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England’s Top Order

Ben Jones looks at Rory Burns and Dom Sibley.

Rory Burns and Dom Sibley are not the same person.

Sure, they were both born in Epsom, Surrey. Sure, they both attended Whitgift School, albeit for varying durations at different times. Both came through the Surrey academy, both bat in the same spot, and both banged the door down with county runs to get into the Test side. They debuted for England within 12 months of each other, and have opened together 25 times. 

Like many partnerships, they are often amalgamated into one player, one word. Cookandstrauss. Broadandanderson. In a rather different way, Sibleyandburns. Yet they are, fundamentally, different players.

For one, Burns is in excellent form. Already this summer, Burns has surpassed his run total from the 2020 season, as well as his total balls faced. While he fell one short of his half-century today, he exhibited a level of control unmatched in the game so far, 15.4% false shots placing him at the bottom – or top – of that particular ranking.

For Burns, when everything is in-sync, there’s a fluidity and authority to his unorthodoxy. At his best, Burns’ technique invites you along, pushes you to ask yourself: Maybe I should play like that?

Sibley, by contrast, is not. Long term he’s tracking okay, averaging 47 last year and outstripped only by Joe Root since his debut. But in 2021, he’s averaging just 20.94 – in Test history, only five genuine batsmen have averaged less in a year for England (min 10 Tests). When techniques like his fail, they give the impression that he’s been worked out, in a way that no player vulnerable to the most common delivery in Test cricket – a good length pace delivery outside off stump – is ever accused of.

Neither seems to persuade the ex-player. When asked to name their Ashes XIs for the 2019 home series, very few named either Burns OR Sibley in the team, with plenty citing the unorthodox method of both for why they trusted the classical techniques of others. Burns has seemingly made enough runs to persuade those onlookers who deign unorthodox runs “surprisingly orthodox”, and is now simply part of the accepted realm, despite….well, look at him.

Part of the issue is that, even at his best, Sibley’s game is not persuasive in an obvious sense. His head position and square stance – before constant fury from the media turned him more side on, negating his strengths – insisted that he almost never nicked off. His record outside off, before this series, was historically excellent. Eliminate nicking off as an opener, and you’ve done rather well. 

They have similar strengths. Both of them average over 60 against full pitched deliveries in Test cricket, both of them in the top 10 ranking batsmen for this measure of anyone with a decent sample size. Grooved in county cricket where the full, swinging delivery is your greatest predator as an opening bat, both Burns and Sibley have grooved their technique to survive this threat. It is testament to county cricket that they have carried that ability into Test cricket; it is an indictment of it that neither averages 35+ despite that ‘super strength’. 

The differences between them do come through, when you take a closer look. Burns is a limited player in some ways, but he still waltzes along at 1.6rpo against anything pitching on a good length, able to keep things ticking when the pressure is on. The issue which Sibley has is that his defence against good deliveries – or rather, good length deliveries – is almost too stout. His scoring rate against those balls, 1.1rpo, is lower than any Test player to survive 600 of them in the recorded era. In other words, of the guys that could manage not getting out to them, Sibley scores the slowest. 

Perhaps that’s why Burns is afforded more leeway than Sibley. Coming into this series, one averaged 33, one averaged 31. The difference was slim. But Burns’ technique offers an obvious promise that, when the initial threat is negotiated, the reward for watching it will follow close behind. Sibley offers no such promise.

For Sibley, the comparison with Joe Denly at the bottom of that list is more relevant – and it’s not unfavourable. Many people were similarly indignant about Denly’s continued presence in the side, and with the idea that his go-slow approach was sustainable. The idea was that Denly and his ‘Denturies’ (100 ball innings) amplified the effectiveness of everyone below him, justifying his role. The difference is that Sibley’s caution (false shot percentage 15%) led to control, while Denly’s (false shot percentage 20%) did not – in other words, one was a sustainable approach in terms of survival, and the other wasn’t. Sibley’s method may not lead to a vast number of runs, but having suffered through 5 years of the commentariat decrying Trevor Bayliss for trying to get more aggression into England’s top order, the calls to remove the most secure opener in English conditions not named Alastair, since Strauss, feels oddly premature.

The dream is not around the corner. There is no perfect player who averages 45, strikes at 66, and never edges the ball. That player barely exists worldwide, and the closest example we’ve seen in this English summer – KL Rahul – is a man grooved on IPL and has played one domestic red ball game in six years. Bang the Champo in August – that rainy, inconsistently paradisal ideal – and success is not guaranteed. It is an easy, crowd-pleasing lie to pretend otherwise.

Ultimately, when people just launch into dusty moans about the demise of English batting, complaining why county cricket isn’t backed, they are playing to the gallery – be those ideas printed, or dropped in the pub after a few too many. Burns was introduced to Test cricket after dominating domestically for five years; Sibley, dominating to a far greater degree for a season. The alternatives – Chris Dent, Jake Libby, etc – are not bomb proof. People have been hammering for Haseeb Hameed, a man averaging 34 in FC cricket and who was clean bowled first ball today, for years. Constant clamour delivered with the tone that “this is insane, why aren’t they playing, Ed Smith is a fool”, blindsides delivered without understanding or forethought. For now, this is the best England have at their disposal. Accept it, allow it to grow.

And so when you criticise Sibley – a man with a clear, proven skill in terms of wicket preservation – be aware that nobody else is lurking with a greater skill, a clearer ability to smash opposition attacks. Both would be nice.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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