Hhow has anyone ever been made so happy by Dom Sibley’s staff? Dropped in a test match after a 15-month intermittent lockdown, the crowd in the Hollies Stand was raved about England openers Sibley and Rory Burns as they battled during Thursday morning’s session for 72. That ranked surprisingly high in England’s recent opening stand list: fifth-best in a home test since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012, and their biggest in a home first leg since the last time Nova Zealand was here in 2015, when Alastair Cook and Adam Lyth put 177 together at Headingley.
It is a testament to England’s struggle to settle on a reliable opening pair. And also the fact that they may have finally found one. Unfortunately for them, it seems to have happened when their middle order disappeared. Graham Gooch memorably described Richard Hadlee’s strike against New Zealand as a showdown with World XI on one side and Ilford Second XI on the other. Watching England do their job on Thursday afternoon, it was as if New Zealand were bowling against Ilford Second XI on one side and Ilford Third XI on the other. By this time, those at the Hollies Stand were chanting the return of home football. They were strangely silent about the possibility of cricket doing the same this winter.
Sibley, however, looks set to become a cult hero. Few men have gone open for England with a smaller arsenal to work with: he’s got a frown, pad, cuff and goad. Cook, who has built a record-breaking career on the back of three shots, feels blessed with an unfathomable wealth of talent in comparison. They used to say that the hardest part of bowling for Brian Lara was the feeling that he could choose from one of three different strokes, even the best balls you deliver. Sibley is the other way around – you think he could punch all day long without playing anything other than a nudge to the side of the leg.
His staff is so clumsy that it makes Burns look good. At one point he tried to play a cover workout, but his claw grip on the bat meant he simply refused to do as he was told and he ended up squirting the ball for too long. He did not cross the border but instead abandoned the path, perhaps because he died of boredom. Later, mirabile saying, he tried again and hit two blankets all the way to the border in one from Neil Wagner, who invited him in by floating the two deliveries as full and wide as he could, maybe just because he wanted to see if Sibley would.
In case it is not clear, I am a fan. I mean, how could you not be when the man came out to knock in the same dirty sweater he wore when he took 60 steps in the second inning at Lord’s last week? There was still a large muddy trail down the front from which he had collapsed on his stomach to beat a jet from the depths. It was a shame he got out here, for all kinds of reasons, not least because you were wondering how long he would have lasted before finally washing off his lucky top. No doubt if he had carried his bat he would have swung in it in Nottingham for the first Test against India in August.
He’s not lacking in stubbornness, after all, or determination, or patience, but he’s had enough of all three to make up for whatever he apparently lacks.
England’s management obviously love him too, and they were rewarded for sticking with him through a streak of six consecutive single-digit scores before the final day at Lord’s. It’s hard to say how much weight the England team have placed on what happened in Sri Lanka and India this winter, but there is no doubt that some previous regimes would have dropped it already. It is a testament to Sibley’s poise that as soon as he returned to England he started doing what he’s always been good at again, a little older and wiser, perhaps, for going through the mill. on tour.
Some of his teammates, on the other hand, seem to still feel quite baffled by these experiences. Zak Crawley’s game is in pieces – he’s made nine single-digit scores in 11 innings since scoring that double century against Pakistan. Ollie Pope scored in 14 innings without going over 50 at the same time, although he hit double digits in the last six of them.
The break following this game may have saved the managers a tough decision, although you can assume both men will wish they had a bit more top-class cricket to play by August 4. Sibley has far fewer hits than either, but more poise than both.