Mike Hussey tells a story about the late Phillip Hughes, taken from the young batsman’s first Test at Johannesburg in 2009. Steyn had dismissed him for a fourth-ball duck, and after stumps he gave a television interview in which he jokingly regretted getting Hughes out before he had a chance to give the debutant a proper working over, and maybe leave a few bruises. Walking past, just within earshot, unbeknown to Steyn – and indeed, unbeknown to anyone else at that time – was Hughes’s friend Peter Siddle.
Two days later it was Steyn’s turn to bat, and when he saw who was emerging from the pavilion, Siddle immediately asked to bowl around the wicket. What followed was the most savage flurry of short-pitched bumpers anyone had ever seen Siddle bowl. At one stage, Hussey remembered, Siddle strolled down the wicket, fixed Steyn with a glare and barked: “That’s what you get for going after my mate.”
Understandably, it is a story that is usually deployed to illuminate the all-too-brief life of Hughes, the even-tempered Macksville kid for whom you instinctively wanted to root for. But I wonder if it doesn’t tell us more about Siddle: this magnificent, gnawed corned beef sandwich of a man, the stalwart fast bowler with a fire-red streak, a vaguely unhinged air and an unshakeable sense of mateship.
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Siddle is both good cop and bad cop, occasionally in the same innings, sometimes even in the same over. You can imagine Siddle rescuing a drowning cat from a swollen river. Equally, you can imagine him drowning that same cat in that same river with those same brawny, wood-chopping arms. Either way, you get the feeling the cat had it coming.
And so to next month’s Ashes series, an encounter in which Siddle was expected to play little or no part. And yet might, of course. He has only just recovered from 11 months out with a back injury. The much-touted Big Four of Australian fast bowling – Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson – seemed to have their Ashes needs taken care of. And yet the news that Pattinson will miss the series – with his own back injury – has created a vacancy. Lock up your tail-enders. Put the children to bed. Stock the dressing room with vegan snack foods. Sidds is ready to answer the call.
Siddle thundered back into competitive action this week, taking five wickets for Victoria and looking somewhere close to his jagged best. And though time – in more than one sense – is against him, somehow the idea of Siddle storming up on the rails and claiming a spot at the Gabba on 23 November, or even later in the series, just feels right. Not since 2006-07 have we had an Ashes series without Siddle. Like the Barmy Army and Glenn McGrath's predictions, he is simply a part of the furniture.
Quite apart from which, he is only 31 and far from over the hill. He may no longer be the same bowler who slapped Gautam Gambhir on the helmet with his first ball in Test cricket, nor the searing enforcer who claimed what remains the last Ashes hat-trick to date, at a baying Brisbane in 2010. Over the last few years he has become an altogether different sort of prospect: intelligent, incisive, unerring of length and infinitely patient.
Kevin Pietersen was dismissed by him in Test cricket more times than anybody else – 10 in total – and rates Siddle as one of the toughest fast bowlers he ever faced, simply because of his willingness to wait for the mistake. Mitchell Johnson may have claimed the plaudits during the 2013-14 Ashes, but the role of Siddle at first or second change – quietly drying up an end, tightening the noose, chipping away – was an underrated element of Australia’s 5-0 whitewash. He ended that series as its most economical bowler.
But in a sense, none of this is really the point. The point is that in a series already shorn of two of its biggest stars – Ben Stokes’ punishment notwithstanding – the Ashes could really use a little Siddle, a man who is 50 per cent gritted teeth, 50 per cent brass neck, 100 per cent total commitment. Siddle is just one of those players who makes cricket a little more interesting.
And we should probably be clear about this. We are not talking about a “character” in the popular sense, the sort of cartoonish caricature that could almost be pitched directly at the post-retirement banter circuit. Quite the contrary, in fact: you would need quite the imagination to manufacture a vegan, fast-bowling, former wood-chopping champion with a heart of gold and a penchant for bananas. In an age of elite academies and gilded production lines, of perfect identikit cricketers with perfect identikit smiles, Siddle offers that rarest of qualities: authenticity. Steyn got a taste of it at the Wanderers all those years ago. And you wonder whether maybe, just maybe, there is one last snarl lying in wait for the unsuspecting English.