After struggling in Sri Lanka, Dom Sibley delivered in his first Indian outing, writes Taha Hashim.
When Dom Sibley lunges forward at the tossed up off-break, you feel for his quads. It’s a big step as he looks to smother the turn, his bat not striking but stamping on the ball.
When Dom Sibley bats at the opposite end to Joe Root, the contrast is evident: one smiles and dances his way to fifty, the other looks as if he’s climbing Everest. After the second Test against Sri Lanka, the opener was wonderfully honest in a post-match interview: “Watching Joe makes you feel a little bit inadequate.”
When Dom Sibley bats, he’s ungainly, doesn’t mind ignoring the off-side’s flirty texts, and makes his job look far too onerous – you’re left just moments away from sending a strongly-worded email to the ECB’s HR department, demanding they send someone out at drinks to give him a warm hug.
Most importantly, when Dom Sibley bats, he makes runs.
Today it was a knock of 87, beginning alongside Rory Burns and ending with his captain, a man 100 Tests old but well and truly in the form of his life. Together their stand lasted for 200 runs and made it a fine opening day for England. For the more experienced campaigner, it was another step forward in the path for greatness; for the 25-year-old it was a reminder that he’s here to stay.
What’s remarkable is that this looked near impossible just weeks ago. After three innings in Sri Lanka, Sibley had six runs and a technique cut apart by the loopy, wily left-armers of Lasith Embuldeniya. The turning ball had caused some bother last summer; now it was wreaking havoc.
But Sibley learned quickly. When he came out to chase in the fourth innings in the second Test at Galle, that big lunge forward came out, the bat face kissed the ball a whole lot cleaner and he nurdled his side to victory. He rode his luck through DRS and still looked tetchy playing across the line, but he found a way.
Today, however, he provided greater assurance, his leg-side gap-splitting flicks the signature shots. While it was a lifeless deck, it wasn’t always easy-going: Ishant Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin were building up the dots after lunch, and even Root was forced to play the slow game early on, making just 11 from his first 50 deliveries.
But through Shahbaz Nadeem and Washington Sundar, just two Test caps between them, there were opportunities to be that bit more proactive. On one occasion, Sibley went all guns blazing for a sweep off Sundar, and while it looked an ugly hoick, the wrists rolled over to keep the ball low and send it for four through square-leg. It spoke of a control to an innings that has beefed up the CV. After 24 innings, Sibley’s average stands at 37.95 – in the post-Strauss era, that’s golden for England. Had he not perished in the final over of the day – Jasprit Bumrah took the pitch out of the equation with a fuller ball that struck Sibley plumb in front – he would’ve begun tomorrow just a handful of runs away from a third Test hundred. Want to know the other England openers with as many this century? Messrs Cook (finally on free-to-air TV today), Strauss, Trescothick, Vaughan and Atherton.
There will be some regret. While England sit comfortably at 263-3, recent history shows that they’ll need a mammoth score to give India a proper game. When they last visited India in 2016, they passed 400 in three of their five first innings, but the hosts hit back harder, finishing the series with scores of 631 and 759-7. A 4-0 scoreline in favour of Virat Kohli’s men was the end result. Had Sibley survived till the close of play, the opportunity would have been there to rest up, switch back on and go big after breakfast. Now that opportunity has gone, he will have to make sure that isn’t the peak of his tour to give England a fighting chance.
Still, after his travails in Sri Lanka, Sibley will surely take this. England will too, on the day live Test cricket returned to terrestrial TV in the UK after 16 years. Sure, there’s an easy joke to be made about Sibley’s style of batting putting off a new audience, but winning teams reel in viewers too, and this is what England have been of late. In the Chris Silverwood era of batting till the sun sets, Sibley last two innings have shown that he remains a man for his time and place.