Perhaps the tortoise can beat the hare – but could he succeed in Australia?
Sibley’s slow but steady scoring was just what England needed but his technique might be found wanting in the Ashes
Dominic Sibley kept England in this series by batting through the opening day for 86 off 253 balls. He did not take the game away from West Indies, but he kept England in it, until Ben Stokes joined him and together they turned the tide, to the point where Jason Holder is likely to regret his decision.
This is the first time Sibley has reached 50 in the first innings of a Test, and there could have been no better moment than when England had been sent in on a grey day that demanded floodlights.
Sibley batted as if it had not been a modern England Test at Old Trafford but an old-fashioned Roses match, accumulating off his legs at one run an over until tea, matching nature’s grimness with his own, and accelerating only slightly thereafter, an anachronism in English cricket nowadays in that nobody else dons a hair shirt.
Sibley is not the slowest opening batsman England have ever had – not for certain. The number of balls which some of the great blockers have faced over the years went unrecorded so we will never know their scoring rates. But he is the second slowest opener England have had in modern times, with his run-rate standing at 36 runs per 100 balls.
Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth was the sprightliest opening batsman England have tried in the last decade, averaging 50 per 100 balls. Of the others who did not make the cut, Middlesex’s Sam Robson and Surrey’s Mark Stoneman had a strikerate of 44, as does Rory Burns, Alex Hales 43, Keaton Jennings 42 and Michael Carberry 41.
The only slower opener England have recently had was Haseeb Hameed, at 34 per 100 balls, but he was batting in India against a world-class attack – and for part of it with a broken finger. Meantime, the two knights carried on rather more proactively, in accordance with their status as captain: Sir Alastair Cook at a strike-rate of 46, and Sir Andrew Strauss at 48.
It puts pressure on Sibley’s partners when he bats as slowly as he does – Ben Stokes itches – but at least it does not ruffle the man himself. He is imperturbably patient, and if he is slower than all those predecessors in the last 10 years who failed to pin down the spot, he illustrates how the tortoise can beat the hare. Rotate the strike? Not when Sibley is happy to play within his limitations, and leave anything outside his off stump, and block out maiden after maiden.
Sibley’s concentration is as strong as that of some illustrious predecessors as England’s opening batsman. His desire, too, is up right there: he set himself to lose weight during lockdown and did.
It has been disappointing that the two pitches so far have been so sluggish, made for attritional batting, so that only Stokes and Jermaine Blackwood have got above second gear. Our famine has ceased and we are no longer starved of cricket, but it is porridge and gruel which has been served. But Sibley has not complained, instead using the time to find his feet, and appreciating the absence of bouncers.
Can Sibley keep improving to the point where he succeeds in Australia? Ten out of 10 for his temperament: it does not look as though he will be rattled when David Warner gets in his face. It is that technique of turning chest-on and playing round his left hip to reach the leg-stump ball which is one major concern. The second is his off-driving with a closed bat-face when he bats on bouncier pitches; the shot when he was dropped by Holder at second slip off Shannon Gabriel must not be a foretaste of what happens in Australia if England are to regain the Ashes.
Against spin Sibley is not nearly as limited as he has looked in this series, becalmed by the part-time off spin of Roston Chase. In the second half of his 133 in South Africa, in England’s second innings in Cape Town, once his team were safe and his own place too, Sibley swept the left-armer Keshav Maharaj, and swept him unerringly too. He removed his hair-shirt and donned England’s white-ball strip.
It is a shame that England will not have Jofra Archer to exploit Old Trafford as it dries and speeds up. Maybe Archer would have gone home anyway, but he might have been less tempted to do so if he had been installed as the leader of England’s bowling attack, which he should have been before this series, and fully engaged in the team’s planning for this summer and beyond. Archer alone threatened West Indies’ run chase.
He batted as if it was not a modern England Test but a Roses match from years gone by
Poles apart: Stubborn England opener Dom Sibley and the more attacking Ben Stokes