Updated: Jul 21, 2020
When Chris Silverwood announced that his arrival as England’s new head coach would coincide with a return to the old fashioned, gritty approach to Test match batting, it seemed like destiny for Dom Sibley to then enter into the England top order.
Sibley had just been called up off the back of an outstanding season for Warwickshire in Division One, where he made 1,324 runs at 69.68. In addition, he faced 3,024 balls in a campaign when only one other batsman had faced more than 2,000 deliveries. He was ‘the next cab off the rank’, so to speak, but you would have forgiven England fans for wanting to see how he did in the Test arena first, before getting excited about having a potential replacement for Sir Alastair Cook.
Signs were slightly worrying in his debut series in New Zealand as he made just 38 runs in three innings against the quality attack of Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner, and Mitchell Santner. Questions were already being asked of his technique and if he was set to be yet another failed English opener. He was soon finding out how and why Test cricket is a brutal game.
Yet the reality was that Sibley was just getting into his groove. Due to the modern policy of giving batsmen, in particular, a good run in the side, the 24-year-old had the big chance of proving himself in South Africa. After showing promising signs in the first Test, where he made 29 in a second innings opening partnership of 92 with Rory Burns, Sibley flourished, hitting his maiden Test century in the next Test in Cape Town and finishing the series as England’s top run-scorer with 324 at 54. What’s more, he faced 784 deliveries – more than any player on either side.
In Sibley, England seemed to have found an opener they can stick with and the 24-year-old further has enforced that view in the post-lockdown series against the West Indies. After a duck in the first innings at Southampton, he recovered with a typically gritty half-century in the second. His knock of 120 in the second Test at Old Trafford however, has perhaps been his most impressive in his short Test career to date.
In tricky batting conditions, against a strong seam attack, Sibley showed solid defensive technique, strong concentration, and sheer doggedness to stay at the crease. He had some luck, of course, Jason Holder dropped a regulation chance at second slip when the opener had 68 and there were a couple of edges through the slip cordon to go with some hairy moments against the off-spin of Roston Chase, but it was a superb construction of a Test innings at the top of the order.
At times in Test cricket, certainly as an opener, the shots you don’t play matter more than the shots you do. Sibley’s demonstration of the leave in this innings proved the value of patience when building an innings. He left the ball 71 times on the first day alone and, according to CricViz, 52 of these balls were expected to be left, while 19 weren’t. Sibley left almost 50% more deliveries than he was supposed to. In total, Sibley knock featured 101 leaves - more than any Englishman in a Test innings since 2006 and the eighth most of any player in that period.
Not only that, but Sibley was willing to stick to his areas when it came to scoring shots. It took 91 balls for him to register his first boundary, an upper-cut over the slips, and there was barely a drive through the off-side. Yet, after waiting for the Windies bowlers to come to him, he was clinical on anything through the leg side. His partner, Ben Stokes, followed his example with one of his slowest Test centuries before accelerating towards to the back end. It wasn’t thrilling viewing but, boy, was it effective. It was the longest England have batted on Day One of a home Test since the retirement of Cook.
Much has been made of Sibley’s admirable powers of concentration but it is his technique that is perhaps his biggest weapon. The former Surrey man adopts a more open stance, which not only allows his greater access through his favoured on-side without falling over to the off-side, but gives him greater defensive security by allowing him to cover his stumps, leave balls outside his eye-line and play straight to any potentially threatening deliveries around fourth or even fifth stump.
This approach is due to the work done in 2018 with Gary Palmer, a freelance batting coach who specialises in technique. Palmer, who played first-class cricket for Somerset, believes that an open stance prevents players from falling towards the off-side. Furthermore, he is convinced that attention to the finer details of technique, as well as hitting hundreds of balls to build muscle memory, is paramount to a batsman’s success. Palmer has his own academy in Oxford and has worked with several high-profile players, such as Sir Alastair Cook, Shan Masood, Nick Compton, Ian Bell, Kieran Powell, and, more recently, Durham’s Cameron Steel and Joe Weatherley of Hampshire.
After reaching a barren run of making at least 30 just three times in his first 20 first-class innings of 2018, a run that included eleven single-digit dismissals, Sibley was made aware of Palmer’s influence on players and was quick to contact the coach for sessions as he searched for new and improved ways to tweak his technique. Although Palmer’s methods are not popular with everyone, he is thought to be highly rated by many in the coaching world, including current ECB Director of Cricket Ashley Giles, who has visited Palmer’s sessions on several occasions.
In a world where coaches are generally considered to be hands-off and gentle in their approach, Palmer adopts a no-nonsense style and is said to quickly identify faults in a player’s technique. Yet what perhaps sets Palmer apart, as several England Lions players found out when he worked with them during their winter tour to Australia in 2017/18, is that he knows how to fix technical issues and get a batsman playing fluently again.
The change in fortunes for Sibley has been remarkable. Prior to making his Test debut in New Zealand, Sibley made 2,019 first-class runs at 72.10 since that change in technique. Before that, he had 2,178 first-class runs at just 29.83. Now, he is thriving at the very highest level.
And while doubts remain about his ability to rotate the strike and play spin easily – areas he will look to work on as his career develops – Sibley’s technique, concentration, judgment and application have added solidarity to an England batting line-up that so badly craved it. He is perfect for England’s return to the old-fashioned virtues of the game, and it is clear that they are becoming a better side because of it.