Ryan Sidebottom must be grateful for English cricket’s obsession with Andrew Flintoff. Assuming both men play in today’s first Test in Jamaica, our Fred-tinted spectacles mean other players aren’t viewed in quite the same focus. And yet Sidebottom’s performances over the next few weeks, in what will essentially be his third and most crucial crack at international cricket, could define how he is remembered.
This might sound harsh given that his second stint – 76 wickets in 17 Tests at 24 apiece – was such a success. But what people have felt ungenerous pointing out is that more than half those scalps came in a third of the matches against New Zealand (41 in six Tests at a Hadlee-esque 18 each); another 16, at an average of just 19, came in three games against West Indies.
That leaves 19 other wickets in eight Tests against India, Sri Lanka and South Africa at nearly 43 each. Even accounting for the bad luck he suffered in the first two of those series, there is a danger that Sidebottom personified the Peter Moores era: good against the weak sides, mediocre against the strong ones. The upshot is it’s still too early to make a judgment. And that’s where this tour comes in.
Aha, you might say, but aren’t England playing West Indies, one of his favourite opponents? True. But the real test will not be whether Sidebottom can massage his figures every innings when the dreadful West Indian tail (with due deference to Jerome Taylor’s freakish hundred at Napier) slog a few balls up in the air. No, we should be looking out for two things: the speed and the swing.
The second may be less revealing than the first. England’s bowlers have so far struggled in the Caribbean to make the ball – new, let alone old – move in the air, so anything will be a bonus. But pace, the factor which persuaded Duncan Fletcher to ditch Sidebottom after a single Test against Pakistan in 2001, may be non-negotiable.
At the peak of his powers in New Zealand a year ago, Sidebottom was hovering impressively close to the 90mph mark. By the time he struggled through two Tests against South Africa later in the year, he was dipping below 80. Had the exertions of his return to the highest level taken their toll? Was Sidebottom, as one or two of his detractors have suggested in private, running on adrenaline? What is his natural pace anyway?
These things matter. England upset Australia four years ago with three quick bowlers and a swinger, Matthew Hoggard. Two of those quicks – Steve Harmison and Flintoff – are still here, but Sidebottom, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad inhabit the second category. With his left-arm angle of attack and match-winning ability to bring the ball back into the right-hander’s pads, Sidebottom is the most potentially destructive of the three. His country needs him.
One final thought. Sidebottom and Flintoff have only played one Test together, and even there Sidebottom wasn’t fully fit. England’s new era will only take shape when the two of them are bowling in tandem at something close to full speed. Then it really might be time to get excited.
Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Guardian. His third book, Cricket, Lovely Cricket? An Addict’s Guide to the World’s Most Exasperating Game is out now published by Yellow Jersey