Dom Sibley stuck in an unsustainable rut

Dom Sibley and Jasprit Bumrah have a chat
August 13, 2021

It's 4pm at Lord's, and England's openers have done the hard yards. Dom Sibley and Rory Burns have blunted the new ball with steadfast resolve, seeing off the shine for 14 fuss-free overs. They gather their thoughts at the pavilion gate, having matched one other nudge for nudge in the hour before tea, each reaching 11 from 42 balls, including a solitary boundary apiece.

The score is 23 for 0 - one run better, in fact, than India's own openers had managed in their first 14-over stretch on the first morning - and while the deficit is still a sizeable 341, it is considerably less daunting than it might have been before James Anderson's latest five-for. The bowlers have done their bit, it's time to step up. Let's do it.

And right there and then, the fate of two innings diverged like the flick of the tracks on a branch line. For it was in the 14th over of India's innings that Rohit Sharma turned on England's fourth seamer, Sam Curran, like an incorrectly stroked cat, cuffing him for four fours in five balls to signal a charge that would not relent until Anderson was recalled to restore order almost a session later.

Perhaps Sibley felt something similar was in order now that India's own fourth seamer, Mohammad Siraj, was in his sights. Either way, his second ball of the session was a shocker - an attempt at urgency that collapsed in a tangle of limbs, like a shy diner trying to catch a waiter's eye, and knocking over his wine-glass in the process.

His swish of annoyance had more conviction than the actual stroke, and with good reason. He'd got out in identical fashion in the first innings at Trent Bridge, when almost identically entrenched on 18 from 70 balls, and though his 28 from 133 in the second dig had played a significant part in an 89-run stand with Joe Root, that innings too had perished to a hack that his technique was not minded to make work.

Even by the glacial standards that have earned him two centuries and a handful of supporting roles in 22 Tests, Sibley has taken his scoring down another gear this summer. Crease occupation remains a virtue for Chris Silverwood, as he continues his attempted reboot of England's Test fortunes, but a strike-rate of 23.07 in this series - the lowest of his career to date - has taken Sibley's tenacity to the levels of self-parody.

It's an unsustainable rut that he is stuck in, for throughout that Trent Bridge partnership, Root's relatively frenetic approach had revealed a significant subplot. While Sibley was his sidekick, he was visibly straining for his runs, mindful of the dangers of getting bogged down even if it meant getting skittish, particularly while Ravindra Jadeja was hassling him on the cut. It was only after Jonny Bairstow arrived to dominate an all-too-shortlived stand of 42, that Root was able to settle into his primary role (in this straitened side) of being there throughout.

As a consequence, Sibley's place for this second Test might as well have come down to a separate coin-flip, moments before the toss. Notwithstanding Zak Crawley's average of 11.14 since the start of 2021, there seemed as much prospect of his form spluttering back to life as there was of Sibley finding even a second gear. It's a damning indictment of England's current stocks.

Either way, Haseeb Hameed's return at No.3 was a given - although it's hardly wisdom after the event to suggest that that prospect had been fraught with danger, given what that benighted position has done to so many England prospects in the years since Jonathan Trott made it his own. Hameed's average as a first-class opener is 36.02 - hardly riches by any standards - but coming into this game he had made a solitary half-century in 17 innings at No.3, and at a wince-inducing average of 17.07.

It's not for nothing that England offered the role to a placeholder in Joe Denly for 18 months. Looking back on that period now, and what his unobtrusive diligence could have offered Burns as he picked up his own tempo in the evening session, let alone Root as a third-wicket ally, and you wonder if England were too hasty in binning off a man with an average of 29.53, 24 double-figure scores in 28 visits, and perhaps most significantly in these circumstances, a strike-rate of 39.64 that speaks of an ability to keep that very strike rotating.

For the time being, however, this is what we've got - and England have no option but to try and make it work. But it doesn't speak too highly of one's hopes when pity is the overriding emotion for a top-order dismissal. It's doubtful whether Sibley would have had time to peel off his pads by the time Hameed trudged back to the pavilion for a first-ball duck - beaten round the outside edge of a middle-stump half-volley, and bowled with brain-fading totality. His first Test innings on home soil was shattered as his dreams must have felt throughout his half-decade of exile.

He can come again. He's shown that already, simply by being here. Let's not forget, he averaged an abject 9.44 in his final season at Lancashire in 2018 before being released, of all the free-falling indignities for a former England golden child to endure.

He's barely recognisable from the fresh-faced teenager who won hearts and minds on his maiden tour of India in 2016-17 - debuting in his parents' home state of Gujarat, and matching the methods of his captain and opening partner Alastair Cook, first in a 188-run stand in that initial Test, then in a 50-over lock-out in a failed attempt to save the second in Visakhapatnam.

Before the end of the series, Hameed had flown home for surgery on a broken hand, but returned for the denouement, when he even earned himself an audience with King Kohli himself, as they chatted in the dressing room in Chennai for ten minutes about methods and mindsets, and expectations at international level. At times in the past few years, and again on this brutal return, he must have wondered if he'd been duped by those words of wisdom.

"It's cruel sometimes, isn't it," Anderson said at the close. "He's worked incredibly hard, done everything right. He's got a stack-load of runs the last couple of years and looked unbelievable in the nets... cricket can be very, very cruel and I do feel for him. But he's got another chance in this game, and I'm sure he'll get another chance throughout the series to show what he can do."

But for the time being, it was as you were for England's scrambling Test fortunes. Anderson carrying the bowling; Root arriving to a hat-trick ball as if pre-ordained for a crisis, and enduring to stumps with every care that his team can muster weighing right in the middle of his shoulder-blades. Somehow, in spite of everything, they need another hero to help carry the fight.

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