‘Even better than I dreamed’ – Dom Sibley savours maiden Test ton

Cricket

The Foreshore Freeway Bridge was designed to cut through the centre of Cape Town, linking the eastern and western suburbs of the city.

But in 1977 construction work stopped. The bridge was never completed and instead of joining the roads, it ends in a couple of precipices; a real road to nowhere, complete with tarmac and traffic markings, hanging eerily over the city. It’s used regularly in film sets. There are various explanations for the unfinished bridge. The most likely is that the city simply ran out of money. But another, perhaps apocryphal, suggests that a ferociously stubborn business owner simply refused to sell-out to the developers and halted building work for so long the project eventually became unsustainable.

It is this explanation that might appeal to Dom Sibley. For he is that business owner, refusing to budge, refusing to acknowledge the demands of time or fashion, insisting – despite the world telling him that all young batsmen are T20 specialists – he has the patience and desire to grind out the sort of contribution that might have Chris Tavare nodding his head in appreciation. Sibley’s hundred was achieved in the 93rd over of England’s innings and, by the time he was done – both chanceless and unbeaten – he had faced 247 dot balls. In all, the marathon affair lasted nearly 500 minutes and occupied 311 deliveries.

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This is probably exactly what England need. For as their second innings progressed, the benefits of Sibley’s foundation work were plain to see. First Joe Root (who came to the crease in the 44th over) and then Ben Stokes (who came to the crease in the 80th) were able to settle against a tiring attack and safe in the knowledge that much of the hard work had been done. We must just have been given an outline template of the new England; an opening partnership of Sibley and Rory Burns just might see England into the next Ashes and beyond. They could, at last, be the replacement for Cook and Strauss for which England have searched for so long.

Certainly that’s the view of Sibley’s sometime batting coach, Gary Palmer. And while you might expect him to speak warmly of his client, it does have to be acknowledged that Palmer also played a role in the late-career rehabilitation of Cook. He’s seen successful opening batsmen before; he knows what it takes.

“I thought he gave a masterclass on opening the batting in a Test,” Palmer told ESPNcricinfo. “He is very patient and disciplined in his shot selection and has all the qualities to become a top international opening batter. There’s no reason he can’t have a long successful Test career.”

Sibley admits he did not quite do himself justice in New Zealand. Caught in the media spotlight, he concedes that talk of his technique – and the army of former players who rubbished it – may have unsettled him a little. So instead of simply leaving ball after ball, over after over, and forcing the bowlers to adjust and come to him, he found himself chasing deliveries he would normally have left. ‘Poor technique’ was the cry from the commentary boxes, but it may have been a case of nerves more than anything. Even on Sunday night, he admits he was too nervous to sleep. At 2am he stopped trying and turned on the TV.

“You’re never quite prepared for the spotlight you’re going to be under,” Sibley says now. “When you start playing for England, there are people writing about you and picking apart your technique and it’s tough to avoid.

“In New Zealand I probably put myself under a lot of pressure to get that big score. You want to prove to yourself you’re good enough for this level.

“But on this trip it was a case of taking the pressure off myself and playing the way I did last summer for Warwickshire. I just tried not to worry too much about what anyone else was saying. And while I didn’t get runs in the first Test, I felt I spent some time at the crease and got myself in. I haven’t changed anything; I’ve just worked hard on doing what worked well last summer.”

The reason Sibley can work in this England side is that the middle-order – Root, Stokes, Jos Buttler, Ollie Pope et al – is currently stuffed with stroke-making batsmen. So however much time he occupies – while Tests remain five days, anyway – his teammates can make up later. But there will also be times, as there were here, when they are reliant upon him (and Burns, for whom many of the same things could be said) for seeing the shine off the ball and putting miles in the bowlers’ legs. It’s a template that can work and did here.

The other benefit of Stokes’ aggression – and for a while it seemed he may match his deeds of 2016 – was that it took all pressure off Sibley. For while Stokes was thrashing the bowling to all parts – he added 72 of the 92 the pair put on – Sibley was able to play his way.

“Stokes took the pressure off me,” Sibley says. “It made it easy for me to go at my tempo. He kept saying ‘play at your own tempo; don’t change what you’ve been doing.’ That meant I could just go about it in my own way.”

But as Sibley’s innings progressed – and, notably, before he completed his century – he demonstrated a wider range of strokes than has been apparent in his international career to date. Out came the sweeps – reverse, conventional and slog – suggesting that he is not so much a limited player, but one who plays within himself with a view to taking the minimum amount of risk possible. At one stage, one of his slog-sweeps carried well over mid-wicket for six. “Ahh, no,” the watching Jonathan Trott said with a wry smile. “Now even he’s hit more sixes than me.”

It was another sweep, this one out of the foot holes outside his leg stump, that brought up the boundary that registered his first Test century.

“I didn’t want to play the sweep when they had the field back,” he explained, “because if I top-edged I thought I could be caught. But they brought the field up when I was on 99 and I figured that even if I did top-edge it, it would fall safe. I thought ‘fortune favours the bold’ and luckily it did.”

And the feeling?

“Even better than I dreamed,” he says with the broad smile of a man who has achieved a lifetime ambition. “That moment when I saw the ball go for four, that’s what I’ve been working towards since I was 13 or 14. Stokesy told me to stop and take it in; enjoy it for a second. It already seems like a bit of a blur now, but it was a great moment. Hopefully there will be more to come over the next few years.” There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be.

So, that technique. After all the criticism of recent weeks, it’s probably worth delving a little deeper into what Sibley – and Cook before him – do when they work with Palmer. The key would seem to be opening the stance a little to ensure the front foot does not impede the flow of the bat and enabling, Palmer says, batsmen to play straighter. He then grooves that technique with notoriously long sessions – hundreds or even thousands of balls at a time – against bowling machines placed at four different angles (basically from both over and round the wicket) to ensure that ‘muscle memory’ is ingrained. When it’s combined with the patience and judgement to leave outside off stump as well as Sibley and Cook have shown, it clearly works. Indeed, it works so well, you wonder why Palmer isn’t used in a more formal capacity by the ECB.

“I’m not worried about that,” Palmer says. “I’m just pleased for Dom, who has put in a lot of work and deserves this success. I honestly believe he can be the rock England have required for some time.”

Whether that story about the bridge is true or not, you can imagine Sibley admiring the determination of the businessman.

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