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Dom Sibley’s Best Shot is the Leave

Ben Jones analyses Sibley’s much-discussed technique and approach.

Dom Sibley is a defensive, conservative batsman. If he can, he leaves the ball; if he can’t leave it, he defends it; if he can’t defend it, he nudges and rotates; then, and only then, will he attack. He’s an old school opener of the type we don’t see much of in modern Test cricket. And that attracts attention.

In contrast to dashing strokemakers around the world, Sibley isn’t a big driver. He can pull, but it’s not his first thought. He nudges through midwicket, but even then it’s a shot laced with a fair bit of risk. No – unfashionably, Sibley’s best shot is the leave. 

That’s not snark or a criticism, but a genuine reflection of his ability to judge the threat to him outside off stump. For an opening batsman to go a whole English summer without nicking off is quite something, and that’s what Sibley managed last summer, and has started this summer in the same vein. When the ball is moving around, Sibley’s ‘leave first, ask questions later’ method has clear benefits.

Mind you, it is an extreme approach, and one which runs counter to the general trend of players scoring quicker, leaving less, and getting bat on ball more. Against pace, Sibley is quite literally the most defensive, defence-focused batsman we have seen in the data era. 

Even when you disregard pace, and focus on all bowling, Sibley is right up there with the most conservative batsman of modern times. As such, it’s really not an indication of very much at all, if you have an extreme reaction to Sibley’s batting. He is an extreme player, and there shouldn’t be a moral judgement of your aesthetic enjoyment or otherwise when it comes to Sibley’s batting, because he is an edge case. You’re not an old fogey traditionalist for loving his style, but neither are you a sugar-drenched toddler for finding it dull – because if Sibley isn’t dull, then it’s hard to argue how any player could be, given the above. 

Yet perhaps the more important matter is whether or not this approach works.

To a degree, this method has been extremely effective. Since Sibley debuted, the only player to play more 100+ ball innings than him is Marnus Labuschagne. While the cult-hero status of Joe Denly was infused with more than its fair share of pantomime, it was also built on his designated ‘Dentury’ role, tasked as he (apparently) was with facing 100 balls per innings and blunting the new ball; he did manage this regularly, and while the good fortune he needed in order to do so was reason enough to drop him, the importance of that role should not be forgotten. It helps, negotiating the new ball. It makes things easier. While runs are ultimately the currency we deal in for batsmen, if Sibley allows others to fill their boots against tired bowlers, in the style of the Pujara-Pant axis which destroyed Australia in the winter, then his contribution is invaluable.

Indeed, since Sibley first walked to the crease in Test cricket, the only batsman in the world to spend more time there than him is Joe Root. As with all of these records reliant on volume, Sibley is the beneficiary of England’s packed schedule, of being given numerous opportunities to bat in Test cricket. Not every player gets to play 12 Tests a year even if selected for every game their country plays.

And,  unsurprisingly in modern Britain, being a leaver is quite a divisive thing. Test cricket fans have an odd relationship with players like Sibley. They revere them, of course, but more than anything they revere the idea of them. When a collapse begins and a side is bowled out in a session, everyone wants a blocker, a leaver, a stoic defender – but then they have to watch them bat for three hours, the support dwindles. It doesn’t disappear (there will always be people who value the style), but the heard thins.

The criticism of Sibley, from England fans on Sunday afternoon, was not just about him. Fans wanted England to try and chase the runs, and while Sibley’s approach made it all but impossible, he wouldn’t have played in that manner without his captain’s approval. Sibley was the most obvious lightning rod for criticism of England’s approach, but he was hardly the brains behind it.

Equally, as always when it comes to discussion of intent – a topic which arises more regularly in white ball than red ball cricket – we wrongly assume that rate of scoring is simply a question of choice. In fact, it’s more than reasonable to say that in red ball cricket, Sibley can’t score quickly.  The only time in his entire first-class career that he’s scored at quicker than 4rpo was when he made 8 (8) v Pakistan last summer. To ask him to score briskly, while not taking risks, is less asking a leopard to change its spots, than it is asking a tiger to grow them. 

England fans had four summers of Bayliss-ball, of regular collapses barely tolerated because they came with a faint sense of the remarkable around the corner. Headingley was the pay-off, the reward at the end of it all .In the real world, of normal Test teams doing normal things, Sunday isn’t an uncommon situation: the unattainable chase just out of reach, with defensive players unable to go through the gears. Removing ODI players from the Test team comes with lots of benefits, but the odd downside as well. 

Ultimately, England fans will love Sibley unconditionally if his method comes good, bringing individual and team success. Fans are like that, and rightly so. But in the meantime, Sibley has to make do with knowing that his style brings little margin for error – when you don’t entertain, you have to win.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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