Only 10 Tests into his career, England opener Dom Sibley already knows that – in the age of the video analyst – you have to stay ahead to get ahead.
Sibley contributed scores of eight and 36 to last week’s stunning three-wicket win against Pakistan in Manchester, and admitted that his decision to stand outside his crease for the second innings was all part of his evolution as a Test batsman.
He made the move after being trapped leg-before in the first innings by Mohammad Abbas, the Pakistan seamer who rarely wastes a delivery with the new ball, and makes up for in accuracy what he lacks in pace.
That dismissal had the experts fretting over Sibley’s open-chested technique, leaving him vulnerable to lbw. He responded immediately, and helped Joe Root put on 64 for England’s second wicket as they embarked on their pursuit of 277, before edging leg-spinner Yasir Shah to slip.
‘I made a big effort to try and get further out of my crease to Abbas, and negate his main weapon of nipping the ball back into my pads,’ he said. ‘I have played against him a few times in county cricket, and batted normally. But in the second innings, on that wicket, I needed to get further out of my crease.
‘The thing I am learning about Test cricket is that you’ve got to keep moving forward, try to adapt and stay one step ahead. That comes from chatting to other people and gleaning as much knowledge as possible.’
Some good judges believe Sibley’s heavy leg-side bias will catch up with him against the best bowlers. But those 10 Tests have produced 632 runs at just under 40, including two innings that helped forge England wins: an unbeaten 133 from 311 balls at Cape Town in January, and an even more patient 120 from 372 in the second Test against West Indies last month.
Reassuringly for England, he regards his embryonic record with mixed feelings, not least because eight of his 17 Test innings have ended between 29 and 56.
‘If you said to me after 10 Tests you’d be averaging 40 with two hundreds, I’d be pleased. But at the same time I do feel I’ve got a lot more to give, and I’ve let opportunities slip to score maybe four or five hundreds. That might sound greedy and unrealistic, but it’s the way I think.’
No one can accuse Sibley of lacking drive. He spoke earlier in the summer about how he had shed two stone during lockdown after watching fitter team-mates train in the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka. Now, with winter series looming against India and the Sri Lankans, he wants to improve his game against spin after observing his captain at work.
‘When you are batting with someone like Rooty, who is making playing spin look pretty easy, it makes me think I need to take my game against spin to the next level.
‘What I probably need to do better is rotate the strike and be a bit more proactive. I’ve been working really hard on that with Graham Thorpe and a few of the players.
‘It’s a fine balance, because I want to be out there and put such a high price on my wicket. It’s just a case of having the bravery and confidence to do that in the Test arena, when the scrutiny is higher and you might get judged in how you get out.’
That nagging concern, though, does not preclude a long-term vision, which involves opening the batting for years to come with his old Surrey team-mate Rory Burns. Thursday’s second Test in Southampton will be their eighth together, and their average stand is so far worth 38 – hardly riches, but an improvement on the years when Alastair Cook couldn’t find a partner worthy of the name.
‘Burnsy will say the same as me,’ said Sibley. ‘He’d be greedy and say he’d like a few more hundreds. Hopefully that competition – who scores more hundreds – drives us forward.’
Sibley-watchers will also have noted his contribution to Pakistan’s second-innings collapse on the third evening at Emirates Old Trafford, when his quick thinking in the field brought about the run-out of Asad Shafiq.
Would his smooth pick-up and direct hit have happened if he’d still been weighing in at 16 stone? ‘Maybe not,’ he said. ‘They went through a little period when they were taking quick singles left, right and centre. Me, Ollie Pope and Dom Bess said we needed to be a lot tighter in the ring.
‘It was a case of anticipation and trying to make something happen, because I did feel like there was going to be a chance at some point. Obviously, lucky to hit the sticks.’
If Sibley can self-deprecate his way to another crucial intervention over the next few days at the Ageas Bowl, England won’t be complaining.