Ben Jones looks at the defining ‘shot’ of the England opener.
England had a rather dramatic start to their day, with the news that Jofra Archer had broken quarantine protocol and would be forced to miss the second Test. Losing arguably their best bowler before many of their fans had even stepped out of bed, was a blow. You lose control of the news on days like this, the narrative gets away from you. It would take something substantial to bury that bad news.
Enter, Dom Sibley.
Sibley is an opener from the old school. Quite literally – an alumnus of Whitgift School, founded 500 years ago, Sibley has been on England’s radar almost as long. Well before his double century alongside Hashim Amla, aged 18, back in 2013. The stories of Gary Palmer, the technique change, the meteoric recent rise, can obscure the fact that this was a young man destined for Test cricket long before most were.
And yet. Most prodigies are defined by flair. Clips aren’t swamping Tik Tok of seven year olds blocking the ball astutely. Youth is defined by swagger and aggression, giving way to caution only with age and experience. That’s the template for surging youth.
Not for Sibley. Even with that midwicket-eyeing stance, even at the tender age of 24, his defining shot is barely a shot. It’s barely anything. He shuffles across, twitches his bat to point at the ground. The bat comes back up, his weight stops moving, he’s still. The ball passes by the stumps untouched, unmoved, unthreatening. And the whole thing starts again. Dominic Sibley is a man built from the leave.
Since Sibley debuted in Test cricket, he’s left more deliveries than anyone, by an absolute mile.
When you compare that to the lads who’ve played a fair bit more Test cricket in the last few years, Sibley compares very well. Only the Kiwi Jeet Raval has left a higher proportion of his deliveries since the start of 2017. Sibley is setting a trend; even if that trend is out of fashion.
Today, that approach really came into focus. Zak Crawley, emboldened by his selection over Joe Denly, didn’t give England what they might have expected, meekly turning a ball round the corner from Roston Chase. Joe Root, he of 92 Tests, attacked far too early and lost his wicket to Alzarri Joseph. Sibley’s first boundary came with his 91st ball; it was 70 overs into the day before he even attempted a proper full blooded drive. Experience beyond his years, you might say.
Sibley was not, is not, like the others. He was content to let the West Indies, wearied by another bowl-first performance, come at him. He knew that he was capable of soaking up the pressure. Only four times in the CricViz database, 2006-present, has an England batsman left more deliveries in a day than Sibley did today. Alastair Cook once, Andrew Strauss twice, and Moeen Ali (at Headingley, in his first series) once. He left 71 balls today. According to our models, the deliveries he faced would normally bring 52 leaves. Sibley left almost 50% more deliveries than he was supposed to.
It rubbed off on Ben Stokes. The England vice-captain left 40% of his deliveries for the first 50 balls he was at the crease; he’s never left a higher proportion at that stage of a Test innings. That case study of conscientious caution at the other end seemed to reign Stokes in, and give him a model to replicate. We know what he can do when he goes from a platform – but sometimes he needs help building it.
Today, Sibley faced half the balls that were bowled. He soaked them up, deflected them, diverted them, left them.
He does build pressure on himself at times. At different points today, he faced streaks of 14 and 15 consecutive dot balls. That needs to change, at some point, because even those with the broadest shoulders can only bear so much weight. Some might have concerns over the extent to which that pressure did build, but Sibley has a track record of improving his tempo. Whilst he is clearly comfortable playing this way for England, Sibley is playing within himself. For Warwickshire, he leaves 23% of his deliveries against pace.Take him out of a Warwickshire shirt, and put him in an England one, and that figure rises to 35%. A reflection of the jump in quality, the jump in pressure perhaps, but it is evidence that Sibley does have more to give. He is used to batting at a slightly higher tempo, in a slightly more proactive way.
He had a few moments. He played a mad reverse-sweep off Chase, missed by a yard, then another equally unsuccessful one a few overs later. He had some good fortune, dropped on 68, by Jason Holder in the slips. Put that drive away, young man. That’s not your game. And we know that his method doesn’t always work – as we saw in the first Test. Sometimes, even the most committed leaver can misjudge things. We’ve seen a fair bit of that in the UK over the last few years.
We haven’t seen a lot of this, though. This was the longest England have batted on Day 1 of a home Test since Cook retired, and the greatest complement that anyone can pay Sibley is that today it felt like England had found their successor. Not Burns, similarly left-handed but even more extreme in his approach; but Sibley, calmly letting one one in three balls pass under his nose without a moment of concern.
England’s WinViz barely changed throughout the day – but the West Indies’ fell. England went from a 67% chance of victory to a 77% chance; the Windies went from 28% to 6%. England’s approach was that of old, ensuring you could not lose before you try to win. In a game where, realistically, they need to win, it was a bold strategy that they executed to near-perfection. For fans of Strauss’ England, it was a throwback, welcome nostalgia, that pointed to a brighter future.
Not just tomorrow, where the more obvious prodigy of Ollie Pope lurks, ready to make the most of Sibley’s returns, but beyond that. England have found – after seven years of hunting – an opening partnership that deserves to be given the name. Sibley is the player England have been crying out for, for far too long.
Dominic Sibley. Don’t love to see you bat; love to watch you leave.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.