Fast bowler Peter Siddle was a competitive woodchopper at school in Gippsland, the large rural area east of Melbourne, a quintessentially Australian pursuit that one can safely say does not feature in the extramural activities of many South African schools.
His parents gave him his first axe when he was just two years old and, although he is no longer a woodchopper, Siddle brings many of the strengths he learnt from those days into Australia’s favourite summer sport.
He goes at batsmen with the same aggression, he is indefatigable and, despite being a lean machine who has converted to a vegan diet, has considerable strength and stamina.
And the 29-year-old has plenty of character too: His tussles with the South African batsmen in the summer of 2008/9 were epic viewing and the Wanderers crowd chanting “Siddle is … a wanker” remain fresh in the memory. Apart from his undoubted qualities as a bowler, there is something of the pantomime villain about Siddle, who is a most likeable fellow off the field.
“I think we’re similar to the South Africans in that we do play aggressively. Intimidation can work against anyone, we’re fortunate to have someone like Mitchell Johnson, and at those speeds, batting is hard work whatever the conditions,” Siddle says.
Siddle will be one of the star attractions of the thrilling late summer that lies ahead, but, having played 51 Tests now, he is a clever bowler these days. He has erred in the past by bowling too short too often, but Siddle now tends to keep the ball full and straight and uses a swift, well-directed bouncer as a nasty surprise.
Australia’s slide began after that 2008/9 home and away series against South Africa and a couple of coaches have paid the price for their indifferent form. A 5-0 whitewash of England suggests they may have turned the corner, but the opposition did throw in the towel in feeble fashion and South Africa at home should provide a real test of their new order under Darren Lehmann and Michael Clarke.
They certainly seem a more settled outfit.
“As a whole, the team is a lot more suited to our plans now. We’ve come a long way, with a couple of personnel changes, we’ve got back to a couple of older boys in the bowling attack. The Ashes showed how far we’ve come,” Siddle says.
“We need to stay a lot more patient, with both bat and ball. We’ve bowled very consistently as a group, Nathan Lyon has done so well at the other end and the three quicks have been able to bowl fast, short spells.”
Siddle chuckles at the suggestion that the English batsmen were soft and says the Australians know the South African batting line-up is a formidable one, but plans have been set in place.
“We know it’s going to be a tough series, we’re going to have to be consistent over four or five days, building pressure and not letting them get away with partnerships.
“It makes us a bit more happy that Jacques Kallis won’t be there because his record speaks for itself. He’s one of the greats and, although it’s disappointing not to play against him, it’s a nice feeling not having to bowl at him!
“But there are still plenty of others to take his place and we’re going to have to work hard, South Africa are number one for a reason. Like Faf du Plessis, who gave us a really tough day in Adelaide 18 months ago. That showed the character of the player, he enjoys the challenge. But we have a bit more understanding of him now and I’ve no doubt we have good plans to bowl to him,” Siddle says.
Siddle said talk that South African pitches were different to those they were used to Australia was wide of the mark.
“The Gabba, Melbourne to an extent and Hobart are all very similar to here with the ball moving around. But it’s still about bowling the right line and length and I think we’ve achieved that in the last six months,” he says.
The eater of 15 bananas a day is famous for the tight line he employs just outside off stump, with the occasional mean delivery banged in [he famously hit Gautam Gambhir on the head with his first ball in Test cricket], and seems to thrive on the hard, unglamorous work of Test bowling.
His batting has also improved markedly and last March he became the first number nine batsman in Test history to score a half-century in each innings of a Test, against India on a turning track in Delhi.
The Victorian who took a hat-trick against England on his 26th birthday is the archetypal determined Aussie and the three-Test series is definitely the better for having him in it.