'I'm pushing for a place – I know I can make it swing' - Sidebottom

After taking five wickets at the weekend, Ryan Sidebottom tells Jon Culley why the tour of South Africa could restart his career – if he gets the chance to shine
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The Independent Online

Ryan Sidebottom will be 32 next month. He has just become a father for the first time and in accordance with cricket's enduring tradition for passing round the hat, 2010 will be his benefit year. The rock star haircut may still be in place but these days his recreational requirements are satisfied by a quiet pint in his local pub. He might not be ready to retire but an inventory of his life would suggest a winding-down.

Yet, as a late starter whose second coming as an international cricketer explosively relaunched his career, the left-arm fast bowler finds his appetite for competing at the highest level as sharp as ever. Which is why the part he plays in England's Test series in South Africa, which starts at Centurion tomorrow, is so important to him, especially after 18 months bedevilled by injuries. His five-for at the weekend against a South African invitational team will have pushed him closer to selection for the first Test but if he fails to make the starting XI it may signal a Test career obituary to go with next season's testimonials.

"It's great to be back in the squad," Sidebottom says, "and I'm confident I can be successful in South Africa. The ball will swing and it will suit me. Maybe, if everyone is fit, the starting eleven for the first Test would already be picked but I'm just hoping to push for a place, to keep the pressure on the younger guys."

He should also take encouragement from the words of Andrew Strauss following the warm-up match in East London. "It was very encouraging to see the way Ryan bowled," his captain said. "I was very impressed with him. The ball hit the gloves hard, he swung it, reverse-swung it at the end – and he's always pretty accurate. It's a good combination when he's got all that going."

He had all that going and more during his blistering spell in international cricket which began in 2007, six years after he won his first cap, but then followed a spell of irritation which has restricted him to only three Test appearances. Groin and hip problems forced him out of the home series against South Africa in 2008. He was fit enough to play regularly for Nottinghamshire this year but, to his disappointment, was overlooked for the Ashes.

"It wasn't easy," he said. "I had 18 months of highs as an England bowler but then it seemed to be one thing after another. Side, back, neck, pretty much everything. And the Achilles. I was struggling with that in the West Indies when I played my last Test. Maybe I should have come home earlier and rested up but when you are playing for your country you take these kind of risks."

His frustration looked about to be relieved in August, at Headingley, where Sidebottom had proved such a revelation in May 2007 when, picked on a horses-for-courses selectorial hunch, he took four West Indies wickets in each innings at the start of a run that would make him a fixture in the side. One-nil up going into this year's fourth Test against Australia, England needed to replace the injured Andrew Flintoff. Sidebottom was named in the squad and conditions were expected to favour his swing. But Steve Harmison (right) got the nod.

"That was quite hard to take," he said. "I had been bowling really well for Notts and the ball had been swinging all over the place in the nets.

"There had been a lot of rain the night before so I thought I had a good chance. Stuart Clark had been picked for Australia and most people in the ground expected me to be in the England side.

"The team was not named until maybe 10 minutes before the toss and I was quite excited because I had not heard that I wasn't playing. They went with Harmy, which was warranted, but I was very disappointed that I was not selected, for whatever reason. And nothing was really said to me, which was difficult. I was disappointed because playing in the Ashes is everybody's dream."

Sidebottom made the squad for The Oval, too, but again was not involved on the field. He was recalled for the one-day series against Australia but struggled to take wickets and made only one appearance in the Champions Trophy. When England named their party for the one-dayers in South Africa, his was excluded.

It might have been a moment for accepting his fate. Just as he had seized his moment when Matthew Hoggard was passed over in 2007, perhaps the baton had now passed to Graham Onions and Stuart Broad, the new generation. Instead, he resolved simply to try harder. As Kate, his wife, counted down the days until the arrival of daughter Indiana Nell, on 16 November, Ryan was in the gym or pounding the track, relentlessly.

"I just tried to get myself as fit as possible," he said. "I was at Loughborough [England's National Cricket Performance Centre] every day, Saturday and Sunday as well, working one-to-one with a fitness trainer, doing lots of running, lots of weights.

"When you are playing county cricket you get plenty of rest but in Test cricket, when you have only three seamers, you can be bowling all day and every day, maybe 30 overs in an innings. It will take its toll. Maybe my body was just not up to 18 months of non-stop cricket.

"But I still feel I've got a lot to offer and I'm still desperate to play for England. So I've just had to work harder to be stronger and I think I proved a point this season by not getting any injuries."

On top of the hard yards, there have been compromises away from the field. Having grown up the son of county cricketer (and professional footballer) Arnie Sidebottom in an era when hydration drinks came out of a tap marked Tetley's, Ryan still enjoys a lively night out, but not as often as he once might.

"I still think that as a cricketer you need that. You need to relax and let your hair down. If you are playing all year round you can find yourself thinking too much about your game and putting yourself under too much pressure.

"I like to go out to my local pub and get away from the game. I like going to watch rugby [Huddersfield Giants] and stuff like that. But I've stayed in a bit more recently."

Yet there remains a sense that he is planning for something else. Players of his vintage, at least those who appreciate their good fortune, turn their thoughts to "giving something back" and Sidebottom has wonderful ambitions, at the heart of which is a charitable trust and, in the long term, a hospice for sick children. He discusses the idea, if slightly bashfully, with real enthusiasm.

"It is an idea in the pipeline. Hopefully it will be called the Little Siddy Trust. The aim will be to help hospices around Nottingham. I want to raise as much money as possible to give children a happier time. I've always been really keen on that.

"It doesn't come from any personal experience in particular but in cricket you are always in contact with kids, whether it is coaching or signing autographs when they come to watch you play the Twenty20 Cup matches and the like.

"And as a player you are often asked to visit kids in hospitals, or have them down here. So you see other kids who through their illnesses can't come to watch and it would be great to do something for them, maybe send them away on holiday with their parents, just to give them some happy times.

"In the long term, maybe five or 10 years down the line, I'd like to build my own hospice. You need to have something to aim for away from cricket and when I retire I'd like to do charitable work as well as some coaching for kids. It is just good to put smiles on faces."

It would be insultingly trite to describe such sensitivity as surprising. Shallowness among professional athletes is less common than is supposed. Yet it is not visible, of course, in the snarlingly aggressive persona that Sidebottom likes to affect on the field. And it will not be on show to South Africa, should his recent frustrations come to an end, allowing him to take to the Test arena.

In the swing: Ryan Sidebottom's career

Born 15 January 1978, Huddersfield.

*Test Debut 17 May 2001, Lord's.

Sidebottom was selected to face Pakistan, but despite England winning by an innings and nine runs, he failed to impress, taking no wickets.

*2nd Test 25 May 2007, Headingley.

After a spate of injuries, the left-arm seamer was recalled six years after his debut to face West Indies, and helped England to win by an innings and 283 runs, taking eight wickets.

*Last Test 26 Feb 2009, Bridgetown.

After taking 51 wickets in twelve Tests Sidebottom was named Player of the Year for 2008. However, due to injury he hasn't played a Test since February.

*Test Career Statistics

21 matches, 77 wickets, 27.70 bowling average, 7-47 best figures.