Dom Sibley was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in the 2021 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Rob Smyth spoke to the old school opener about scoring Test hundreds, dealing with criticism and starting out young.
Dom Sibley knew he wouldn’t get much sleep. Two or three hours probably, four if he was lucky. It had always been this way. Adrenalin and anticipation mean that, if he is unbeaten overnight, he is likely to be not out in more ways than one. “When I bat, I can’t switch off,” he says. “I’m excited, especially if I’m near a hundred.”
On the night of July 16, Sibley was 86 not out against West Indies at Old Trafford, tantalisingly close to satisfying his new craving: Test hundreds. Six months earlier, in Cape Town, he had been on 85 overnight, before reaching his maiden century. Never mind the nervous nineties: in 2020, Sibley had to deal with the eternal eighties.
His natural tempo can make the journey to a century a long one – he doesn’t use the motorway – but he keeps getting there. A breakthrough innings at Grace Road in September 2018 was the first of 12 first-class hundreds in under two years, more than anyone else in the world over the same period. For a man with Sibley’s substance-to-style ratio, that’s an important badge of honour. The sequence includes those two Test centuries, in his first year as an England opener. “I know what it takes to score a Test hundred now,” he said. “It’s draining and it’s tough work, but it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Sibley got the 14 runs he needed against West Indies, and went on to bat over nine hours for 120. A mighty partnership of 260 with Ben Stokes was the foundation of victory in the match and the series, and the highlight of a summer in which Sibley was England’s chief bricklayer.
DOMINIC PETER SIBLEY, born on September 5, 1995, in Epsom, has been scoring runs for as long as anyone can remember. Cricket was part of his family life, and his father, Mark, was briefly the ECB’s commercial director. Dom joined Surrey at the age of nine, and his potential was soon being spoken of in hushed tones. He was first mentioned in Wisden for hitting six sixes in an over for Whitgift School Under-13s, but it was not until 2011 that he started to think a career in cricket might be possible. He won five awards at the Bunbury Festival and, two days later, smashed a double-hundred in the Surrey Championship for Ashtead against a Weybridge attack including former England seamer Jimmy Ormond. Sibley was 15.
He enjoyed other sports, especially rugby, but the case for focusing on cricket was irresistible. In 2013, he became the youngest (18 years 21 days) since W. G. Grace in 1866 to score a first-class double-century in England – 242 for Surrey against Yorkshire. But the fairytale turned into a cautionary tale. “I thought I’d cracked it, and my career would be a smooth ride. That’s why cricket is such a great game, because there are so many ups and downs. Mother Cricket keeps you on your toes.”
A lack of confidence, new signings at Surrey, and the weight of expectation made the next few years a struggle. A fresh start at Warwickshire in 2017 didn’t help. Then, the following year, before that trip to Leicester, Jonathan Trott suggested he open his stance. Sibley tried it in the nets, and felt more balanced. It was his Eureka moment. On the day Alastair Cook scored a century in his final Test, Sibley made 106 against Leicestershire – the first of six hundreds in consecutive first-class matches across two summers. In between, he resisted the lure of club cricket in Perth, and spent the winter in England, grooving his new technique. “I wanted to film myself, and understand what had made me score those hundreds. It was a case of homing in on that, and doing the dark, dingy hours.”
A Test call-up became inevitable. Sibley was picked on sheer weight of runs, not to mention balls faced: 3,024 in the 2019 Championship, more than 1,000 clear of any Division One rival. With Chris Silverwood replacing Trevor Bayliss as England coach, Sibley was a symbolic departure from the limited-overs Test cricket they had been playing. Last summer, he was at it again, facing 941 balls in Tests, over 100 more than anybody else. England’s average score when he was dismissed was 92; the figure for Cook, Andrew Strauss and Geoffrey Boycott over their careers was in the eighties. By seeing the shine off the new ball, and taking the spring out of the bowlers’ step, Sibley made life easier for an explosive middle order. He was frustrated by unconverted starts – “I should have scored another century in South Africa, and maybe another in the summer” – but they were valuable innings, the batting equivalent of bowling a long spell into the wind.
While he is reluctant to accept praise for thirties and forties, he was surprised by the criticism of his scoring-rate after his Old Trafford century, especially as it took place in favourable bowling conditions: “Getting negative comments after a Test hundred was a bit of an eye-opener.” Oddly, life in the bubble made it even harder to escape the outside world, because he had no access to his inner circle. “Usually I like to go out for food, or see friends and get away from the game. We couldn’t do that, so I ended up reading on my phone more than I normally would.”
The critics of Sibley’s tempo – and bottom-handed technique – were guilty of looking a gift plodder in the mouth. His approach was just what England needed, and his team-mates told him as much in the dressing-room during a rainy third day. Further validation came when England squared the series, just as they had at Cape Town. In their six Test victories of 2020, only Stokes scored more runs. Sibley is desperate for more – not just centuries, but centuries in wins. After his false dawn in 2013, he will never take good form for granted again. He nets compulsively, and his self-improvement regime extended to losing almost two stone during the spring lockdown, a response to watching team-mates train in the humidity of Sri Lanka.
While his physical fitness needed work, his mental strength is God-given. Yet Sibley is as intrigued as anyone by his old-fashioned ability to bat for hours. “Honestly, I don’t know where it comes from. At school I couldn’t concentrate at all! When I was younger, I got some big scores, and people said I could bat for long periods of time, so I just kept trying to do that.”
Doesn’t he ever get bored? “Ah mate, you don’t get tired of batting. If I’m still out there at 6pm, I’m where I want to be.” If it means a few more sleepless nights, he can live with that.
This piece was first published in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2021.