With the notable exception of Alastair Cook, England’s cricketers have been united in their assertion that next week’s Stanford showdown is not at all about the money (oh no, absolutely not …), but rather just another part of the process of team building and form finding that they intend to carry forward into an eventful 12 months against India, Australia and beyond.
To watch the team unwinding en masse around the luxurious pool at their opulent hill-top hotel, however, with wives, girlfriends and offspring unfurled around them, would be to question the honesty behind this assertion. And yet, for one member of the squad at least, it’s hard to doubt that there is a grain of truth behind the sentiments. Tonight, Ryan Sidebottom will take the field for England for the first time in almost three months, and as he seeks to re-discover the form that briefly transformed him into the leader of England’s attack, it’s clear that he’s motivated by more than just a one-off pay-day.
“It feels like I’ve started again in many ways,” said Sidebottom. “I’m in the side for today’s game, but I don’t see that as a solid selection – by no means do I feel I’ve cemented my place in the side. I’ve got to perform today and carry on that form and play well in all games. Whether we win or lose that’s great, but there’s bigger fish to fry in the future. We’re working hard as a team towards the bigger picture, because 2009 is a massive year for England.”
Whereas the Stanford Superstars and Trinidad & Tobago took the chance in Saturday’s opening fixture to try out some of their fringe players, England have shown no such sentiment. Their starting eleven tonight is as strong as they could possibly name, with three fringe squad members – Cook, Ravi Bopara and Graeme Swann – all left on the sidelines. Sidebottom knows that he too would probably have been warming the bench had it not been for the wrist fracture that Steve Harmison sustained while playing for Durham in the County Championship last month.
“Steve’s come back and is bowling really well, and there’s a lot of pressure for places,” said Sidebottom. “I’m under no illusions that I need to fight for my place, and I’m going to do that, but there’s a great team spirit. I’m aiming to play for the next 12 months, and England have honoured me by offering me another central contract, so I’d just like to be consistent again and keep taking wickets.”
Nevertheless, it is an opportune week for Sidebottom to be back to full fitness. Though he has appreciated the impact that Kevin Pietersen has made since taking over as England’s captain, he has yet to play under the new management and consequently the heroics against New Zealand that made him England’s Player of the Year seem almost to belong to another era. There is nothing monetary at stake in tonight’s encounter against Middle**** but Sidebottom is sure to relish the chance to roll back the months and curl his inswingers into a few unsuspecting pads.
“It’s been frustrating,” said Sidebottom of his time on the sidelines. For more than three months he has been struggling with one niggle or another – a stiff back, perversely attributed to “bed-hopping”, limited his effectiveness in the Lord’s Test against South Africa, and he had been suffering from groin and hip problems as well when a lacklustre showing in England’s series-squandering defeat at Edgbaston sealed his demotion.
“It’s taken me seven weeks to get rid of all the niggles, and get fit,” said Sidebottom, who admitted to feeling a bit like a “pin-cushion” after several trips to the doctors. “I don’t like injections but it’s probably the way to go, because you’re playing for your country so you want to play as long as possible. To cure the injuries that’s the way we went down - injections, time and rest, then plenty fitness work around the groin area. It’s been frustrating, but a good opportunity to go away and lose some weight and get fitter.”
Sidebottom knows that now he’s back within sight of the starting eleven, he cannot afford any let-up in his intensity – even if it means he runs the risk of another breakdown. He is not naturally the quickest bowler in the England set-up, but at times during the first half of the year he was regularly clocking in the high-80mph bracket. With Harmison and Andrew Flintoff back in the frame, he could arguably afford to slip back to a more comfortable speed and save himself for long spells, but that’s not the way he sees it.
“I think there’s more pressure to crank up my pace,” said Sidebottom. “I know Freddie’s an allrounder, but Harmy comes into the team, so that’s two bowlers to take a spot. I’ve bowled a lot of overs, and I’m not saying I didn’t want to, but for England you’ve got to go 100% all the time and eventually that took its toll. The body wasn’t coming round to all the pressures and I was just getting niggles, but I think the rest has helped because you have to bowl full pelt all the time, or you’re out of the team.”
After making his fruitless debut in 2001, Sidebottom never envisaged the second coming that earned him 51 wickets in 12 Tests last year, and to this day he is not taking any aspect of his career for granted. Of all the squad members, he is the most credible when he insists that lining his pocket is not the be-all and end-all of this peculiar week’s work.
“There’s a lot of money involved but there are a lot of bigger things ahead,” he says. “It’s been quite relaxed so far and I’m sleeping pretty well now. It’s just great to be back, enjoying my cricket, and working towards getting my place back in the side.”