come to watch me, he might have seen that I could bowl.”

Peter Moores, Fletcher’s successor, had witnessed Sidebottom’s international qualities when he coached him on an England A tour to the Caribbean in 2001. After a patchy first year in charge of England, Moores can claim some redemption from this one inspired selection. Sidebottom’s recall against West Indies at Headingley resulted in immediate success with the only moment of doubt occurring when the reluctant bowler had to be convinced by Michael Vaughan that he should lead the team off the field after a four-wicket haul which he repeated in the second innings.

“I was not used to being in the spotlight because I hadn’t been in the Test arena for such a long time,” Sidebottom admits. “I took four wickets in that first innings but that still meant I’d only taken four wickets in my whole Test career. So I was a bit sheepish leading the team off.”

Sidebottom’s superior bowling against West Indies and then India was followed by a hard-working if testing tour of Sri Lanka before Christmas. It was more telling that, on Sri Lanka’s slow wickets, he regularly bowled over 90mph — so adding Fletcher’s prerequisite pace to his established accuracy and swing. “As a Test bowler the rest periods are better and you’re fresh going into most games. When you’re fresh you bowl better and your rhythm’s good. And your pace is sometimes down to rhythm. I always knew I was capable of bowling quicker.

“I’m also quite passionate and when you want to do well you get that extra two or three per cent.”

Sidebottom, who turned 30 last month, does not flinch at the suggestion that England now rely upon him more than any other bowler. “Yeah, but Sri Lanka was frustrating because I bowled well enough to take more wickets. I bowled as well as I did in the summer and I beat the bat a lot on flat pitches. I’ve had a lot of horses-for-courses comments from one or two newspapers, which I don’t like, but that just makes me determined to prove people wrong.”

Sidebottom is still 71 wickets away from being England’s first left-arm pace bowler to break a strange hoodoo and take 100 Test wickets. “I know all about that,” he grins, “so that’s another milestone. I’m quite a way off but I’ll keep plugging away.”

Despite his own uplifting year, and his understated personal ambitions, Sidebottom acknowledges that England are under real pressure. After losing at home to India, and 2-0 to Sri Lanka, the Moores regime cannot afford another decisive defeat in New Zealand. “We know that,” Sidebottom admits. “If you’re playing for England you’re going to be under pressure. Our one-day form has improved so we’ve turned that around. But New Zealand are tough. They’re known as a team who stick together, so it’s going to be difficult. And these Tests are key because we’ve lost the last two series and we need to change that. But of course I’m optimistic that we’re going to beat them.”

There is both anticipation and excitement in Sidebottom’s belief for he usually spends the winter in a cricketing limbo. “In the years gone by I would do a bit of property developing to keep busy. With my fiancée, Kate, we’d buy these little two-bed places and do them up and then rent them out. We’ve got four houses renting at the moment.”

Sidebottom blushes at the suggestion that, like Vaughan, he sounds a skilled operator in the property business. “Well, not really. I’m pretty hopeless. I’m not bad with a sledgehammer and knocking things down — but that’s about it. With the property side I was obviously thinking that cricket is not such a long career, especially as a bowler, so it was something for the future.”

Since that long run of barren winters, with little hope of representing England, everything has changed. Sidebottom now talks realistically of playing Test cricket for another five years while expressing relief that his bowling is being discussed far more than his infamous hairstyle.

Having been compared to a cross between Worzel Gummidge and a burst old sofa losing its stuffing, and mocked as “Rapunzel” with a “flame-coloured curtain of corkscrew locks”, Sidebottom can now run his hands lovingly through his hair and confirm that he will never cut it short again.

He last wore a conventional haircut when he was that teenage boy suffering heartache for Yorkshire’s Under-14 B team. “It feels a long time ago now,” Sidebottom murmurs, “and I just want to look ahead. I deserve to be here and, after all the disappointment, I’m determined to make the most of it.”